Trump, of course, is not Plunkitt. He’s not boasting of using inside information to profit his businesses, or of rigging government auctions, or even of using his power to do “good turns” for friends—all things Plunkitt actually did. In fact, Trump has insisted that he won’t pursue Plunkitt-like honest graft, even as he explains why, in theory, he could, or seems to confess having done so. And perhaps Donald Trump will take the advice of ethics lawyers, and move to disentangle entirely his public and private interests, even though he insists that he doesn’t actually need to. “In theory I don’t have to do anything,” he said. “But I would like to do something. I would like to try and formalize something, because I don’t care about my business.”
But to the extent that Plunkitt provides an illuminating precedent, it’s precisely because his own conflicts were so much more blatant—and voters, instead of shunning him, reelected him again and again. Plunkitt convinced a majority of voters that it was better to put in power a man whose private interests and public policies were aligned, than to vote for reform-minded candidates serving abstract ideals; that it was preferable to trust a man who shares their resentment of elites, than to trust elites to share their values; that a politician who sticks by his friends will stick by them, while those politicians who take their cues from bookworms and professors will not.
In fact, Plunkitt proved, many voters will admire such a man—so long as they remain convinced that he’s fighting for them, as well as for himself. If he’s a crook, he’s their crook. Instead of resenting his having profited from his office, they’ll respect him for it.