The corruption of the Trump administration is bad news for the United States—will it also prove to be bad news (politically) for Trump’s Republican Party allies? A number of astute political commentators have recently argued that the answer is yes. Most notably, Jonathan Chait published an article last week making the case that “corruption … is Trump’s greatest political liability,” and that even though Trump himself is not on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections, it would be wise politics for the Democrats to focus on the corruption of the Trump administration in their quest to retake one or both chambers of Congress.
Chait notes, as an initial matter, that despite Trump’s historic unpopularity, Democrats face two interrelated challenges: First, there’s just so much negative news about Trump—from the Russia investigation to his racism and misogyny to the lurid revelations regarding his crude attempts to cover up an affair with an adult film actress—that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. Second, and more importantly, the majority of Trump’s supporters already knew back when they voted for him that he was a crass, crude, adulterous bully and bigot–which means that pointing out his infidelity, his bullying, and his bigotry now isn’t likely to have much impact. (The Russia investigation is another matter, but Chait suggest that it’s too abstract and complex for most voters.) Corruption, according to Chait, is the one story that could move the needle, even with Trump supporters. Chait’s reasoning (presented in a somewhat different order from his original article) runs as follows:
- First the ethical lapses and conflicts of interest in this Administration are so extensive and so blatant that it “should take very little work … for Democratic candidates to stitch all the administration’s misdeeds together into a tale of unchecked greed.”
- Second, American voters tend to care a lot about corruption (defined broadly as using the power of public office to enrich oneself or one’s family). Throughout American history, corruption allegations, even over seemingly small matters, have exploded into major scandals that have forced politicians out of office, or at least badly damaged their prospects.
- Third, Chait argues that Trump’s voters were willing to overlook his many other character flaws because they thought he was offering them “a business deal: If [Trump] became president, he would work to make them rich.” Trump is therefore vulnerable, Chait reasons, if Democrats can “demonstrate that Trump is failing to uphold his end of the deal”—showing that he’s working to enrich himself, not his supporters. Furthermore, during the campaign Trump also tapped into voters’ disgust with the excessive influence of the wealthy and well-connected, promising to “drain the swamp” by curbing the influence of lobbyists and special interests. Chait believes that by highlighting this aspect of how Trump’s behavior in office differs from what he promised—and weaving it into a narrative of corruption—Democrats can make their best case for retaking Congress this November.
Chait’s analysis has a lot to be said in its favor; others have echoed his thesis, or at least suggested that corruption ought to be one of the Democrat’s main campaign themes this election cycle. And I confess I’m predisposed to be sympathetic to Chait’s argument—there’s a tendency, to which I’m not immune, to believe that whatever topic one focuses on in one’s own work is the most important topic to others, and the one that everyone should be talking about. But let me sound a note of caution by offering a few reasons to think carefully about the reasoning that Chait and others have offered for the claim that corruption is a winning issue—perhaps the winning issue—for Democrats this November. I’ll approach this by taking each of the three arguments on which Chait builds his case, as sketched above, in turn.
Argument #1, that the Trump administration is one of the most blatantly unethical in modern American history, seems right to me. One could quibble with this example or that example, but overall, I think you’d have to be willfully ignorant or a hyper-partisan Republican to think otherwise. (And even hyper-partisan Republicans must be aware that, rightly or wrongly, it would not be at all difficult to formulate a persuasive narrative of a corrupt and conflict-ridden administration.) It’s worth noting here that according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer poll last year, Americans thought that corruption in the US federal government, and the White House in particular, was substantially worse in 2017 than it was in 2016.
