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Trump’s $5 billion slush fund idea borrows from a Chinese dictator and a South Philly felon

Say this about President Trump — he’s a man who doesn’t even know the meaning of the word “extortion.” I mean, what else can you say about an alleged-billionaire-turned-highest-federal-official-in-the-land who fails to see any kind of ethical problem in the president and his regulators deciding whether to give government approval on a lucrative business deal while demanding a gigantic payment to the U.S. Treasury?

“I want a big chunk of that money to go to the United States government because we made it possible,” Trump said last week in talking about a scheme to allow the controversial Chinese-based phone app TikTok to keep operating in the U.S. by partnering with an American company, a deal now being sought by Oracle and Walmart. “And the lawyers come back to me and they say there is no way of doing that because nobody has ever heard of that before.”

Why not? I mean, you could probably wipe out taxes on the middle class if the FDA demanded a large check every time Pfizer or Johnson & Johnson wanted a potentially dangerous new drug approved, or when government safety experts need to OK Boeing’s new jet. And presumably those decisions would be made in the interest of public safety, not to boost a president running for re-election, right? Anyway, those pesky lawyers forced The Donald to come up with Plan B.

On Sunday, as negotiations between Oracle and TikTok’s parent company ByteDance neared a climax, the president claimed the participants would also be contributing $5 billion (yes, with a “b”!) to form a non-profit that would support Trump’s brand-new pet cause — “patriotic education” that would teach America’s schoolchildren only about the nation’s greatness and skip the messy parts about slavery or worker exploitation.

The government’s beleaguered lawyers probably never heard of this one, either. But if you live or work in Philadelphia, as I do, this particular scheme might sound familiar. Not so long ago, the then-most powerful figure in the city’s Democratic machine, a state senator named Vince Fumo, had pretty much the same brilliant idea.

Fumo and his closest political allies were closely tied to a non-profit charity in his native South Philadelphia called the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. Now, Philadelphia’s neighborhoods could always be bettered, right? One of the group’s biggest donors was the electric utility PECO, which wrote a whopping $17 million check right around the time it wanted Fumo to change his stand on deregulation. Four years later, as part of an 137-count federal indictment, federal prosecutors charged and later convicted the senator on allegations that (among other things) he misused $1 million of the non-profit’s cash. Fumo ultimately spent four years in a federal prison in Kentucky for fraud.

Just imagine the kind of perks that Trump — who, with his closest family members, has already seen his own charitable foundation shut down by New York State officials for widespread abuses — and his cronies could reap from this new $5 billion slush fund, which presumably would exist even if the president loses the November election. It almost makes you forget that Trump’s idea isn’t just potentially corrupt, but also another dictator move.

How so? As Ishaan Tharoor pointed out Monday in a Washington Post column, Trump’s “patriotic education” idea — which includes a 1776 Commission that would create a “pro-American curriculum” for the nation’s classrooms to counteract efforts like the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project that illuminate our slave-owning past — borrows heavily from the world’s worst dictators, especially Chinese President Xi Jinping. Xi is now shoving “patriotic education” down the throats of Hong Kong as part of the clampdown on its pro-democracy movement.

As the election draws closer and polls continue to show Trump in danger of losing, the president seems to be embracing what one might call fast-casual fascism, whether it’s bizarrely declaring U.S. cities like New York and Seattleanarchist jurisdictions” or crushing science from the CDC. But a $5 billion scam that borrows equally from Xi Jinping and Vince Fumo may be his worst idea yet, which is saying something. Hopefully, this newest con from the people who gave us Trump University and Trump Vodka will never get off the ground.

Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., waits to do a television interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Susan Walsh / AP
Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., waits to do a television interview on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, March 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

History lesson

Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler (yes, of insider trading fame) is a multi-millionaire investment banker — married to the owner of the New York Stock Exchange — who gave a lot of money to politicians and got appointed to her seat on Capitol Hill. Now, she’s in a special-election dogfight to keep her new job and desperate to prove her right-wing bona fides against a Trumpist candidate on her right flank. That explains her bizarre new TV ad claiming she’s more conservative than Attila the Hun, as the barbarian is portrayed by an actor who barks an order to “eliminate liberal scribes.”

Hilarious, right? When I saw the Loeffler ad on Monday, I couldn’t help but think about the late Ralph McGill, who was editor of her adopted home state’s Atlanta Constitution from 1945 until his death in 1969. McGill wasn’t a flaming liberal, but he was a voice of reason in the Deep South when segregation, which he opposed, was still seen by whites as “our way of life.” For holding temperate views on civil rights for Black Southerners, white people frequently threatened to, well, eliminate this particular scribe. They burned crosses on his front lawn, and fired shots into his home.

In 1958, when political rhetoric was at a fever pitch, McGill learned of a bombing at Atlanta’s largest synagogue and went into his office to write an editorial. The anti-Semitic attack, he wrote, “is a harvest. It is the crop of things sown. It is not possible to preach lawlessness and restrict it…McGill added, “let it be understood that when leadership in high places in any degree fails to support constituted authority, it opens the gates to all those who wish to take law into their hands…'” He won a Pulitzer Prize for that editorial, then later won the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his moderation arguably played a role in helping Atlanta become the leading metropolis of the South — a place where reckless, ignorant ingrates like Kelly Loeffler could make their fortune. As long as demagogues like her can continue, if I may be allowed to borrow McGill’s timeless words, to preach lawlessness, to open the gates to all those who wish to take the law into their hands, the South — and America — will remain haunted by ancient demons. Instead of issuing fatwas against “liberal scribes,” maybe Senator Loeffler should stop and read the one who tried to save the soul of Atlanta.