As Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency, Americans must learn to distinguish the ways he is uniquely terrible from the ways in which he is not so terribly unique — except as a matter of degree. His extreme behavior shouldn't be "normalized," to use the year's newest word. But neither should the lies and deceptions of his more "respectable" colleagues.
Last week’s Trump University settlement is a case in point. The particulars of the case are mind-boggling: Trump and his co-defendants settled the fraud charges against them for a reported $25 million. (The settlement still needs to be approved by Judge Gonzalo Curiel.)
Most people know the general nature of the charges. Trump and his associates allegedly defrauded “students” with false claims about the venture and their future earning possibilities. Victims were subjected to high-pressure sales tactics that often led them to spend $35,000 on a worthless series of lectures from “instructors” Trump claimed to have personally selected but could not identify.
This case was never politically motivated. As New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman noted recently: “Nobody in August 2013 thought that this guy was going to be the Republican nominee for president.”
“It’s fraud,” said Schneiderman, “straight-up fraud.”
Charges included false advertising and false business practices. As Schneiderman said in 2013, “Mr. Trump used his celebrity status … to convince people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got.”
But another aspect of the case got less attention. If approved, the settlement will also resolve allegations of “financial elder abuse” against Trump and his co-defendants. Laws in Florida and California make it illegal to financially exploit older Americans – “by deception or intimidation,” as the Florida statute phrases it.
The Trump University sales script reportedly directed sales staff to urge prospects to “cash in” their 401(k) retirement savings, and to say:
"How many of you lost a lot of your 401(k) investment in the market? How many times do you go into Walmart, and you’re greeted by a guy or gal who is 70+ years old? Do you want to be doing that when you’re 70 years old, or do you want to be playing golf and enjoying your retirement?"
A former Trump University sales rep said in an affidavit, “I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money.”
By settling the case, Trump avoids having a court hear charges that he preyed upon the fears of a vulnerable population.
Never before has someone prepared to assume the presidency under such a cloud of fraud accusations, potential conflicts of interest, erratic personal behavior, and sexual assault allegations. But, despite this dubious distinction, Trump is also the distillation – admittedly in extreme form – of several long-term trends.
Trump University was an ugly education scam, but it was not the only one. Corinthian Colleges Inc. left tens of thousands of students with crippling debt for worthless degrees sold under false pretenses. It has taken a shamefully long time for these students to receive justice from the federal government, despite the efforts of groups like the Debt Collective. Other for-profit education programs have also exploited students.
More broadly, an entire generation of millennials – along with a good number of its elders – has been burdened with unlivable student debt and weak job prospects. They kept the American promise by pursuing an education to better themselves. They deserve justice.
At the other end of the age spectrum, Trump campaigned on a promise to preserve Social Security and Medicare. But Trump is stacking his team with rightwingers hostile to both programs. Extremist Republican benefit-cutters like House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are determined to slash "entitlements" and privatize Medicare. Ryan isn't considered a scammer by the media, but his arguments are misleading and sometimes rely on outright deceit.
Like millennials, older Americans kept their part of the bargain. They worked throughout their adult lives and paid into these programs. Now their retirement security may be gutted, even as Trump and his billionaire friends enjoy another round of massive tax breaks.
That's a broken promise. Some might even call it “financial elder abuse.”
Donald Trump's abuses and excesses cannot be normalized. But neither should they become a free pass for the misbehavior of our business-as-usual political class, whose members have their own problems with honesty and fair play. What they do may be legal, but that doesn’t make it right.