Imagine for a moment that it’s January 2009. Bernie Madoff, America’s poster-child fraudster, has yet to be caught. The 2007–08 financial crisis never happened. The markets didn’t tank to reveal the emptiness beneath his schemes. We still don’t know what’s lurking in his tax returns, because he’s never released them, but we know that he’s a billionaire, at least on paper. We also know, of course, that he just won the presidency by featuring the slogan—on hats, T-shirts, everywhere—“Make America Rich Again!” On a frosty morning in late January, before his colleagues, his country, God, and the world, Madoff takes the oath of office. He swears on a Bible to uphold the constitution.
The next day, everything comes crashing down. The banks. The markets. His fortune.
Madoff is a businessman, not a politician. He’s run and won as an anti-establishment maverick. Now he’s faced with a choice: save the United States or his own posterior. During the campaign, he promised that he could separate the two, that his kids could run his empire, while he did the people’s business. But no one wants to talk to his progeny. They want him. They want the man in the suit who owes them money.
Okay, so that never happened, though over two decades Madoff did build a $65 billion Ponzi scheme. In December 2008, he became the most vilified man in America—at the very moment when Washington and Wall Street needed a distraction from the crippling financial crisis. He’s now serving a 150-year sentence for multiple felonies.
Of course, Donald Trump is not Bernie Madoff, who was 70 when he took up residence in the Big House. Trump at 70 is eyeing the White House. Other glaring differences separate them, though certain overriding similarities can’t be ignored. Let’s look at those differences first.
Trump vs. Madoff, The Scorecard
- Trump is much richer than Madoff ever was, though we have no idea by how much. Forbes puts his wealth at $3.7 billion. Trump says it’s $10 billion. (Compared to just under a billion for Madoff.)
- Madoff took advantage of individuals. Trump extracted tax breaks from entire cities.
- Madoff broke the law and got caught. He’s in jail. As a felon, he can’t even vote in this election. Trump may have broken the law, and has bragged about paying people off, but now deflects everything and is running for president.
- Trump forced poor people from their homes and onto the street. Madoff ripped off customers who were predominantly financially well-off to begin with.
- In 2007, while Madoff was enjoying himself at Mar-a-Lago Country Club, Trump’s premier Palm Beach hotel, The Donald racked up $120,000 in unpaid fines to that city. In exchange for a$100,000 donation to a veterans’ charity, the city agreed to forget about it. That check came from the Donald J. Trump charitable foundation (that is, from other people’s donated money), not from The Donald himself. This seems to have been typical. According to The Washington Post, more than a quarter of a million dollars from his charity went toward solving his own business woes, a violation of “self-dealing” laws. Madoff actually did donate money to charity. Okay, technically, it wasn’t his money either, but at least he had the decency to pretend it came from his own pocket.
- Madoff never ran for president.
Moving In on Pennsylvania Avenue
If those are the differences, think about the similarities. Both men manipulated people over decades, were less than forthcoming about the numbers behind their methods, and had long-term plans for their own success at the expense of others. But where Madoff merely scammed his generally well-off clients, Donald Trump, if elected, could possibly scam us all.