The President Is Shilling Beans

The President and his daughter Ivanka have been using their social-media accounts to advertise canned beans. On Twitter, she posed with a can of Goya black beans in her right hand, her left hand held as though cradling an imaginary cloud beneath the product. On Instagram, he sat at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, stars, stripes, and gold velvet curtains behind him, and Goya products arrayed in front of him. He held both thumbs up. In between attacking Joe Biden and the Times and touting his success at fighting the MS-13 gang, Trump tweeted, “.@GoyaFoods is doing GREAT. The Radical Left smear machine backfired, people are buying like crazy!” The First Family is fighting back against calls for a boycott of Goya after the company’s C.E.O., Robert Unanue, praised the President during a White House event last week.

“This one’s got everything: the Trump family, using official office to promote a private business, rewarding political allies with business help from the White House,” Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group, tweeted. “So much corruption in one post, and likely a violation of ethics rules.” (According to the Department of Justice, “An employee’s position or title should not be used to coerce; to endorse any product, service or enterprise; or to give the appearance of governmental sanction.”) But corruption may not be the best term to describe this spectacle. The word implies something illicit, hidden from the public; the remedy for “corruption,” in political discourse, is usually “transparency.” The Trumps are, without a doubt, corrupting the Presidency in the sense that they are changing it beyond recognition, but they are doing it in plain view.

On the face of it, the shilling for beans is trolling. Like Trump’s lies, it’s a demonstration of power—he is saying, in effect, No matter how absurd, how blatantly false, how clearly spiteful and meaningless my statement or picture or post might be, you have no choice but to engage with it, because I am the President. Here, he wins every time: we do engage with his latest outrage, because ignoring it is the worse option.

As abuse of power goes, though, advertising Goya is almost negligible: smaller than the Ukraine scandal, or making pandemic aid to states conditional on loyalty and gratitude to the President, or threatening to withhold funding to school districts that do not reopen for in-person instruction. We’ve learned to move past Trump’s use of the Presidency as a protection racket and extortion machine—and we’ll move past Goya, too. But where will that take us?

When I’m at a loss for words to describe our political reality, I look to the work of Bálint Magyar. He is the Hungarian sociologist who has pioneered and systematized a language that political science can use to describe contemporary demagogues and the regimes they create. More than a decade ago, he described the Mafia state, a distinct political system built around a patron who distributes money and power. A year and a half ago, he told me that Trump acts “like a Mafia boss without a Mafia”: he couldn’t turn the United States into a Mafia state, but he was acting as though he could.

Since then, the U.S. has devolved in ways we couldn’t have imagined, and Magyar has continued his research on post-Communist autocracies, which, in turn, continue to offer ways to examine the American Presidency. Magyar’s new book, co-authored with Bálint Madlovics, is “The Anatomy of Post-Communist Regimes: A Conceptual Framework.” It contains, among other insights, a critique of how we usually talk about and measure corruption. Magyar and Madlovics write that the problem with measurements used by, say, Transparency International, which produces an annual index of perceived corruption, is that the index assumes that corruption represents a departure from a norm: “They understand the state by its formal identity: as dominantly an institution of the public good, with some subordinates who deviate from that purpose and abuse their position by requesting or accepting bribes and appointing cronies without a legitimate basis.” This view of corruption fails when confronted with a government to which corruption is central, or in which corruption is not voluntary but coercive—where the corrupt relationship is forced by one partner upon the other. In other words, conventional measures of corruption are not applicable to the U.S. under Trump. Corruption is no longer deviant in this country: it is instead the defining characteristic of this Presidency.

The U.S. is still a long way from meeting Magyar’s definition of a Mafia state. The pattern of relationships created by the Administration, however, points to what Magyar and Madlovics call “top-down state capture,” in which the people in charge instrumentalize the apparatus of the state for their own gain. This kind of state capture leads to a “criminal state pattern,” where corrupt relationships imposed from the top become permanent and unavoidable.

The term “criminal state pattern” is extraordinary even to contemplate at this moment, when, in the wake of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests, our society is questioning established notions of crime, criminality, and their opposite: the police. On the day of Trump’s Instagram post, the Times published a compilation of videos of New York City police attacking protesters, the agents of the state menacing and beating people for exercising their political rights. Such incidents have been documented all over the country, in keeping with the rhetoric and behavior of the head of state. The President and the First Daughter hawking the canned beans of one of their supporters while police attack protesters in the streets and a preventable pandemic rages unchecked through vast swathes of the population is what a criminal state looks like. It’s cruel, ridiculous, disgusting. And the President gives it two thumbs up.

The CEO of Goya Foods heaped praise on President Donald Trump during a White House Rose Garden event to support Hispanic businesses on Thursday.

Black Twitter calls for Goya boycott after CEO praises Trump

Robert Uname said, “We’re all truly blessed at the same time to have a leader like President Trump, who is a builder.” 

He continued, “And that’s what my grandfather did. He came to this country to build, to grow, and to prosper. And we have an incredible builder and we pray, we pray for our leadership, our president and for our country, that we continue to prosper and to grow.”

The hashtag #GOYAWAY instantly started trending on Twitter, as users pointed out that this president has regularly attacked immigrants, particularly Hispanics for his entire presidency. In his first campaign speech for the presidency, he described Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals.”

Former Democratic presidential nominee, Julian Castro said that the company has been a staple of so many Latino households for generations. He said that as their CEO is “praising a president who villainizes and maliciously attacks Latinos for political gain. Americans should think twice before buying their products.” 

Masha Gessen