How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront?

By this I mean to ask: To what extent should anticorruption advocates be looking for opportunities to work with the administration, however distasteful it may be in many respects, in order to defend important features of existing U.S. anticorruption policy (or, more optimistically, even make some progress on issues where anticorruption activists can find common ground with the administration and/or Congress)? Or should anticorruption advocates assume a much more confrontational posture, concentrating their energies on identifying, publicizing, and denouncing the Administration’s ethical and policy shortcomings?

Let me acknowledge right away that the “engage or confront” framing is an oversimplification. This is not an either/or choice: Different individuals and organizations can pursue different approaches, and the same individual or organization can pursue different approaches at different times or on different issues. Even framing it as a binary choice is potentially misleading—some advocacy approaches blend an element of confrontation with an offer of engagement, and may use the threat of the former to encourage acceptance of the latter. Nonetheless, while the engage-confront dichotomy may be an oversimplification, I do think it captures a basic dilemma that many U.S. anticorruption advocates (and many, many others) are currently struggling with. So let me lay out what I see as the best cases for the “engage” strategy and for the “confront” strategy, even while acknowledging that it’s not really a binary choice.

The Case for Engagement

One of Rick’s posts from a couple weeks after the election laid out important elements of the case for emphasizing engagement with the Administration, rather than a focus on denunciation of its ethical shortcomings. While I’m more skeptical, and more partial to a confrontational approach, let me try to extend and expand on Rick’s argument, laying out what I see as the best case for the anticorruption community to take a less confrontational, more engagement-oriented approach to the Trump Administration.

The bedrock of this case is the simple fact that Donald Trump is the President of the United States, and likely will be for the next four years. His administration will have a huge impact on a range of domestic and foreign policy issues that the anticorruption community cares about, including FCPA enforcement, domestic enforcement of anti-bribery laws, corporate and financial transparency, anti-money laundering (AML), U.S. foreign aid policy, and much more. Engagement advocates emphasize that while denouncing the administration as a wretched hive of scum and villainy may make those of us disgusted by Trump feel good, it won’t have a positive effect on any of the policy issues we care about—not only with respect to anticorruption issues specifically, but a whole range of broader policy issues. This, I take it, is Rick’s main argument, which I’ll simply quote here:

Attacking Trump on conflict of interest grounds surely makes the anti-Trump crew feel good…. [But] implying again and again that Trump’s character is so weak that greed will make him incapable of separating his financial interests from the national interest will [not] push him to reconsider deporting illegal immigrants, cozying up to Putin, or pursuing any of the other policies the conflict of interest attackers find so objectionable. Indeed, repeatedly suggesting he is a lying, greedy SOB would seem likely to drive him into the arms of those rooting for implementation of all the terribles promised during the campaign.

To this, I’d add a somewhat different argument, which I frankly find more plausible than Rick’s claim that laying off attacking Trump’s ethics will make it more likely that Trump himself will reconsider the worst aspects of his platform. Many of the issues that the anticorruption community cares a lot about (FCPA, AML, aid policy, etc.) may well be low-salience for Trump and his cabinet, meaning that lower-level officials (deputies, assistant secretaries, section heads, and the like) may have a significant influence over these decisions. Many of the people who will take these positions might not have very much government experience, and lack strong pre-existing views on those issues. Anticorruption advocacy groups might be able to play a useful role in “educating” these lower-level officials; if the advocates are skillful and diplomatic, they can sell robust anticorruption policy as consistent with the priorities of a Trump Administration. After all, many aspects of anticorruption policy over the last several decades have been notably bipartisan, and in some cases it might be possible to highlight how certain aspects of anticorruption policy may be consistent with other aspects of Trump’s agenda—for example, corruption in border security may facilitate illegal immigration, and relaxation of financial transparency and AML rules may make it harder to pursue terrorists. Moreover, even if Trump himself was not serious about “draining the swamp,” many of his lower-level appointees, like many of his voters, may believe that he was, and may take seriously arguments about the importance of fighting systemic corruption at home and abroad. Therefore, a confrontational strategy that denounces the Trump Administration as rotten root to branch may be counterproductive, because groups that are seen as overly hostile are unlikely to get a metaphorical (or in some cases literal) seat at the table, and will have less ability to educate and persuade the administration officials responsible for policy.

