“State capture” is a form of systemic corruption in which private companies have improper influence on the state: They use their money to “buy” whole parts of the bureaucracy to ensure that laws and regulations fit their needs. It’s an expression the World Bank invented to describe some of the economies in the post-Soviet world.
“Autocratic capture” — a newer phrase invented by Ian Bassin, a lawyer and the director of the activist group Protect Democracy — is something like the opposite. It’s a form of systemic corruption in which politicians have improper influence on private companies. They use government power to put pressure on businessmen and to force them, or their employees, to toe a political line.
The term describes, for example, how countries such as Russia, Turkey, Egypt and Hungary deny licenses or contracts to businessmen who have any contact with opposition politicians, or who fund independent media, or who speak out in any way. In the past year, I’ve watched as Polish businessmen, including some personal friends, have withdrawn from any association with politicians or political life, fearing retribution from an illiberal government that, increasingly, practices autocratic capture, too.
I doubt very much whether President Trump has ever heard the expression autocratic capture, nor do I imagine he cares much about how politics or business operates in Turkey or Poland. But instinctively, it’s the policy he pursues. We saw his first attempt at using political power to undermine business in the spring of 2018, when — angry at this newspaper — he attacked its owner, Jeff Bezos, and threatened to have the Postal Service penalize the company Bezos founded and heads, Amazon. He even issued an executive order designed to do exactly that — thanks to which, at one point, Amazon’s market capitalization plunged.