My pet theory is that this kind of petty corruption in politics is driven by two factors: The first is that the stakes are only petty on the politicians’ side — that Canadian charity that paid sundry Trudeaus for speeches got a $900 million contract. Throwing a few fruit baskets at Canadian MPs or American congressmen can be a pretty good investment, if you know how to play it. Some of those politicians are going to take those fruit baskets.
The second factor is the same one that drives much of our class-warfare politics: the fact that many influential people, especially academics, politicians, and media figures, are socially adjacent to people they are not financially adjacent to. The Trudeaus are comfortable, but the Aga Khan has a Caribbean island of his own, a pretty nice one. Justin Trudeau lives in a duplex, and the Aga Khan . . . does not.
If you are the governor of Virginia, your social set will include a number of very, very wealthy people, especially now that we have entered the republic-teetering-on-the-edge-of-empire stage in our history, with the political capital slowly becoming the financial capital. But even if you are a big noise in Richmond, you still make only $175,000 a year. (Only.) That’s fine if you are someone like former Minnesota governor Mark Dayton, who inherited his grandfather’s billions (that splendid Target money), or a former Goldman Sachs monkey like Steve Mnuchin, or a successful entrepreneur such as Rick Scott. But most people in politics are lawyers with a little bit of money, or something financially and socially similar. They have more than most, but not nearly enough to satisfy them.