Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

OK, I know I said in last week’s post that I would eventually get back to blogging about topics other than Trump, but not yet. After all, Trump’s election—a political and moral crisis on so many dimensions—poses distinctive challenges for the anticorruption community, in at least two different (though related) respects. The first concerns the consequences of a Trump Administration for US anticorruption efforts, both at home and abroad, a topic I’ve already blogged about (see here and here). The second issue concerns the role that anticorruption sentiments and rhetoric played in Trump’s victory. After all, Trump positioned himself (ironically, outrageously) as an anticorruption candidate, denouncing Secretary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

It’s no surprise that the mainstream anticorruption community are perturbed, to put it mildly, by the effective deployment of anticorruption rhetoric by a racist xenophobic ultra-nationalist bully. While this is hardly a new phenomenon—see, for example, Katie King’s post on Hungary last year—the Trump victory has forced the anticorruption community to confront it head on. Indeed, at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama a couple of weeks back, the appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric by right-wing populists—especially though not exclusively Trump—was a constant subject of hallway conversation, even if relatively little of the IACC’s formal program dealt directly with this issue. (In fairness, many of the IACC speakers did find a way to raise some of these concerns in their presentations, and the organizers also managed to add a last-minute session, in which I was able to participate, discussing this topic.) What are we to make of this? What lessons should the anticorruption community—as well as others aghast at the success of Trump and other right-wing demagogues—take away from Trump’s successful appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t, and won’t pretend to. But I do think it would be helpful to lay out what I view as the three main competing hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis #1: The failure of mainstream politicians and activists to acknowledge and confront the systemic corruption of the U.S. political system fueled a sense of frustration and disillusionment that Trump was able to exploit. This hypothesis was nicely articulated by Sarah Chayes and my colleague Larry Lessig at one of the IACC plenary sessions, though many others have made a similar point. While there are many versions of this hypothesis, the basic idea is that for decades the US political system has been mired in a form of systemic “corruption”—not in the usual sense of illegal bribe-taking or embezzlement (though that happens occasionally, it seems extremely rare at the federal level), but rather in a broader sense that well-resourced special interests and their lobbyists are able to “buy” favorable policy (or, perhaps more often, block policy reforms) through their role in providing funds for political campaigns. This corrupt system, the argument continues, has fostered in the citizenry a widespread sense of frustration, powerlessness, and resentment. The failure of mainstream politicians (especially mainstream Democrats) to use the rhetoric of “corruption” to describe this system, and their failure to vigorously push for more systemic structural reforms (not just half-measures) created an environment in which a demagogue like Trump could tap into that frustration, characterize Hillary Clinton (and the Democrats and mainstream Republicans) as hopelessly enmeshed in that corrupt system, and promise to blow the whole thing up. On this view, the critical errors that mainstream politicians and civil society organizations made, in the years leading up to the Trump debacle, were both rhetorical and substantive: the rhetorical error was the reluctance to describe the US political system as “systemically corrupt,” and the substantive error was the failure to take appropriate—and appropriately radical—steps to combat this systemic corruption.
  • Hypothesis #2: Years of exaggerated rhetoric, deployed by activists and reformist politicians, portraying the U.S. political system as systemically corrupt, “rigged,” and broken beyond repair contributed to the sense of frustration and disillusionment that Trump was able to exploit. On this alternative view, the big mistake was not the failure of activists and mainstream politicians to characterize the US political system as systemically corrupt; in fact, the mistake was precisely the opposite. For decades, according to this alternative view, politicians and activists dissatisfied with the US political system have denounced the system as “rigged,” dominated by special interests and lobbyists, controlled by well-connected elites, etc. Indeed, the rhetoric of “systemic corruption” has been deployed quite a bit, especially within the last decade, by those who want substantial reforms in the US campaign finance system and lobbying rules (see here, here, here, here, and here). While many of the problems they identify may be real—well-financed interest groups likely do have too much influence over policy—and many of the solutions they propose may be desirable, the decision to turn the rhetorical volume up to 11 (“your vote doesn’t matter,” “the big money interests have all the politicians in their pocket,” “we’re never going to make any progress on any important issue until we fix the root cause of the corruption in Washington,” “our government is broken,” etc.) actually exacerbated the problem. This rhetorical strategy helped lay the groundwork for a situation in which an unqualified loose cannon like Trump, who promised to blow the whole system up, could get an edge over an eminently well-qualified conventional politician like Secretary Clinton. If one thinks that our institutions of government, for all their faults, are basically functional, then someone like Secretary Clinton could make an effective President, maintaining existing policies (like the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Act) and working to improve them at the margins, while also pushing forward on other fronts, like climate change. But if one has been told for years that the system is hopelessly corrupt, then a conventional politician like Hillary Clinton holds little appeal. On this view, the rhetorical mistake that contributed to the Trump victory was not the failure to characterize the US political system as systemically corrupt, but rather the constant characterization of the US politically system as systemically corrupt.
  • Hypothesis #3: Trump’s anticorruption rhetoric actually had little to do with “corruption,” but was in fact a code word or placeholder for a much different set of concerns. On this view, Trump’s success actually had very little to do with public anxiety about “corruption” as conventionally understood, or even understood more broadly as including things like lobbying and campaign finance. Rather, when Trump railed against “crooked Hillary” and promised to “drain the swamp,” he was appealing to a sense among certain groups of voters that they had been betrayed by the elite establishment. More specifically, Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric was part his larger pitch that effete cosmopolitan snobs looked down on “ordinary” (read: white) Americans, and that the frustrations these voters experienced in their daily lives—their failure to realize the “American Dream”—was due neither to external circumstances (like technological change) nor to their personal failures (and certainly not the result of right-wing obstruction of more sensible and equitable economic policy), but rather was the result of a systematic betrayal by domestic elites who had sold out or capitulated to various “outsiders,” like foreign competitors, (non-white) immigrants, “international bankers” (read: Jews). Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, on this view, successfully tapped into what Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as the “paranoid style” in American politics, and had little to do with issues like campaign finance and lobbying. If this third hypothesis is correct, then trying to blunt Trump’s appeal by more vigorously emphasizing (or de-emphasizing) that set of issues is a misguided endeavor, whatever the merits of those initiatives more generally. Rather, the question is how to counter a political movement based on that sort of deep-seated resentment.

