Frida Ghitis is a columnist for World Politics Review and a regular CNN.com opinion contributor.
Last week, an unprecedented drama unfolded in Madrid. For the first time since Spain became a democracy, a prime minister was thrown out when he lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. Mariano Rajoy’s fall may be a first for modern Spain, but when parliament pushed him out because of a corruption scandal, his country became part of a revolt against graft that has been sweeping across the globe. Toppling presidents and prime ministers from South Korea to South America, this wave of protest is a warning to leaders accused of abusing power anywhere, including the United States.
The rising wave of successful anti-corruption movements should lift the spirits of Americans appalled by an administration rife with conflicts of interest and an atmosphere of shame-free impunity. It should give pause to President Trump, who has just announced his belief that he has the power to pardon himself if any of the dizzying number of scandals engulfing him and his administration results in his indictment and/or conviction.
Every country is different, and each situation has its own unique forces at play. But the push against profiteering in government has been gaining strength in recent years, propelled by the aftereffects of the global economic crisis, relentlessly growing inequality and improved communications and access to information.
Each case offers a stunning story of once-swaggering individuals – each one for a time their country’s most powerful person – crashing from the heights of influence to the depths of ignominy. A couple of months ago, the president of Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned from office rather than face indictment over corruption accusations. His predecessor, Ollanta Humala, and his wife were released from jail while prosecutors investigate their case.
The number of corruption cases in Latin America boggles the mind. Where malfeasance was commonplace, now once-powerful politicians and their accomplices are streaming through the courts and into jail. Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was also forced to step down when giant crowds took to the streets to demand the Guatemalan Congress lift his immunity. He is now in prison. So has Alvaro Colom, another former Guatemalan president convicted of illegally profiting from his position. The wildly popular former Brazilian President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva is serving time for corruption, as are dozens of other Brazilians caught in what may be history’s biggest corruption scandal, known as the “Car Wash” affair. And that’s just a partial list for Latin America.
Elsewhere, former South Korean president Park Geun-hye has traded the presidential palace for a jail cell after being found guilty of abuse of power and extortion, among other charges.
Last month, Malaysians delivered a shocking verdict in a parliamentary election whose outcome seemed preordained. The same party had controlled the country since independence in 1957. Gerrymandering and other tricks had all but ensured that the curiously super-rich Prime Minister Najib Razak would keep his job. But in a stunning upset, voters tossed him out. Now prosecutors can get to work on finding out how the now-former prime minister’s bank account suddenly contained some $700 million. Najib has been barred from leaving the country.
The Malaysia story offers one useful lesson for Trump, who retains strong support from Republicans. Popular support for Najib held relatively firm while the economy grew. But when economic growth began to lag, the public lost patience and his approval ratings plummeted. Many voters may be willing to look the other way during the good times, but tolerance vanishes when times turn tough.
The tsunami of indignation over malfeasance may yet reach U.S. shores. Americans noticed when the government of China granted Ivanka Trump several new trademarks for the businesses she has kept even while serving as a top adviser in her father’s administration. The Chinese did this around the same time the president promised to save ZTE, a Chinese company with a history of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea.
Governments everywhere know just how to ingratiate themselves with the president of the United States. They can help him become richer by booking rooms in his hotels and resorts. If U.S. policy benefits them afterward, surely it’s just a coincidence.
Americans are watching developments in the Russia investigation and seeing Trump try to derail the potentially presidency-ending case of obstruction of justice. And they saw through Trump’s attacks on Amazon, an effort to punish Jeffrey P. Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive and also the owner of this newspaper.
Then there are the concentric circles around the president. There’s Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen, a grifter who brazenly profited from his proximity to the president, and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, whose track record of exploiting his public service for personal gain continues in the Trump administration, prompting about a dozen investigations into his practice of receiving goodies from the industries he regulates. It is baffling how and why he remains in office.
In the manner of a tyrant, Trump now claims he is above the law. But other leaders who thought they could get away with making their own rules are getting washed away. The U.S. president will not remain immune forever.