Global HotSpots, Rethinking America

U.S. Democracy For Sale: Just Ask Sheldon

Sheldon Adelson is the personification of money in American politics today. Perversely, nothing that he has done is illegal.

Sheldon Adelson. Credit: (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Is Adelson allowing Trump to backtrack on his pledge to move the US embassy to Jerusalem?
  • More the Latin American countries are working to shed bad governance, more the US is embracing such corrosive political practices.
  • Trump’s “trumpiest” deal? Government of the rich, by the rich and for the rich, no holds barred.

Mr. Sheldon Adelson is the personification of money in American politics today. Perversely, and most revealing about what really ails the United States, nothing that he has done is illegal.

For example, just a few days ago, casino tycoon Sheldon and his wife Miriam, who had each contributed $10.1 million to Donald Trump’s election campaign, enjoyed a private White House dinner with the President, his son-in-law and special adviser Jared Kushner, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

In any other developed country, it is inconceivable that any individual who has never served in government or even sought election to public office should have so much influence on public policy.

Not a developed country

Putting severe restraints, including criminal law, into the path of rich people buying themselves the “democracy” they want is what separates developed countries from banana republics.

Not so in the United States – and especially not with the Republican Party. That party always complains about “unelected” officials, from the United Nations and other international bodies, illegally “ruling” America.

But the Republicans are very happy indeed with unelected private sector people effectively doing the same.

Trump and Adelson: Two casino lords

Las Vegas-based Adelson, like Trump, is a casino mogul. Adelson is the largest shareholder in the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which with casinos in Nevada and Macao is the world’s largest casino group.

His unique access to the pinnacles of Republican Party power is not a function of his charm or intelligence, but because – in crude American style – he simply pays for it.

Adelson, 83, is estimated by Forbes Magazine to be worth around $30 billion. He has two political passions:

  1. Doing everything he can to promote policies advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those to his political right in Israel
  2. Devoting just as much energy to promoting his casino interests.

So Adelson had lots to discuss at the White House, both with Kushner, a close friend of Netanyahu, who Trump has delegated as the lead advisor on Israel, as well as with Donald – the first casino owner ever to become America’s President.

A class of one

Other billionaires, such as media magnate Rupert Murdoch (Ivanka Trump was a trustee of a fund for Murdoch’s younger children until December) on the political right, and hedge funder tycoon George Soros on the left, have been prominent in seeking to wield political influence – but they are not in Sheldon’s league.

Almost all the candidates for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination tripped to the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas to make their case to Sheldon. Pretty much to a man, they devotedly vowed to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and perhaps pledged to protect casino interests when elected.

Lest we forget, in the 2012 Presidential race, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich stayed in the race for the presidential nomination for many months thanks almost entirely to Adelson’s cash.

Not the freedom anybody needs

The Republican Party and the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court have successfully argued that to impose a limit on how much money an individual can deploy to support candidates would be a limitation on freedom of speech.

The result is that the United States has gradually become a more and more unbalanced democracy where enormous access to the nation’s leaders is provided to those who pay for it.

There is nothing new in terms of the super-rich seeking to push their political causes. The Koch brothers who run Koch Industries have been working for more than 20 years to push American politics to the right and they can claim many successes.

The high priest of money

But nobody operating just on his own without a political organization has been so high profile and so determined to buy influence as Sheldon Adelson. He has taken this art of demanding subservience (and getting it) to a new and higher level.

And Sheldon knows just how to work the system. For example, he enjoyed a front row gallery seat in March 2015 when, at his bidding, then U.S. House Speaker John Boehner invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress and denounce President Obama’s efforts to forge an agreement with Iran.

Shifty matters

At the dinner at the White House the other night, it seems that Adelson was gently nudged to agree that it would be politically useful for President Trump to avoid setting a precise date for moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Adelson has been a powerful advocate for such a move as has the Israeli newspaper he owns, Israel Hayom, which is a free mass circulation paper that has been a propaganda machine for Israel’s Prime Minister.

The art of the deal

Mr. Trump isn’t the only one who believes his skills in the “art of the deal” are tops. Adelson very much believes the same thing.

So one inevitably wonders what it took to convince Sheldon to accept that Trump could backtrack on his pledge to support the embassy move?

Trading Jerusalem for online gambling?

I have no inside information, but another of Sheldon’s causes is opposing all efforts by the U.S. government that might be made to permit online Internet gambling.

Trump, who assuredly shares Sheldon’s view on this one given that they both own casinos and would be hit by online competition, might just, perhaps, have given the Las Vegas billionaire some assurances on this.

Troubled democracy

When the President of the United States, with the Secretary of State by his side, host private dinner parties for very rich individuals – with a longstanding track record to open their checkbooks for political causes and keen to push their personal political and commercial agendas — then democracy is in trouble.

But Washington and the United States as a whole continue to sleep. We know that Sheldon Adelson was only the first gazillionaire to receive such exceptional treatment at the Trump White House. Many other billionaires from the private sector will receive similar treatment.

The billionaire circus

The next likely candidate, for example, might be Carl Icahn. He is only worth about half of what Sheldon is, but also has casino interests, alongside multiple business investments.

Icahn has called for a major cut in corporate taxes and loudly supported Trump in the election campaign. He remains in the private sector, although Trump announced in December that Icahn would be a “special adviser to the president on overhauling federal regulations.”

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

Responses to “U.S. Democracy For Sale: Just Ask Sheldon”

Archived Comments.

  1. On February 21, 2017 at 12:53 am Manzoor Hasan responded with... #

    Frank, another powerful and incisive piece! The nexus between politics and money is not new but it is being taken to a new and dangerous height in the US. Most disturbing fallout, globally, is the fact that it will encourage and consolidate this nexus in many countries where institutions are either weak or non-existent.

  2. On February 22, 2017 at 1:27 pm SEA_Economics responded with... #

    While we’re pointing out all of the billionaire acquisitions in Washington D.C., we should include George Soros who “dialed back” his 2016 election contributions to roughly $25M, versus larger amounts in previous elections. This is happening with Republicans and Democrats and it is undoubtedly leading to a less democratic process. This billionaire and corporate funding should end, full stop, for ALL parties. If Washington D.C. cannot cut itself off from lobbyists, billionaire and corporate contributors then the only logical solution is to simply reduce the size and scope of what D.C. is going for us.