Give Federal Judge Thomas Durkin credit; in sending former House speaker Dennis Hastert to prison for 15 months, he resisted one of the most noxious arguments on behalf of wealthy and powerful felons: the idea that the loss of prestige means they have “suffered enough.”
Yes, Hastert had to leave his cushy job as a Washington lobbyist; he has been subjected to what his defense team called “public humiliations” for sexually abusing teenage boys in his care in his days as a wrestling coach. It seems highly unlikely he will be able to book desirable tables at Washington’s better restaurant (the horror; the horror). At root, of course, this argument amounts to a stunning embrace of a blatant double standard: if you’ve accumulated enough prestige, enough honors, then the loss of those honors protects you from a stint behind bars. A regular, ordinary citizen, who has no prestige to lose, gets punished with a trip to a correctional institute.
In a larger sense, though, the Hastert story stands as yet another example of why Donald Trump stands on the verge of the Republican presidential nomination. If the link seems unclear, just wait a minute.
When the story of Hastert’s $3.5 million promise to one of his victims emerged—he’d paid about half, and the unnamed recipient is suing to collect the other half—one question loomed large: how did someone who spent his life as a public school teacher and coach, and then as a public official, manage to get hold of so much money? How did Hastert’s net worth leap from about $270,000 when he entered Congress to somewhere between $4 million and $17 million by the time he left Congress in 2007?
The answer, it turns out, is land, the stuff your uncle told you to buy because “they aren’t making any more of it.” In Hastert’s case, the way he used his power to turn his land into gold is something out of a Frank Capra movie—damn near literally.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the newly minted Senator Jefferson Smith proposes to buy land in order to establish a national boys’ camp. But wealthy, shadowy men, with the help of a corrupt senator, want that land for their own nefarious purposes. What Hastert did is best described in this Washington Post account:
“It was not until after he was elected speaker in 1999 that Hastert began stepping up his land investments, parlaying some early real estate deals and a small inheritance he had from his father.
“By the mid-2000s, Hastert and two partners had amassed 138 acres of farmland outside Plano, Ill., several miles from the proposed site of the Prairie Parkway, a highway connector that would have cut through the northern Illinois countryside.
‘The then-House speaker’s ownership of the property was not a public record, as it was held under a blind land trust called the Little Rock Trust No. 225 … At the time, Hastert was championing the highway, which opponents said would tear up the farming region and hasten its suburbanization.
“Hastert eventually earmarked $207 million for the $1 billion parkway project in a federal transportation bill, which then-President George W. Bush signed during a trip to Hastert’s district in August 2005.
“Four months after the bill was signed, Hastert’s trust sold the land to a real estate developer who planned to build 1,700 homes on the parcel. Hastert’s share of the proceeds was worth more than $3 million…”
Get it? Hastert becomes the single most powerful member of the House. He uses that power to earmark money for a project that vastly increases the value of land he secretly owns. This gives him the millions he will need to buy silence from some he sexually abused as a youth, thus enabling him to stay in power for years.
Was the land deal legal? Yes; cue Michael Kinsley: “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal; it’s what’s legal.”
And the Trump connection? Much of his appeal is linked to the conviction that the political system is corrupt at root, that the people in power use that power to enrich themselves, and to shield them from accountability. What the Hastert case demonstrates—and what countless other examples, stretching across party lines and ideology, also demonstrate—is that this core belief rests on cold, hard facts. It’s one reason that, for all of Trump’s baggage and for all of his massive defects of character and temperament, it would be a mistake to assume that he cannot reach the White House. It is not discontent that describes what so many Americans are feeling about their government and their leaders; it’s something much closer to what ex-Speaker Hastert arouses: outright revulsion.