The Art of the Venal

Donald Trump thinks politics is business, and business is theft.

Donald Trump is seen during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, on Monday.

Joe Raedle/AFP/Getty Images

In Monday night’s presidential debate at Hofstra University, Donald Trump delivered a clear, consistent message: It’s good to be selfish. It’s good to cheat. It’s good to steal.

Trump has campaigned on his business savvy all along. He says he’ll do for America what he’s done for his companies: make a killing. In the debate, he bragged that he had racked up nearly $700 million in income in the past year. “That’s the kind of thinking that our country needs,” he declared. “When we have a country that’s doing so badly, that’s being ripped off by every single country … it’s about time that this country had somebody running it that has an idea about money.”

But Trump doesn’t just talk about beating the Mexicans and the Chinese. He talks about beating Americans. Fifteen minutes into the debate, Hillary Clinton brought up the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the ensuing recession that wiped out jobs, homes, and savings. “Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis,” she recalled. “He said back in 2006, ‘Gee, I hope it does collapse, because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.’ ”

At this point, Trump interrupted Clinton—not to deny the quote, but to defend it. “That’s called business,” he retorted.

Twenty minutes later, Clinton pressed Trump about his refusal to release his tax returns. “Maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” she said. “The only years that anybody’s ever seen were a couple of years when he had to turn them over to state authorities when he was trying to get a casino license. And they showed he didn’t pay any federal income tax.”

Again, Trump butted in, not to dispute the charge, but to flaunt it. “That makes me smart,” he gloated.

Trump asserted that the country “needs new roads, new tunnels, new bridges, new airports, new schools, new hospitals. And we don’t have the money, because it’s been squandered on so many of your ideas.” Clinton, in reply, said one reason for the budget squeeze might be that “you haven’t paid any federal income tax for a lot of years.” Trump didn’t blanch. “It would be squandered, too, believe me,” he jeered.

Clinton pressed on:

I have met a lot of the people who were stiffed by you and your businesses, Donald. I’ve met dishwashers, painters, architects, glass installers, marble installers, drapery installers like my dad was, who you refused to pay when they finished the work that you asked them to do. We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do.

Trump brushed off the story. “Maybe he didn’t do a good job, and I was unsatisfied with his work,” he scoffed. Then, as Clinton tried to continue, Trump added, “Which our country should do, too.” Stiffing vendors isn’t just Trump’s record. It’s his policy.

Trump also defended his use of bankruptcy laws to escape his debts. “We used certain laws,” he explained. “I take advantage of the laws of the nation, because I’m running a company. My obligation right now is to do well for myself, my family, my employees, for my companies.” Civic responsibility? Feh.

The debate moved on to race relations. I figured Trump was done boasting about his corruption. But he was just getting started. Clinton brought up a 1973 lawsuit against Trump, filed by the U.S. Department of Justice, for excluding black applicants from apartment rentals. Trump expressed no shame. “We settled the suit with zero, with no admission of guilt,” he clucked. “It was very easy to do.” Trump said of the episode: “I look at that, and I say: Isn’t that amazing? Because I settled that lawsuit with no admission of guilt.” Writing a check to hide the truth and escape justice isn’t just acceptable. It’s commendable.

Even in the debate’s closing segment, on foreign policy, Trump celebrated his venality. He crowed that he had “been saying for a long time” that when we invaded Iraq, “we should have taken the oil.” He also suggested we should have seized “the oil in Libya.” Running the military is just like running a company: go in and grab what you can.

That’s the revenue side. Trump’s rule on the expense side is just as simple: Don’t lose money helping others. He wants to reconsider our commitments to NATO allies because, as he explained Monday night, “many of them aren’t paying their fair share. … We’re defending them, and they should at least be paying us what they’re supposed to be paying by treaty and contract.” The word contract, which no other presidential nominee has used in this context, tells you how mercenary Trump’s foreign policy would be.

This attitude extends to nuclear weapons. Late in the debate, Clinton noted that Trump “has said repeatedly that he didn’t care if other nations got nuclear weapons: Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia.” Trump replied that he was tired of defending countries that could arm themselves. “We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia,” he groused. “They should be paying us, because we are providing tremendous service, and we’re losing a fortune.” In Trump’s ledger, America’s pledge to protect these countries isn’t a nuclear nonproliferation policy. It’s a fee-based “service.”

The problem with Clinton, in Trump’s view, is that she doesn’t see things this way. She doesn’t respect the genius of evading taxes and debts. She doesn’t have the brains to take Iraqi or Libyan oil. She’s doesn’t grasp how much money we could make by using our military as a protection racket. “We are losing billions and billions of dollars,” Trump complained as the debate neared its end. The countries we defend are “not paying us what we need. And she doesn’t say that, because she’s got no business ability.”

Maybe Trump is right. Maybe Clinton can’t run a business. Or maybe she has something he lacks: the ability to distinguish between business and government, and between business and theft.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.