Nepotism Is Bad For Government. Trump’s Convention Reminds Us WhyRoundup
tags: French history, corruption, Donald Trump, Nepotism
Christine Adams is professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland and author of book on The Creation of the Official French Royal Mistress, with Tracy Adams.
For President Trump, personal relationships and loyalty matter. This explains why so many of his top advisers and speakers at this week’s Republican Convention are “anyone named Trump, anyone who can speak Fox and anyone willing to pay some form of fealty,” as Philip Bump writes. Trump’s children also serve as his primary gatekeepers at the White House. Those with a personal connection to the president or one of his children are much more likely to find a receptive audience. For example, environmental concerns alone were not enough to delay federal approval of a controversial gold and copper mine in Alaska — it was the intervention of eldest son Donald Trump Jr. that persuaded President Trump to reconsider.
This is not how policymaking is supposed to work in a liberal democracy. The personal nature of Trump’s decision-making on matters from foreign relations to presidential pardons is one of the reasons that his administration is widely considered one of the most corrupt in recent history.
The president’s approach would look very familiar to courtiers in early modern Europe, where individual relationships, connections and proximity to the monarch shaped nearly all political decisions. But such an approach to governance has consequences. In France, as the economic and political crises of the late 1780s escalated, the people blamed their country’s problems on the corrupt network of influence peddlers and rent-seekers who surrounded Louis XVI. When revolution broke out in 1789, one of the most insistent demands was for an end to “personal” government in favor of institutions that would protect the public interest. People find the incompetence that nepotism fosters particularly intolerable in times of crisis; a clear example of this is the botched response to the coronavirus pandemic from Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Democrats are certain to focus on the politics of personal favors in the upcoming election, to Trump’s detriment.
Enlightenment philosophers and revolutionary politicians alike understood that a personal relationship with the king was the way to secure favorable policies. For them, that was the problem. In an “absolutist” polity, the king was the only openly recognized political actor, and his will had the force of law. In 1682, Louis XIV moved the court to Versailles, where he expected members of the nobility to spend the majority of their time if they wanted consideration and influence, mingling his household with the official seat of government. He would not grant favors to “a man I never see.”
Few French aristocrats questioned the system; rather, they learned how best to gain a favorable hearing from the king. The Duke of Saint-Simon, in a scathing critique of this process, remarked on how Louis XIV’s “weak point” was his “love of hearing his own praises. There was nothing he liked so much as flattery or, to put it more plainly, adulation; the coarser and clumsier it was, the more he relished it. That was the only way to approach him.” The revolutionaries of 1789 later used such accounts to buttress their own critique of the Bourbon monarchy, arguing that kings were too susceptible to the blandishments of courtiers, and insufficiently interested in the public good.
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