Opinion: The Supreme Court just showed us that Trump is not incompetent. He's a master of corruption

I have badly underestimated Donald Trump. Thursday was the day that his justices — it turns out that they are indeed his justices on the Supreme Court, just as he claimed — got it through my thick head: Trump is not just competent but masterful. He is not just capable, he is supreme.

Because Trump is clumsy at his alleged crimes, surrounding himself with flagrant thugs, telling obvious lies, leaving prolific trails of damning evidence, offering ridiculous defenses for indefensible conduct, I had long concluded that he is incompetent at crookery along with his other manifest failings. That’s true as far as it goes. But for all his mad greed and compulsive lawlessness, for all his sleaze and stupidity, crime is ultimately not Trump’s game. Trump is nothing like a master criminal. But he is a master of something far more sinister and complex: corruption.

Crime is a largely private endeavor. Corruption is public. It seeps into the muscle and sinew of democratic society and institutions; it devours from within. The Supreme Court, drunk on arrogated power, cut loose from rudimentary ethics, has been eaten alive by it. But the court is just one plot of a vast terrain that Trump has conquered — not with crime, but corruption.

Crime is when you launch a violent attempt to overthrow the republic. Corruption is when you convince an entire political party to pretend they didn’t watch it live on television, or cower from it inside the Capitol while dozens of police officers were being bludgeoned by the mob.

Crime is when you make off with top-secret documents. Corruption is when a MAGA judge can’t find time to schedule your trial, or process the mountainous evidence of your guilt.

Crime is when a U.S. resident is murdered and dismembered by Saudi hit men. Corruption is when the all but acknowledged killer invests $2 billion in your talentless son-in-law’s fund, which other investors shun.

Crime is when you fake business expenses to cover up a payoff to an adult film actress who wants to cash in on your campaign for president. Corruption is when the head of the nation’s greasiest tabloid, a perpetual fount of lies and nonsense, expresses concern that your deeds are too sleazy for him.

Crime is when your lawyers tell the Senate not to convict you in an impeachment trial because you can be charged in court. Corruption is when your lawyers inform the Supreme Court that you are immune from criminal courts and only the Senate can judge you — but, alas, the senators have missed their window.

Trump has already succeeded at corrupting much of what’s corruptible. Government. Elections. Foreign policy. Democracy. Religion. Above all, people, and mostly men. Truckloads, boatloads, tiki-torch-parade-loads, courtloads of weak men all standing in the shadow that Trump casts.

The Republican Party has been corrupted absolutely. House Republicans have combined McCarthyism with Larry, Moe and Curlyism to twist Congress to comically corrupt ends — all to serve the greater degeneracy of Trump. In the Senate, the young hyenas, Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), study Trump’s demagogy and lick their chops, hoping for a turn at democracy’s carcass.

The establishment has utterly caved. Former Atty. Gen. William Barr’s endorsement of Trump this week, after having called Trump unfit, a psychologically damaged incompetent who cares only about himself, was barely newsworthy. What is Barr but another in the long line of weak men, one more debased Republican offering fealty to the grease king? Trump thanked Barr by humiliating him again.

But it was the Republican Supreme Court — mostly men again — that put the shiv a little deeper in democracy’s back this week. Originalists or textualists, all sounded more or less Trumpist as they seriously entertained Trump’s argument that his assaults on the constitutional order are protected by the Constitution itself. There is no way to make honest sense of such a liar’s mash. But Larry, Moe and Curly aren’t just chairing committees in Congress. They wear robes and furrowed brows now, too. And they seem eager to pretend that crimes are just constitutional exercises of power, and that one ex-president is a king.

Richard Nixon, a self-made, and self-corrupted, man who studied geopolitics and government assiduously, never achieved such a broad subjugation of American values and institutions. Trump, the ignorant, n’er-do-well heir to his father’s crooked fortune, has achieved so much more. Trump hasn’t just captured the trenches of conservative America, he has taken the commanding heights. He owns all of it, from the most racist backwater saloon to the Federalist Society clubhouse. They are his corrupted subjects. He is their corrupt and demented king. If he can somehow get through the next few perilous months, he may yet render corruption sacred, and the republic irredeemable.

Francis Wilkinson is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. @fdwilkinson

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