“In theory,” Donald Trump told The New York Times on Tuesday, “I could run my business perfectly, and then run the country perfectly.”
That particular theory has a pedigree, and a specific name. It was popularized more than a century ago by George Washington Plunkitt, another flamboyant New York businessman and politician. He dubbed it “honest graft.”
I thought of Plunkitt—a leader of New York’s Democratic political machine, Tammany Hall, in the late 19th century—as I read the transcript of Trump’s fascinating, rambling conversation with the Times. Trump seemed not just unconcerned about the potential for conflicts, but actually mystified by the notion that his conduct might be problematic. His questioners seemed equally baffled by his lack of concern. And that disconnect suggests that they’re not just arguing about specific acts, but about two very different theories of government, in ways that recall the politics of Plunkitt’s day.
To its critics, Tammany Hall was a metonym for the rank corruption of urban machine politics, an organization that leveraged ethnic solidarity, racial hostility, street-level violence, and favors for its constituents to win elections, squander public funds—and line the pockets of its leaders. To its defenders, it was a means to ensure that government tended the interests of the white working classes, providing patronage jobs, public services, protection, and patriotic pageantry that sneering elites would have otherwise denied them. Tammany Hall persistently found itself beset by scandal—and persistently won elections, to the chagrin of its critics. In crucial ways, it’s the same split that’s unfolding today. And back then, no defender made his case more memorably than Plunkitt.
“Nobody thinks of drawin’ the distinction between honest graft and dishonest graft,” Plunkitt said. “There’s all the difference in the world between the two.” He had no patience, of course, for dishonest graft—the embezzlement of public funds, the abuse of power for blackmail—which pitted politicians against the interests of the people. But that, he insisted, was the opposite of the honest graft he practiced, which helped guarantee of good government and the smooth functioning of American democracy. A politician who is loyal to his friends, serves the public, and profits from his service as a result? His interests, Plunkitt argued, are perfectly aligned—unlike those of politicians who advance only their own self-interest, or are loyal to lofty ideals, with little regard for others.
Plunkitt wasn’t an abstract political theorist—he was an applied practitioner. He argued that when reformers railed against politicians enriching their friends and family, they fundamentally misunderstood the electorate and its views. “Now, let me tell you that’s never goin’ to hurt Tammany with the people,” he said. “Every good man looks after his friends, and any man who doesn’t isn’t likely to be popular. If I have a good thing to hand out in private life, I give it to a friend—Why shouldn’t I do the same in public life?”
In Trump’s interview with the Times, the president-elect was careful to say, repeatedly, that even though he believes he has the latitude to continue running his businesses, he doesn’t “want there to be a conflict of interest, anyway.” And his aides have downplayed the various reports of his blurring the line between public interest and private business.
But as he meandered, he kept returning to some very Plunkitt-like ideas. Had he encouraged the British politician Nigel Farage and his associates to oppose a wind farm that would ruin the views of his Scottish golf course? “I might have brought it up,” Trump allowed. “But not having to do with me, just I mean, the wind is a very deceiving thing.” Why did he meet with his Indian business partners, and pose for a photo? “Number one, a job like that builds great relationships with the people of India, so it’s all good. But I have to say, the partners come in … they said, ‘Would it be possible to have a picture?’ … So I can say to them … ‘I don’t want to have a picture,’ or, I can take a picture.” Or, as he clarified a little later, “You have to, you know, on a human basis, you take pictures.”
It’s difficult not to form the impression that if Trump is unconcerned with the criticism that he faces conflicts, it’s because he simply doesn’t see these interests as conflicting. If his experience in Scotland convinced him of the dangers of wind farms, wouldn’t it be wrong not to apply that lesson more broadly? If his businesses thrive in India, doesn’t that strengthen his reputation and relationships with a key ally? If he’s polite to his partners, and loyal to his friends, isn’t that what Americans expect of their leaders? Isn’t everyone better off, when the incentives all align?