I wish I had a better sense of which of these three hypotheses was correct. At this point, I really don’t. In the anticorruption community (at least based on the unscientific sample of the people I met at the IACC), hypothesis #1 currently seems to be the most popular, though at the moment I find #3 to be most plausible, and #2 to be the most troubling. For now, I’ll just lay out these three possibilities and invite more discussion, both about whether there are other possibilities I’ve missed (I’m sure there are), and about which hypotheses others find most persuasive. More to come.

3 thoughts on “Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

  1. Although I certainly think it would be worthwhile, I’m not sure how one would go about testing these hypotheses, or if indeed they are test-able. Hypothesis 2, the idea that exaggerated rhetoric of activists and reformist politicians is to blame, seems unlikely to me, although I would have to go back and look at some of the language that the Tea Party wave used.

    Those who came out in greater numbers than expected to vote for Trump, I think, were more likely influenced by a blend of hypothesis 1 and 3. Regarding the third, the long stagnation in their economic forecasts could be conveniently blamed on a political system designed against them and the people who look like them, rather than basic technological change and globalization.

    It is difficult though, for me to see anticorruption as a truly motivating factor in the way people voted. Unless, of course, the average voter simply has no idea how government works. After all, at the same time that a blow-up-Washington candidate won the White House, there was very limited turnover among the house and senate races. If people think the government is corrupt, then why did they re-elect those corrupt legislators?

  2. “The evidence suggests that campaign finance is a priority only after more important issues have been dealt with. In fact, in poll after poll, campaign finance is near the bottom of the list of
    important issues, trailing behind homelessness. This response is forthcoming even
    when the issue is high on the media and government’s agenda. For example, at the
    height of John McCain’s popularity [in 2000], campaign finance reform languished at the bottom
    of policy priorities.”

    The above is from a 2002 article on why campaign finance reform back then didn’t get much traction. David Prime. Public Opinion and Campaign Finance Reformers Versus Reality, Independent Review, http://www.rochester.edu/college/psc/primo/primoindrev.pdf

    I suspect the author’s point about the low salience of reform, even though people complained then about a rigged system, still holds. Interesting to see if there has been any change in the polling data since. Might shed some light on which of the three hypotheses is true. Or whether there is a fourth that better explains if and how the corruption rhetoric helped Trump.

  3. Pingback: Darkest just before dawn | From guestwriters

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