An overtly corrupt elected official with a propensity for pawing women, a legion of fans who habitually excuse his excesses, and a face that can be taken as a symbol of his political tribe—you know who I'm talking about, right? Or maybe you don't. This is politics here, and sociopaths performing to the adoration of the multitudes seem to go with the territory. To be honest, I could be referring to either New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo or former President Donald Trump, two despicable people who represent their respective parties as well as deep rot in this country.
That Cuomo and Trump could be mistaken for one another without some clarification is no surprise; both emerged from the rotten swamp of New York politics and business, which has long had a well-deserved reputation for corruption. It's amusingly summarized in the 1986 film Back to School, in which Rodney Dangerfield's character offers a naive professor a riff on how business is done in the real world.
"First of all, you're gonna have to grease the local politicians for the sudden zoning problems that always come up," Dangerfield starts off, before monologuing along similar lines about paying off the unions, building inspectors, and organized crime.
That's just a fictionalized take on the world in which Trump's father, "Fred Trump, made millions building apartments in Brooklyn and Queens," as described in 2015 by Michael Barone. "It didn't hurt, when it came to land assembly and public subsidies, that he was a key supporter of Brooklyn machine Democrats and a close friend and ally of Abraham Beame, city comptroller in 1964 and later mayor."
Later, Donald himself boasted that he could buy a U.S. senator for $200,000 and established a long history of campaign donations, loans, and payoffs to politicians from whom he sought and received favors. He was blunt about what he expected in return.
"As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do," Trump told The Wall Street Journal in 2015.
Cuomo is a little different—instead of buying politicians, he's a politician who gets bought.
"Joseph Percoco, a former top aide and confidant to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, was convicted…of three felonies after taking more than $300,000 from companies with business before the state," The Journal News reported in 2018. "Percoco, of South Salem, Westchester County, spent more than two decades as one of Cuomo's closest friends and workers, serving as campaign manager for Cuomo's two successful gubernatorial runs and his enforcer as an aide during much of his time in office."
Percoco could be expected to have some tales to tell about the governor, but Cuomo and company continue to quietly funnel money to him to support his family and pay well over $1 million in legal fees.
Even in New York, such behavior draws some attention. Trump testified about his political expenditures and what he expected to receive in return before the State Commission on Government Integrity back in 1988. In 2014, Cuomo shut down a corruption investigation (the Moreland Commission) when it strayed too close to his political allies.
But that's not what seems poised to finally bring down Cuomo. Instead, his Achilles heel may prove to be his penchant for treating women as playthings.
"The investigation found that Governor Cuomo's sexual harassment of multiple women and his and the Executive Chamber's retaliation against a former employee for coming forward with her claims of sexual harassment violated multiple state and federal laws," New York Attorney General Letitia James announced last week.
In this, Cuomo shares his habits with Trump, who has long been dogged by allegations of predatory sexual behavior towards women; last year, ABC News tallied 18 women who "have accused Donald Trump of varying inappropriate behavior, including allegations of sexual harassment or sexual assault." It's not conduct he's shy about, either.
"Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything," Trump infamously boasted in comments caught on camera in 2005 about what he could get away with as a celebrity.
If sexual harassment allegations are what finally torpedo Cuomo, it's a testimony to how reality-resistant political popularity can be. Even after years of corruption scandals and a simmering uproar over his order forcing COVID-19 patients into nursing homes to infect other sick and elderly residents, the governor retained rock-star popularity. Celebrity fans of the politician labeled themselves "Cuomosexuals" and a cautionary piece in the Columbia Journalism Review urged journalists covering the "luv guv" to be more skeptical. The public embraced the cult of personality, with a majority of New York's voters, and three-quarters of Democrats, continuing to support Cuomo as recently as March.
Trump also retains vast popularity with his base despite his glaring flaws, still drawing crowds at rallies around the country. As many as 66 percent of Republicans want him to seek a return to the White House in 2024.
In Cuomo's case, at least, the shine appears to be off the rotten apple. Not only are New York lawmakers finally pursuing impeachment charges against the creature who has long dominated state politics, but voters seem done with him, too.
"Voters in New York think 70—25 percent that Andrew Cuomo should resign as governor," a Quinnipiac poll reported last week, including majority support even among Democrats. Voters also favor impeaching and prosecuting him.
How the mighty Cuomo has fallen, from an unhealthy cult of personality just months ago to a belatedly disillusioned public eager to toss him aside after one scandal too many. It's an overdue shift in attitude toward skepticism and contempt that should be applied to a lot more political figures, including Trump. These aren't just flawed figures; they're corrupt individuals who abuse power and use people around them for amusement and personal enrichment.
But it shouldn't have taken so long for reality to penetrate the public's consciousness. That only now dents are appearing in Cuomo's popular support, and that Trump's position remains secure with such a large part of the population, is evidence not just of these political players' flaws, but of the deep rot that lies at the heart of American political culture.