This morning, the president of the United States decided to share his thoughts with the American people:
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough. I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!
It’s not clear to whom the president thought he was referring. There are 10 naturalized American citizens in the House, five of them Democratic women, but few of Donald Trump’s favorite targets number among them. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for example, was born in the Bronx, Rashida Tlaib in Detroit, and Ayanna Pressley in Cincinnati. And irrespective of their origins, every single member of Congress is as American as democratic dissent.
There is, however, a prominent American politician on the national stage to whom this description might be applied—a man who came from a county whose government was a complete and total catastrophe, which might hyperbolically be described as the worst, most corrupt and inept, anywhere in the world (if it even had a functioning government at all). And now he loudly and viciously tells the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation on Earth, how our government is to be run.
That man, of course, is Donald Trump.
He grew up in Queens, one of New York City’s five boroughs. In 1971, he fled his native county, leaving behind a community wracked by violence, strife, and corruption, crossing the water in search of greater opportunity and a better life in Manhattan. But Trump seems to have brought the very worst aspects of his native political culture along with him.
Consider the political leadership of Queens the year Trump crossed the East River. Donald Manes was elected Queens borough president in 1971. He killed himself in 1986, after being implicated in a massive kickback scheme, in which associates were trading political appointments and other favors for cash.
The man who aided Manes’s rise, a lawyer and politician named Matthew Troy, secured the post of Queens Democratic Party boss in 1971. He’d later plead guilty to taking $37,000 from his clients’ estates and concealing the income on his 1972 tax forms.
But Troy and Manes weren’t corrupting Queens; they were simply abiding by the indigenous political culture. In 1988, Troy delivered a talk to law students taking a class titled “Corruption and Integrity in Government” that offers a bracing look at the culture in which Trump came of age.
The public has the impression that politicians are corrupt, Troy told the students, and “usually they are right.” When he was first elected to the city council, in 1964, a reporter offered him the chance to get his name in the paper a lot for just $300 a week. (A native of such a media culture is likely to conclude that it’s perfectly normal to, say, use a newspaper to pay off a porn star who’s threatening to go public with allegations of an affair.)
And bribery was endemic. “There were so many instances where bribes were offered to me—that I did not ever take—that, while I can’t teach you the difference between right and wrong, I have an obligation to help you better understand,” Troy said. The going rate for judgeships, he explained, was $35,000 for a lower-court post and $75,000 for the state supreme court, New York’s trial-level court. He left the class with this thought: “If you are going to enter public life, and you are a young guy with a large family, there are lots of debts. It takes a super man or woman to say no.”
Wasn’t anyone enforcing the laws? Well, the Queens County district attorney at the time was Thomas J. Mackell. In 1972, federal investigators announced that they were looking at nine assistant district attorneys in his office for investing in a Ponzi scheme and concealing the income on their taxes. The ensuing scandal would eventually lead to Mackell’s resignation, indictment, and conviction for blocking the prosecution of the operator of the scheme. (The conviction was later thrown out on appeal.)
New York was a rough, violent city. Homicides spiked by 30 percent in 1971, to 1,650. Fourteen officers died in the line of duty; 11 of them were shot to death.
But even though residents desperately needed police protection, they had little reason to trust the police. Officers staged a five-day wildcat strike in January. In October, the Knapp Commission began public hearings into police corruption, and a parade of witnesses testified that payoffs and shakedowns were endemic in the police force.
This was the culture in which Trump came of age. To some extent, it persists even today. State Senator Shirley L. Huntley pleaded guilty to funneling $87,000 through a nonprofit to cover shopping sprees; State Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin pleaded guilty in 2008 to pilfering funds from unions, the state, and even a Little League; State Senator Hiram Monserrate pleaded guilty to financing his campaign with municipal funds; State Assemblyman Anthony Seminerio admitted to soliciting half a million dollars in bribes; State Senate Majority Leader Malcolm A. Smith was convicted of bribery, wire fraud, and extortion; and State Comptroller Alan Hevesi—a Queens native—pleaded guilty in connection to a massive corruption scandal involving pension funds. That’s just within the past decade.
But instead of going back to fix the place from which he came, Trump appears to have brought its endemic corruption and pay-to-play transactional culture with him to the nation’s capital. His administration has been repeatedly rocked by scandals. Paul Manafort, his campaign chair, and Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, are guilty of a variety of federal charges. His first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was taking cash from Turkey without properly disclosing it, and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. A former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, and implicated the president in a scheme to violate campaign-finance laws by using the National Enquirer to buy the silence of women alleging affairs with Trump. And that doesn’t even touch on the conspicuous corruption of Trump’s Cabinet, much less the various allegations of self-dealing facing the president and his family.
Queens today is a thriving, multiethnic community. It remains saddled, however, with a corrupt political culture that’s holding back its growth. If Donald Trump could clean it up, I suspect the public would then welcome him back on the national stage to show us how it’s done. It could use the help very badly; he can’t leave fast enough.
And if he’d like to resign his office and go back to Queens, I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements.