The roots of corruption can be found in authoritarian child rearing practices
As an observer of the Trump Administration, I’m fascinated with the fact that so many people are being tried and convicted for high crimes and misdemeanors. I believe that the reason so many people at the top can be prone to corruption, is that at one time or another in their lives, perhaps routinely, they have been subjected to abuse at the hands of their parents.
How else can we explain the way members of the Trump administration cut spending for the welfare state, cut deals for their friends, separate families at the border and decide that building a wall at the border is a good thing? How else can we explain a president who mocks women, the disabled and his adversaries?
Perhaps Trump hasn’t figured this out yet, but I think that authoritarian culture, which Trump seems to promote, makes makes humans prone to corruption. Just imagine living with the pain of having been a young child, being spanked at 1 or two, or even 5 years of age, without a complete understanding of why that happened, by a person you absolutely depend on for life. And then she says, “I did that because I love you”. There is no appeals court, no defense. You just have to take it and hope that you get to live.
Now imagine that such pain is still with you today, but you can’t remember it. That pain says, I better do what Mommy says or I will get spanked. That pain says I have to be obedient to my daddy or I will get spanked. That pain says, I need to drink to calm down. That pain says that Oxycontin will help me survive. That pain says that more money will make me feel better. That pain says that more sex, food, cars, houses, a 7-figure income and a yacht will make me feel better. That pain says that even with all of the wealth that I have, I still need to engage in kickbacks, insider trading, bribery, extortion and other activities, to make me forget the pain.
Now not everyone grows up to be corrupt from corporal punishment at the hands of their parents. You’d think that we’re an enlightened nation, yet better than 90% of children are spanked at some point in their lives, even today. Some people grow up to be great leaders despite childhood abuse at the hands of their parents, that’s true. But a fair majority of people who have been abused by their parents, well, they can’t wait to jump out of their skin. It can take years or even decades to unravel that pain to live a healthy life.
Every exercise of power requires justification, even if you’re a parent. Every insistence that a child do the will of the parent, against the child’s will, with the threat of a real physical harm with pain, makes that child vulnerable to outside influence. Here are a few examples.
If you say to a child, “Do what I say or you will be punished”, that’s extortion. If you say, “Do what I say and you will get a reward”, that is a bribe. If you punish a child with physical pain for something that child did, the child will learn to lie to avoid physical pain. Children may even learn how to lie, be covert and hide what they’re doing to avoid physical and emotional pain.
So if you look in the paper and see how another crony in Trump’s Administration got convicted of x crimes, authoritarian culture is very likely the root cause. Anyone working in the Trump Administration was already rich when they started there, which means that if they are convicted of a crime, they finally got caught after doing that crime for a long time. But what is more interesting is that even though they are rich, they still wanted more, and they were willing to put themselves at risk to get it.
And when people do crime, they get a high, like adrenaline. That high is better than any smack they can buy, though they might still drink, smoke, snort or shoot up their drug of choice. There is a physiological effect of doing something “wrong”. The hiding, the sneaking around, obsessing about whether or not you’re going get the prize or get caught, that’s all adrenaline. But that adrenaline is familiar to authoritarians because it’s the same adrenaline high they got from overtly challenging or sneaking around their parents to do what they wanted to do. Apparently, some people in very high places never grow out of that.
To be fair, this discussion isn’t confined to the Trump Administration. Corruption is rampant in politics and business today. From the Panama Papers to the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, there seem to be a lot of people who believe that their cause is so important, that they are allowed to break or bend the rules to get what they want.
Any time I read in the headlines how a multimillionaire hedge fund manager got popped for insider trading, I think of how they were raised. Anytime I read in the news that a legislator was convicted of accepting a bribe in return for a vote, I think that they might have learned that from their parents. Anytime I read about a businessman who insists on lower wages for his employees while he exacts tremendous returns on his billions through what is essentially a government supported monopoly, I think of favoritism from the parents. I think of the need for the high while already sitting on a pile of wealth.
I have often wondered if there is an inverse correlation between wealth and empathy. I think that there is, but there are exceptions. There are very wealthy Samaritans, too. They give generously. They actually do service with their time. J.K Rowling and Bono from U2 are both great examples of such service.
So the next time you read the papers, well, the news on the internet, consider the backstory. You might consider the possibility that people are conditioned to be corrupt. People can be conditioned for corruption by their parents, their schools, their childhood peers, the movies, the news and on and on. Consider the possibility that people who exhibit corruption lack the skills to do better, and that they would do better, if they could.
We are in a position to make a change for the better. We start with empathy for people who present challenging behavior (corruption is also challenging behavior). We can allow for the possibility that people involved in or convicted of a crime don’t know how to do better. I’ve asked this question of myself over and over. It always comes down to a lack of skills required to do better, no matter what social or economic status that person is at. The answer always comes down to the fact that if someone could do better, they would.
I start with that assumption about everyone. Everyone is absolutely doing the best they can. I assume that everyone wants to do the right thing so that they can sleep when they lay their head on their pillow at night. I assume that the motivation to do better is always there. I make those assumptions because cooperation is baked into our genes. Cooperation is the foundation skill of all of humanity. The reason we have language is because we need language to cooperate, it’s that deep.
When I’m dealing with anyone who presents challenging behavior, whether they are my kids or someone having a tolerance break in customer service, I remain calm. I have all of that stuff going on in the back of my mind. I’m starting from a position of compassion. I allow other people to make mistakes since I’m not exactly perfect, either. I allow people to fix their mistakes. I avoid criticizing other people because I’m still not exactly perfect.
I also know that it’s hard to learn a lesson in fear. So I avoid the temptation to make others fearful. I just try to explain natural consequences and give others choices. Now that is another kind of high, the high that comes from making a choice that allows everyone to prosper, and I don’t mean just money. I mean that allowing for peace is another form of prosperity. On more than one occasion, I’ve chosen peace over money, and I’ve prospered. I can think through an opportunity to find that I may have more money, but less peace. That kind of thinking may come with years or even decades of experience, but it can come.
So if Trump truly believes in freedom, then he must know that freedom is something that is learned in childhood. Freedom starts with teaching kids how to make their own choices and the natural consequences that follow. Freedom comes with knowing how to get your needs met while doing no harm to others. Freedom comes when parents and their children collaborate together to solve the problems that children encounter, so that children need not resort to challenging behavior to get their needs met. A free society is born when children grow up to become adults that get their needs met without aggression.
I do what I do not because that is how the world is. I do what I because that is how I want the world to be. I err on the side of peace.