I started to read Gregg Barak’s Criminology on Trump (Routledge) not long after its publication last year but was interrupted by a sudden, complete collapse of the will. The problem was not the book itself, nor was it a one-time occurrence. I have roughly four dozen ebooks on the ex-president on my table, many of them thoughtful and informative—or so they seemed, right up to the point of no return. The very thing making serious books on the ex-president necessary creates a catch-22: his media presence is disproportionate and inescapable, the full-spectrum demands on one’s attention can suck almost all of the oxygen from one’s brain, and sacrificing the little that’s left to reading about him may feel like an imposition to be resented.
My experience with the Trump literature is unlikely to be unique, though there must be readers who devour the same material and crave more. In any case, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office mug shot of the ex-president was the turning point that sent me back to Barak’s monograph for another round. (The author is professor emeritus of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University.)
An initial prompting to revisit it came in July, when the judge in E. Jean Carroll’s civil case clarified that the jury’s verdict that Trump was liable for sexual abuse did indeed mean they found that he had committed rape, as ordinarily understood—his lawyers’ efforts to spin things otherwise notwithstanding. As with the FBI raid to retrieve classified documents illegally warehoused on his property, these developments showed the aura of immunity around Trump starting to collapse. Barak’s main concern in Criminology on Trump is how that aura persisted as long as it did while the man emitting it also radiated glee in his own ethos of criminality.
That means revisiting some well-trodden ground. Trump’s alleged pre-presidency business practices (“tax evasion, money laundering, nonpayment of employees, as well as the defrauding of tenants, customers, contractors, investors, bankers, and charities”) made him “the Houdini of white-collar crime,” as the author puts it. Trump’s time in office was a boon to his real estate holdings in ways that defied the Constitution’s emoluments clause. And so on. These are not revelations, and the details are of interest here mainly as background for understanding the criminological puzzle implied by Trump’s career.
Looking at things in terms of Robert Merton’s classic paper in criminological theory, Trump is the product of what the sociologist characterized as the “strain” of pursuing sanctioned cultural goals (in the U.S., money and prestige) within an established set of acceptable forms of behavior.
Merton identified a few general ways of responding to the tension between means and ends. The most common is conformity, i.e. an acceptance of the criteria of success as well as the restrictions on how it can be legitimately gained. The least common response is rebellion: a thorough rejection of both goals and norms. It’s not necessary to go through all the permutations on Merton’s grid, but he did identify the possibility of pursuing wealth, fame, etc. through abnormal or unaccepted means of doing so. That is one way to characterize crime, of course, though Merton gave it the curiously benign label “innovation,” since one generation’s transgressions may become another’s conformist behavior.
“There have been few if any legal rules,” writes Barak, “that [Trump] has not challenged or abided by while at the same time using and abusing the very same set of rules to protect himself.” He calls Trump “a classic Mertonian ‘innovator’ who ignores the legitimate means to success.” But by the criminologist’s own reckoning, Trump does more than disregard norms. He bends them to his own purposes—and if they break, well, that’s because they were no good in the first place. Barak refers to the criminological concept of neutralization, referring to the process by which offenders can rationalize their behavior in the interest of maintaining their self-image as basically decent and normal people. In particular, he writes, “white-collar offenders want to view themselves as moral and law-abiding people to assuage their guilty consciences or to satisfy their remorseful superegos.” It is a complex matter, the question of Donald Trump’s superego; that’s its own monograph, probably. But his political career has been defined by a lack of remorse.
There’s a paragraph in Criminology on Trump that feels like the key to—I don’t know, the ex-president’s career, the crisis of the republic or something. In 2004, after signing the contract to make The Apprentice, Trump spoke at the Museum of Television and Radio in Los Angeles. He admitted, Barak writes, that “he had been tentative about signing on with the reality TV show because of all the mobsters that frequent his place of work … More than a decade later, during one of his moments of public candidness, Donald stated what he would be more inclined to say privately or only to a group of his biggest donors: ‘winners team up with mobsters, losers don’t.’”
Once such statements would have been ruinous to anyone’s career, but Trump’s genius is that he learned to lean into them.