Monday, April 02, 2018


In a piece titled "Corruption, Not Russia, Is Trump’s Greatest Political Liability," Jonathan Chait argues that Democrats should give their anti-Trump arguments a sharp focus going into the 2018 campaign, particularly focusing on Trump's self-dealing, because it's a betrayal of a campaign promise his voters really believed:
“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” declared Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.” To the extent that Trump’s candidacy offered any positive appeal, as opposed to simple loathing for his opponent, this was it. He was a brilliant businessman, or at least starred in a television show as one, and he would set aside his lifelong pursuit of wealth to selflessly serve the greater good. This was the promise that pried just enough Obama voters away from Hillary Clinton in just enough upper-Midwest states to clinch the Electoral College.

... Trump’s core proposition to the public was a business deal: If he became president, he would work to make them rich.... the shortest path to resolving this crisis is ... to demonstrate that Trump is failing to uphold his end of the deal.
Chait says that "Historically, corruption — specifically, the use of power for personal gain — has played a central and even dominant role in American political discourse," but his examples from the post-World War II era don't bear that out:
Harry Truman was famously scorned in his time, owing to penny-ante scandals, one of which involved an aide’s acceptance of some freezers. Dwight Eisenhower’s chief of staff had to resign after he accepted a vicuña coat; George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, John Sununu, resigned in disgrace after using military aircraft for personal and political trips.
Those scandals are memorable to politics junkies, but not to the average American. Even Chait's next, most recent example, doesn't necessarily make his case:
There is a reason Trump labeled his opponent “Crooked Hillary,” and it stems from a law of American politics Democrats would be wise to remember: To be out for yourself is probably the single most disqualifying flaw a politician can have.
Bernie-or-Busters might have regarded Hillary Clinton as a self-dealer, and there may have been enough of them in key states to give Trump the election, but for the base, "Crooked" referred as much to Benghazi and email-handling practices as it did to corruption. Note that when anti-Clinton anger is allowed to run wild, it ventures into areas that have nothing to do with financial self-enrichment: Pizzagate pedophilia or the notion of the Deep State. Also note that the current belief among many on the right is that Clinton was in league with the Russians to defeat Trump. It's I'm-rubber-you're-glue, but it's not about money.

Chait addresses skeptics:
An easy fatalism about all this corruption has gained wide circulation. It was known about Trump all along and his voters signed up for it anyway, so nothing matters, right? In fact, Trump’s behavior runs directly contrary to his most important promises. “Draining the swamp” was not supposed to mean simply kicking out Democrats and competent public officials. He made speeches promising good-government reforms: a ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and stricter rules on what lobbying meant; campaign-finance reform to prevent foreign companies from raising money for American candidates; a ban on lobbying by former senior government officials on behalf of foreign governments.
All this might have mattered to a few voters outside his base -- but to the base, "draining the swamp" precisely meant kicking out Democrats and other enemies of conservatism. If you lurk at right-wing sites, you can see that it's taken on a meaning that has nothing to do with money -- it's about purging the Deep State or Obama holdovers. Those promises might have given Trump a generalized glow of altruism, but they never got the sustained applause at his rallies that came when he promised to build the wall or jail Clinton for ... whatever (emails, Benghazi, etc., etc.).

Voters say they care about corruption, but there's not much evidence that they vote to try to stop it. In a July 2012 Gallup poll, respondents said reducing corruption in the federal government was the second most important issue for the next president to deal with -- and yet the following November the voters sent nearly all incumbents, including the president, back to Washington. The delightfully named Chapman University Survey of American Fears told us last year that 74.5% of Americans are "afraid" or "very afraid" of "corrupt government officials" -- but that's not very different from Gallup finding that 74% of Americans believed that government corruption was widespread in 2015, and 66% felt the same way in 2009. In a 2017 poll from Transparency International, 44% of respondents said that they believe corruption is pervasive in the White House -- but the number was almost as high (36%) in 2016.

How much does corruption affect voting? Here's a statistic: Senate Robert Menendez has a 17-point lead against his likely GOP challenger, according to a March Quinnipiac poll.

Voters care about corruption, though rarely enough to vote on it. I agree that it should be a significant focus of the Democrats' anti-Trump message. But it's not the magic bullet of messaging.

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