When the average voter hears someone described as the “US Ambassador to the EU,” they probably picture a seasoned diplomatic professional who speaks a few languages and understands Important Things About Important Things. In reality, our EU Ambassador is a random rich white guy who turned a small fortune into a large one as a real estate developer.
Gordon Sondland, your ambassador to the EU and a key pawn in the Administration’s scheme to extort the Ukrainian government, bought the title for a cool million. There’s a former soap opera actress and chiropractor named Carla Sands embarrassing us in Denmark. A Trump golf buddy and telemarketing scammer named David Cornstein is licking the jack-boots of Hungary’s fascist leader. Wealthy heir, Trump golf club member and handbag designer, Lana Marks, is Ambassador to South Africa. For just under a million, failed hedge fund investor and polo player Duke Buchan bought the embassy in Spain. Trump’s bankruptcy lawyer bought the sensitive and strategic embassy in Israel.
As one might expect, the Trump Administration has dispatched a remarkably corrupt and incompetent class of Ambassadors to represent you abroad. But like so much of the corruption in this administration, his treatment of our diplomatic appointments is merely an extension of a longstanding abusive practice. Outside the shithole countries, “US Ambassador” isn’t a job, it’s a reward.
A 2013 study estimated it would cost you a little over half a million to buy a nice, comfortable European Embassy in some country you’ve never heard of. You’ll need to shell out well into seven-figures for one of the plums, France, Monaco, UK or one of those places people like to hide money. Can’t swing that kind of cash? Deliver several years of high-quality work for a campaign or PAC and you might be considered for an embassy in one of the Latin American countries where you can drink the water, or in one of the innumerable and irrelevant little Caribbean postings.
No one in the private sector is scrambling for the chance to head up our embassy in Iraq or Pakistan. None of these donors and political hacks want to live holed up in a secure facility, doing actual work for the actual US public.
Leading an embassy in a place with an uncomfortable climate, with few parties and poor shopping is reserved for our embattled, disrespected professional diplomats. As is all of the actual public service work of our embassies in “nice” places like Paris. Ambassador to Cambodia or Paraguay is a job for a penniless career public servant, fighting off long-term complications of malaria picked up serving her country in some unglamorous corner of the world. In other words, those jobs are for suckers.
An opportunity hides amid the damage of the Trump Administration. By destroying the polite conventions and careful euphemisms that masked the bribery inherent in our system, we’re getting an unusually candid look at the machinery of our democracy. That look, and the horror it inspires, grants us a once in a lifetime chance at reform.
Yes, Trump is running a wildly racist Administration, but the difference between Trump and your median Republican is more language and tact than substance. Mitt Romney has complained about Trump’s inflammatory language since the beginning of the ’16 campaign, but can you identify a single substantive policy dispute between them? Sure, Trump is a Fascist, but what precisely are the differences between his governing outcomes and those we experienced under George W. Bush?
Democrats may complain about this administration’s unapologetic corruption, but have you seen Nancy Pelosi’s tax returns? Want to guess why you haven’t, and won’t? Public outrage of the Trump family’s trashy overseas scams is muddled by the trashy overseas scams of the former Vice President’s son. Why is no one in either party interested in investigating Jeffrey Epstein? How did Donald Trump run a criminal organization for decades without being punished?
It would be nice if we could reference the stomach-churning corruption of Trump’s diplomatic appointments as a disqualifying trait, but we can’t. As in so many other areas, Trump’s actions are horrifying not because they are unique, but rather for their brazenness. Donald Trump is not a departure from precedent. He is the boil on our democracy that has been growing for decades, waiting for the lance and threatening to go septic.
Don’t be surprised that only one of the Democrats’ Presidential candidates is even mentioning public corruption as a campaign issue. The front-runner, Joe Biden, is running on a platform of nostalgia, promising to paint over the whole Trump Era and pretend it never happened. By contrast, Elizabeth Warren is promising to end the practice of selling our embassies to political donors. She’s promising to build a campaign on small donors. She’s the only candidate to even acknowledge the leviathan of money and influence that makes public-centered policy in the US impossible in both parties.
Trump has ripped the smiling face of civility off of our culture of bribery. There is no going back. We’ll either confront this monster, with all the wrenching discord the fight will entail, or we’ll sink deeper than ever into cross-partisan kleptocracy. If you think any Presidential candidate other than Warren will lift a finger to fight corruption, I have an embassy to sell you.