On Friday afternoon, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned from his position. According to Politico, during his 231 day tenure, Price spent more than one million dollars of taxpayer money on private and military charter flights for himself and his wife. These flights included trips to Europe, Africa, Asia, and a trip to Nashville where Price spoke briefly at a healthcare event and then had lunch with his son. In 2009, Price criticized government officials using private jets as “fiscal irresponsibility run amok.” The uproar over Price’s plane trips was the latest in a series of crises that have plagued the Trump administration.
At the end of July, Sarah Holder of Politico published a list of the “13 Scandals You Forgot About” regarding the Trump presidency. The article’s subtitle reveals a harsh truth about the nature of Trump’s scandals, “Any other year, one of these could have derailed a presidency.” Trump has a political version of Mr. Burns’ disease. Suffering from so many scandals means that no single one can bring him down. Specifically, Holder pointed to Trump’s refusal to divest from his real estate company and how he personally profits from foreign governments staying in Trump branded hotels. Additionally, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club doubled its initiation fee from $100,000 to $200,000 after his inauguration, clearly trying to profit off of Trump’s presidency. Trump’s campaign paid almost $13 million to Trump businesses for everything from air travel to office supplies. Finally, the Secret Service has spent millions of dollars for staying at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago in order to protect the president and the First Family.
During his presidential campaign, Trump congratulated himself on using other people’s money to run his presidential campaign and businesses. He bragged to a crowd in North Carolina in September 2016 that “I do that all the time in business. It’s called other people’s money. There’s nothing like doing things with other people’s money.” This level of political graft is nothing new in American history. In fact, the Tammany Hall political machine of the late 19th century in Trump’s own New York City pioneered its usage. And like Trump, they saw nothing wrong with it.
George W. Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall politician, famously justified his use of public monies to enrich himself at the expense of New York taxpayers. Plunkitt defended himself from those who viewed him as corrupt. Rather as he explained, “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” Plunkitt described his philosophy and that of Tammany Hall as the difference between honest and dishonest graft. (Graft refers to the redirection of public funds for private profit or gain. Think of what Jimmy Stewart is fighting against in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.) Plunkitt defended his actions by pointing out that “I’ve made a big fortune out of the game, and I’m gettin’ richer every day, but I’ve not gone in for dishonest graft – blackmailin’ gamblers, saloonkeepers, disorderly people, etc. – and neither has any of the men who have made big fortunes in politics.” Tammany Hall did not condone dishonest graft, like blackmail or benefitting from illegal or illicit activities.
Honest graft, on the other hand, was a whole different matter. In his speech outlining the difference between honest and dishonest graft, Plunkitt offered an example of his honest graft:
My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin’ to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place. I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before. Ain’t it perfectly honest to charge a good price and make a profit on my investment and foresight? Of course, it is. Well, that’s honest graft.
Plunkitt’s argument is entirely self-serving. His “foresight” was not foresight at all. Foresight involves prediction. Plunkitt and the other members were not making predictions based on where the new park would be built. As a member of the Tammany Hall machine, Plunkitt knew where the park would be built. His honest graft was nothing more than the equivalent of insider trading.
Plunkitt justified his behavior by appealing to greed and equating his behavior with that of Wall Street traders. He asked his listeners and readers if they had the opportunity to engage in honest graft: “Wouldn’t you? It’s just like lookin’ ahead in Wall Street or in the coffee or cotton market. It’s honest graft, and I’m lookin’ for it every day in the year. I will tell you frankly that I’ve got a good lot of it, too.” Plunkitt even blamed Tammany Hall’s election losses on the public misunderstanding the difference between honest and dishonest graft. He explained that “Tammany was beat in 1901 because the people were deceived into believin’ that it worked dishonest graft. They didn’t draw a distinction between dishonest and honest graft, but they saw that some Tammany men grew rich, and supposed they had been robbin’ the city treasury or levyin’ blackmail on disorderly houses, or workin’ in with the gamblers and lawbreakers.”
While separated from political power by more than a century, Trump and Plunkitt share one basic tenet—they saw nothing wrong with enriching themselves at the public’s expense. And thanks to Trump’s election and Tammany’s long lasting power, voters didn’t either.