When Covid began to ravage the US, Donald Trump lied through his teeth but Nancy Pelosi flaunted her assets. Trump repeatedly claimed the virus “would go away”. More than a million deaths followed. Pelosi, then House speaker, treated us to watching her eat $13-a-pint ice cream out of fridges that cost $24,000. Let them eat artisanal desserts?
Related: Filthy Rich Politicians: journalist Matt K Lewis on Trump, ethics and money in Washington
Forbes pegs Trump’s wealth at $2.5bn. Based on public filings, according to Matt Lewis in his new book, Filthy Rich Politicians, Pelosi and her husband’s net holdings are estimated to be north of $46m. In 2014, Trump lied when he said his tax returns would be forthcoming if and when he ran for office. In 2022, Pelosi successfully fought an attempt to ban members of Congress from trading stock. She, it was widely noted, does not trade stocks. But her husband does. Practically speaking, that is tantamount to a distinction with little difference.
Despite it all, when Trump tore into Washington corruption, promising to “drain the swamp”, his message resonated. A congenital grifter, he knew what he was talking about.
“Right now, your average member of the House is something like 12 times richer than the average American household,” Matt Lewis says. “And that, I believe, is contributing to the sense that the game is rigged.” More than half the members of Congress are millionaires.
Lewis is a senior columnist at the Daily Beast and a former contributor to the Guardian. With his new book, he performs a valued public service, shining a searing light on the gap between the elites of both parties and the citizenry in whose name they claim to govern. Subtitled “The Swamp Creatures, Latte Liberals, and Ruling-Class Elites Cashing in on America”, Lewis’s book is breezy and readable. Better yet, it strafes them all. The Bidens and Clintons, the Trumps and Kushners, right and left – all get savaged.
Looking right, Lewis mocks Steve Bannon and Ted Cruz for their faux populism, which he views as self-serving and destructive.
“The very elites who seek to rule us also rile up the public to hate their fellow elites,” Lewis bitingly observes. “Although he claims to be a ‘Leninist’, Bannon is also ‘an alumnus of Harvard Business School, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Goldman Sachs, Hollywood.’”
As for Cruz, he graduated from Princeton and Harvard Law. The husband of a Goldman Sachs managing director, he helped pave the way for making loans by a candidate to their own campaign a money-making proposition. In a 2022 decision, in a case between Cruz and the Federal Elections Commission, the US supreme court ruled that a $250,000 loan repayment limit violated the first amendment and Cruz’s free speech rights. In plain English: a deep-pocketed incumbent can now tack on a double-digit interest rate to a campaign loan, win re-election, then essentially collect a handsome side bet. As Lewis notes, Cruz was already no stranger to ethical flimflam.
Lewis also graphically lays out how swank vacation sites are de rigueur destinations for campaign fundraisers and political retreats – being in Congress is now a portal to spas, tennis and haute cuisine – and how book writing has emerged as the vehicle of choice for members of Congress to evade honoraria restrictions.
Lewis quotes Marco Rubio telling Fox News: “The day I got elected to the Senate I had over $100,000 still in student loans that I was able to pay off because I wrote a book.” In 2013, Rubio received an $800,000 advance. A decade later, he branded Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan “unfair”.
This, remember, is the same Florida man who once exclaimed: “It’s amazing … I can call up a lobbyist at four in the morning and he’ll meet me anywhere with a bag of $40,000 in cash.” Like many in government, Rubio blurs the line between the personal and the public.
Lewis also tags Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, a member of the progressive “Squad” in the House, for cronyism amid the throes of Covid. At the time, she proposed legislation that would have canceled rent and mortgage payments while establishing a “fund to repay landlords for missed rent”. The bill went nowhere but as luck would have it, Squad members Ayana Pressley (Massachusetts) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) took in rental income as Covid blighted the land. In 2021, Pressley’s rental income surged by “up to $117,500”.
As for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, perhaps the most visible Squad member, Lewis raps her for appearing at the 2021 Met gala wearing a backless gown emblazoned with the words “Tax the Rich”. AOC’s Devil Wears Prada moment, Lewis says, “underscores how far-removed today’s Democrats are from being the party of the working class”.
It was not something Eleanor Roosevelt would have done.
“Such stunts feed the sense that our public servants are indulging in hypocrisy and taking advantage of the system,” Lewis writes.
Elsewhere, Lewis describes Greg Gianforte “allegedly body-slamming” Ben Jacobs, then of the Guardian, during a House campaign in Montana in 2018. Here, Lewis goes easy on Gianforte, who is now governor. Gianforte pleaded guilty, a fact Lewis acknowledges. With that plea, the Republican’s lack of self-control went beyond the realm of “alleged” and into established fact.
Filthy Rich Politicians closes with a series of proposals to boost confidence in the system. Lewis calls for a ban on stock trading by members of Congress and their families, heightened transparency and increased congressional pay. The prospects for his proposals appear uncertain.
Last week, Josh Hawley of Missouri – for whom, like Cruz and many other Republicans, Lewis’s wife has worked – and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York introduced the Ban Stock Trading for Government Officials Act. The public overwhelmingly supports the substance of the legislation. Whether Congress steps up remains to be seen.
“Let me tell you about the very rich,” F Scott Fitzgerald once wrote. “They are different from you and me.”