By Tom Ehrich
In recent days I have seen two films about corruption.
One, “Spotlight,” documents the work of the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team, called Spotlight, to uncover massive sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and a cover-up by top officials.
The other, “The Big Short,” tells the story of Wall Street misconduct leading up to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008. The top names in finance behaved terribly, knowingly and gleefully selling junk securities to the gullible and creating a game only they could win. Then they got a bailout from taxpayers, rewarded their executives, and started doing it again.
These two entities – Roman hierarchy and big banking – were corrupt, and yet they pretended to be moral and wise, pillars of the community, people to be respected. In actuality, they presided over rigged systems that hurt people, exploited their naivete, stole their innocence or their money, took their future or their jobs, caused suicides, and destroyed faith.
Now, in the right-wing insurgence of a faux populist billionaire and two snarky also-rans, we are seeing the next outcome of these frauds.
Two factors seem to be feeding right-wing rage. One is racism, of a virulent sort not seen on the public stage since Klan rallies in the 1920s. The other is fury at a rigged economy that has decimated the lives of middle- and lower-class Americans.
As one banker says in “The Big Short,” he and his compadres got off unscathed because, when banks misbehave, politicians shift the blame to immigrants and minorities. In the same way, when church hierarchs misbehave, they shift the blame to women and gays.
Even though immigrants and minorities have had hardly anything to do with joblessness, housing bubbles, tech bubbles, junk bonds and trade imbalances – except to suffer from their consequences -- the actual culprits are paying billions to politicians to divert attention from their corruption.
When people feel cheated, vulnerable, frozen out of economic benefits, and treated as prey by the haves, what are they to do? They can stay home from church, which they are doing, and they can change banks. But banks don’t care about retail customers.
It’s more direct and probably more satisfying to vent one’s rage on the black guy walking his dog down your street, or the immigrant shopping next to you at Wal Mart, or the woman who’s making it while you aren’t. Even though these targets have done little to cause your distress, they are within reach, whereas the heads of JP Morgan Chase and the Archdiocese are far away, living behind walls that you cannot breach.
You have no allies in Washington. Congress is just lining up at the Koch Brothers’ trough. So you go to a Trump rally and shout for blood. It’s like swaggering into a shopping mall brandishing a Glock and watching everyone edge away from you. Your life hasn’t gotten any better, but, as many an addict knows, for a brief instant you feel better.
It’s sad, it’s sick, and it’s worrisome.
The predators seem totally unmoored from normal morality and civility. “The Big Short” makes clear that Wall Street knew exactly what it was doing. It was fleecing the sheep. They knew people were losing houses, going bankrupt, losing jobs, living out of cars, lining up for give-away food, mingling forlornly at job fairs, while they were living large and larger – and they didn’t care. They simply didn’t care.
Nor did the top officials at the Archdiocese of Boston care. The knew who the predators were. They knew what they had done and the enormous human cost being paid by priests’ victims. Their only concern was to keep information hidden and to stonewall investigators.
Corrupt people produce corrupt systems, and corrupt systems produce corrupt politics, and corrupt politics produce rigged elections and rigged economies – until nothing seems to be left but to shout in helpless rage and to cast one’s lot with demagogues promising vengeance.
This tragedy doesn’t end well. For electing a demagogue to high office won’t resolve anything for the frustrated and broken. It will only make matters worse. What then? Gun battles in the streets? The NRA would love it.