The Case for Confrontation

I’ve tried to lay out the most plausible case for an engagement-oriented strategy, and I recognize that there’s a great deal to be said for this approach. But, while I acknowledge that I may still be too emotional about all this to think clearly, I have to say my inclinations and sympathies are in the direction of a more confrontational strategy. Here’s why:

Engagement advocates point out that however much they dislike Trump, we should be thinking about how to achieve the best possible results over the next four years. Fair enough. But Trump is such a threat to traditional American political norms, including anticorruption norms, that we should be more worried about the next 40 years than about the next four. I’m hardly the first one to warn against the perils of “normalizing” Trump’s approach to governance—that’s become standard rhetoric, perhaps cliché—but it bears repeating. The bulwarks that we have against not only crony capitalism, but out-and-out kleptocracy, are not only our laws and formal institutions. Indeed, Trump has already demonstrated the insufficiency of those parchment barriers to protect us from a would-be kleptocrat: As Rick correctly pointed out, the statutory conflict-of-interest laws don’t apply to the President—with good reason—and the alleged constitutional limitations, such as the Foreign Emoluments Clause, have no viable remedy other than impeachment, meaning that for the moment they have no viable remedy at all. Much of our protection against systemic high-level corruption comes from informal norms, enforced by public opinion. Trump has already demonstrated his contempt for many of these traditional norms. He’s done plenty of things that presidents, and presidential candidates, have traditionally not done because they believed that there would be significant political costs. Yet Trump triumphed nonetheless. These informal norms are only sustainable if enough people are willing to bear short-term costs—including a loss of influence, and perhaps therefore somewhat less desirable policy outcomes—in order to reinforce the norm. If, as seems likely, Trump decides to run the U.S. federal government as a machine for generating income for Trump, along with his family, his cronies, and their families, and he doesn’t pay a substantial political price for this, the long-term damage to American political institutions may be incalculable. After all, much as Trump may seem unique, his playbook could easily be replicated, if perhaps in a somewhat milder or more sophisticated (and therefore more insidious) form.

Advocates of a more confrontational strategy might also suggest that those who favor an engagement strategy are simply naïve about not only Trump, but his whole administration. Cronyism, corruption, and conflict of interest are not incidental or accidental to the Trump Administration—they are its raison d’être. Although it’s become something of a banal cliché to say of the Administration, “Nobody really knows what’s going to happen, we’ll have to wait and see,” in fact we know quite a bit about Trump—from his personal and business history, from the campaign, and from everything that’s happened since the election. He does not and will not ever share the anticorruption community’s agenda, and the most important issue that community now faces is not so much U.S. anticorruption policy over the next four years, but the systemic corruption of the U.S. federal government itself. Moreover, if the response of the U.S. anticorruption community to systemic corruption and cronyism at the highest levels of the U.S. government is to soft-pedal their criticisms for the sake of lobbying for things like more aggressive FCPA enforcement, stronger AML rules, or lobbying reform, then not only will the anticorruption community have sacrificed the ability to use what modest influence it may have to impose political costs on Trump, but in the process that community (and the individuals and groups that comprise it) may sacrifice a great deal of their credibility with the broader international anticorruption community, and with the general public.

In addition, though denunciations of Trump for his greed and unethical behavior will not be in short supply no matter what the anticorruption community does, members of that community may be especially well-positioned to call attention to the parallels between the Trump Administration and populist kleptocracies elsewhere, to keep the spotlight on this issue, to highlight the dangers (especially those that might not be as immediately obvious), and to draw on the accumulated experience of the international anticorruption community in finding ways to resist.

Now, as I said above, the engage-vs.-confront dichotomy is an oversimplification. No one individual or group has to make an either/or choice, and for the anticorruption community writ large—large, diverse, and uncoordinated as it is—even thinking about this in terms of a choice is a bit beside the point, as a mix of approaches is inevitable. Nonetheless, in the coming weeks, months, and years, the U.S. anticorruption community will be under considerable pressure to assume a new and unfamiliar role, and part of every individual and group’s decision-making regarding how to respond to this challenge will likely involve working out the appropriate ratio of engagement to confrontation. Here at GAB, Rick has offered a thoughtful and reasonable articulation and defense of a more engagement-oriented response. I hope he continues to do so. I, on the other hand, plan to be more confrontational, and urge others in the anticorruption community to do likewise.

4 thoughts on “How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

  1. Thank you for this post! It is heartening to see your engagement and courage to speak up against corruption in the US and the issues with the new administration.
    I also believe that the sensible way forward is a mixture of engagement and resistance. Engagement means to me to build bridges to more like-minded people “on the other side” who are equally appalled by kleptocratic elements in the US government, who are equally distressed by the loss of fair values and the strive for a common good. It is these people who can help broaden the civil resistance by helping to shine light on graft, conflicts of interests etc.. It is these people who can help educate those who we have failed to reach, who are skeptical of “the elites” and “the media”! Reading the likes of Breitbart including the comments on these sites exemplifies the deep rift (almost an abyss) between the president’s perspective and the more liberals’ perspective.

  2. I read somewhere that it is American way of treating corruption: If you cannot do away with corruption legalize it. Could this be an option?

  3. Pingback: Good News in the Anticorruption War | Anti Corruption Digest

  4. Pingback: Good News in the Anticorruption War | |

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