Donald Trump’s presidency has been so strange it has caused columnists around the world to try to conceive of new frameworks to explain politics. But what if what is needed is really an old framework? In 1955, Edward C. Banfield visited a village in Southern Italy and described a dysfunctional politics based on the pursuit of personal and family profit above all else. He called the practitioners of this anti-social morality “amoral familists.” It was the behavior of the mafia and it is the behavior of Donald Trump and his cronies.
The amoral familist will, “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family” and “assume that all others will do likewise,” Banfield wrote. Trump has appointed his daughter and son-in-law into White House positions and put his two sons in charge of his business empire. The Trump administration has used official outlets to hawk his family’s products and has raked in cash from foreign diplomats staying at his DC hotel in the hopes of influencing him.
The effects of this lack of character and the assumption that all others lack character as well corrode to the core of a political system. Banfield noted how the locals in the small town had no trust in politics, and as such, no one trustworthy ran for office, and no one trusted the government to solve their problems. “[N]o one will further the interest of the group or community except as it is to his private advantage to do so.”
Banfield noted an additional 17 points that describe specific things one would expect to see in a society of amoral familists. It is worrying how many appear in Donald Trump’s United States in varying degrees.
Office holders would abuse power. Their fellow patrons would defend them and put pressure on anyone who sought to expose them. No one would take action unless it benefited them personally.
Many Trump voters see Trump is amoral (immoral, even), a mob don who will break any agreement to help himself, but they think of him as their mob don who will help them, too. Kurt Schlicter, a columnist for one of the representative low-brow right-wing websites, Townhall.com, explains he wants to “cause the left so much pain” and so he will “ally” with Trump, as if governing is a team sport and not a means to solve problems and protect rights.
It makes sense from Banfield’s eighth point: “[T]he weak will favor a regime which will maintain order with a strong hand.” Peasants were quoted as saying they used to support Fascism because, like Republicans say today about illegal immigration, they “enforced the laws.” As a matter of fact, they went well beyond what they were legally allowed to do by their constitution, and so has Trump in quite a few cases.
Checks and balances via the court system remain pretty well intact in the U.S., but Trump expresses contempt for those institutions. He attacked the “so-called” judge who struck down his overly broad immigration ban and called the press “enemies of the people.” His adviser Steven Miller has said, “Our opponents … will soon see … that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
9. “[T]he claim of any person or institution to be inspired by zeal for public rather than private advantage will be regarded as fraud.”
Trump has expertly leveraged existing cynicism about government (some of it warranted) and exacerbated it with his corrupt style. Because Trump knows he is corrupt, and his base appreciates him for it, his supporters assume all others are corrupt. At the very first Republican primary debate in 2015, Trump bragged, “I was a businessman. I give [money] to everybody. … When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.”
His fellow candidates tried to turn that line into a campaign-ending gaffe, but it worked out just the opposite way. Trump’s supporters said, “We know what we’re getting with Trump.” If all politicians are corrupt, then Trump isn’t any worse than any others, in that view. In fact, Trump’s conflicts-of-interest, with regard to his continuing ownership of and profit from a vast network of businesses, are something no other president has confronted.
10. “[T]here will be no connection between abstract political principle (i.e., ideology) and concrete behavior in the ordinary relationships of every day life.”
The amoral familist will be a raging hypocrite. Only a hypocrite could excoriate private companies for building factories overseas while at the same time making U.S.A. hats, ties, and jewelry overseas, and hiring foreign workers for his resorts.
Banfield’s observation was of two citizens whose personal actions were out of line with their professed beliefs—political supporters, not politicians. What of Trump’s supporters? Trump won the strong endorsements of the religious right, evangelical Protestants who profess to believe that the government should advance moral causes, including Jerry Falwell, Jr., Ralph Reed, Jr., and James Dobson, a man who claimed to have been “shocked and dismayed” by the revelation of President Clinton’s affair with Monika Lewinsky in 1988. They went on to loudly rally support for a man who had been married three times, bragged about his infidelities, was caught on camera admitting to sexual assault, and who mispronounces the name of Bible passages.
In 2011, just 30 percent of white evangelical Protestant Americans said immoral behavior in private wouldn’t prevent a president from fulfilling his public duties. In 2016, 72 percent of those evangelicals thought a president could fulfill his duties while being immoral, more than any other religious group surveyed, including unaffiliated voters. James Dobson said in 1998: “What has alarmed me throughout this episode has been the willingness of my fellow citizens to rationalize the President’s behavior.”
Finally, point number 17: “In a society of amoral familists, party workers will sell their services to the highest bidders.”
Conservative Republicans who joined Donald Trump for power after dismissing him as a lotish Democrat. Democrats who filled his key economic spots.
But it’s not just party workers. How ’bout Trump trying to get amnesty for young illegal immigrants passed (after canceling it) with the Democrats?