Then there was Trump’s discussion of his new hotel just down the street from the White House. “They’ll say I have a conflict because we just opened a beautiful hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue,” he complained, “so every time somebody stays at that hotel, if they stay because I’m president, I guess you could say it’s a conflict of interest.” But for Trump, who insisted that he won’t be running the business anyway, such critiques are beside the point. “The brand is certainly a hotter brand than it was before,” he said, “I can’t help that, but I don’t care … Because it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters to me is running our country.”
He’s pursuing the public interest; if he does it well, his brand will be a hotter brand than it was before. And if his hotel has hired a director of diplomatic sales, and if foreign governments are booking rooms to curry favor, how can he help that? George Washington Plunkitt would’ve approved.
Plunkitt was a district leader, a state assemblyman, and a state senator—but first, and always, a political boss. His political career made him rich; his businesses profited from his political career. And, from Plunkitt’s point of view, he ran both perfectly.
His thoughts on politics were recorded by the journalist William Riordan, with a little embellishment, and popularized as Plunkitt of Tammany Hall. It’s still in print. When I assigned it in college courses, students were frequently horrified—but then they struggled to explain just why he was wrong. It’s a challenge Trump may now pose to those Americans who disapprove of his approach to potential conflicts of interest. But Plunkitt’s political success, like Trump’s, is also a reminder that many other Americans have always found this brand of politics compelling.
Plunkitt boasted that Tammany kept some “bookworms and college professors” around “for ornaments on parade days,” but that its leaders were just “plain American citizens, of the people and near to the people.” Despite his wealth and power, he insisted, he remained equally at home among the common people as he was among elites. “When I go among them, I don’t try to show off my grammar, or talk about the Constitution, or how many volts there is in electricity or make it appear in any way that I am better educated than they are. They wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing. No; I drop all monkeyshines.”
His critics saw a chameleon and a hypocrite, but Plunkitt insisted they were paying attention to the wrong things. “I’ve got to be several sorts of a man in a single day, a lightnin’ change artist, so to speak,” he forthrightly confessed. “But I am one sort of man always in one respect: I stick to my friends high and low, do them a good turn whenever I get a chance.” Loyalty and results, he argued, were a better measure of a politician than ideological consistency or lofty rhetoric.
Trump, of course, is not Plunkitt. He’s not boasting of using inside information to profit his businesses, or of rigging government auctions, or even of using his power to do “good turns” for friends—all things Plunkitt actually did. In fact, Trump has insisted that he won’t pursue Plunkitt-like honest graft, even as he explains why, in theory, he could, or seems to confess having done so. And perhaps Donald Trump will take the advice of ethics lawyers, and move to disentangle entirely his public and private interests, even though he insists that he doesn’t actually need to. “In theory I don’t have to do anything,” he said. “But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
But to the extent that Plunkitt provides an illuminating precedent, it’s precisely because his own conflicts were so much more blatant—and voters, instead of shunning him, reelected him again and again. Plunkitt convinced a majority of voters that it was better to put in power a man whose private interests and public policies were aligned, than to vote for reform-minded candidates serving abstract ideals; that it was preferable to trust a man who shares their resentment of elites, than to trust elites to share their values; that a politician who sticks by his friends will stick by them, while those politicians who take their cues from bookworms and professors will not.
In fact, Plunkitt proved, many voters will admire such a man—so long as they remain convinced that he’s fighting for them, as well as for himself. If he’s a crook, he’s their crook. Instead of resenting his having profited from his office, they’ll respect him for it. It’s how Plunkitt ended his talk on honest graft:
Now, in conclusion, I want to say that I don’t own a dishonest dollar. If my worst enemy was given the job of writin' my epitaph when I’m gone, he couldn’t do more than write:
“George W. Plunkitt. He Seen His Opportunities, and He Took 'Em.”
Donald Trump couldn’t have tweeted it any better.