Argument #2 is a bit trickier. Chait is not wrong here, but the story of the political impact of corruption is a bit more complicated than he lets on. Yes, it’s true that in poll after poll, Americans list government corruption as one of the issues they care most about. And yes, it’s true that we can find numerous examples of corruption scandals (or in some cases just allegations) that have done serious political damage to the individual parties implicated. But the funny thing about corruption, as a political issue, is that it’s hard to predict how damaging corruption allegations will be, and when. Sometimes (but not always), citizens’ actual voting behavior suggests that they don’t care as much about corruption as they say they do on polls. Chait offers as one of his historical examples the Credit Mobilier scandal, but while that scandal did indeed cause public outrage, it didn’t stop one of the then-Representatives whom the government found had been involved, James Garfield, from subsequently being elected President. Huey Long’s political career in Louisiana thrived despite his brand of corrupt machine politics. Closer to our own time, Ronald Reagan remained reasonably popular despite a scandal-plagued administration, and Andrew Cuomo keeps getting re-elected Governor of New York despite a suspiciously large number of aids and associates implicated in serious misconduct. My point is not that corruption doesn’t matter—it usually does, at least to some extent. It’s just that the extent to which it matters seems hard to predict, and we should be careful about inferring from a few examples that credible corruption allegations are always, or even usually, politically devastating to those accused. Certainly if one looks around the world, it’s not hard to find example after example of politicians suspected of being corrupt who nonetheless remain popular enough to win elections handily (though sometimes their misdeeds eventually catch up with them).
This complication of argument #2 leads into my more serious misgivings about Chait’s argument #3: the claim that Trump (and, by extension, the Republican Party) is uniquely vulnerable to a focus on the administration’s corruption, because it’s the one major area where Trump’s voters didn’t realize what they were getting into, and where the Trump they got diverges wildly from the Trump they expected and were promised. This strikes me as the weakest part of Chait’s argument, and the part that Democratic strategists intrigued by Chait’s analysis ought to scrutinize most closely before deciding how to frame their rhetoric and allocate their resources. I agree that some Trump voters might be turned off by the constant drumbeat of news about the administration’s ethics problems, just as there are probably some Trump supporters who have been alienated by his claim that there were “some very fine people” among the neo-Nazis who rallied in Charlottesville last year. But I’m not so sure that Trump’s campaign posture—his promises that if elected he’d be “greedy for America” rather than for himself, and that he’d “drain the swamp”—make Republican congressional candidates uniquely vulnerable to attacks that focus on Trump’s corruption, as opposed to other issues. There are a few reasons for this:
- First, an unstated premise of Chait’s piece is that the Democrats should focus on attacking Trump, seeking to use his unpopularity to drag down their Republican opponents. That may well be—Trump’s unpopularity is almost certainly hurting the Republican brand and contributing to the significant swing toward the Democrats most of the recent special elections and in most nationwide polls. But as others have pointed out, it’s not at all obvious that it’s good politics for Democrats to make an anti-Trump message the centerpiece of their campaigns, as opposed to, say, letting Trump’s unpopularity linger in the background and focusing instead on the unpopularity of the Republican Congress and specific policy issues, like the Republican tax reform plan or the unsuccessful effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
- Second, on the claim that Trump’s “drain the swamp” campaign rhetoric makes him unusually vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy—because his own voters might abandon him—here I remain unpersuaded (as I was shortly after the election itself) that the bulk of Trump’s supporters ever cared that much about lobbying or campaign finance reform, or even understood “corruption” the way others use that term. That rhetoric, I conjecture, was always about appealing to an anti-elite impulse, and an anti-Hillary Clinton impulse, not about policy, or about Trump’s personal conduct.
- And this connects to another questionable piece of Chait’s argument: He recognizes that any argument about how this or that issue will hurt Trump faces the difficulty that so much was known about Trump before he was elected that more news about his bad character aren’t exactly revelations. Since the inauguration, we’ve learned he’s sexist and racist—but we knew that before. We’ve learned he’s a braggart and a bully—but we knew that before. We’ve learned he’s a serial adulterer—but we knew that before. We’ve learned that he’s greedy and dishonest—but we knew that before, too. Chait wants to suggest that this last aspect of Trump’s character—the greed and dishonesty—still holds the potential to shock and alienate a substantial number of Trump’s voters, because Trump had promised them that if elected he’d change his ways, becoming greedy for his country rather than for himself. But Trump promised a lot of other things too. Why was this promise more credible to his voters than his other promises?
- Finally, and also on this point, there’s a bit of slippage in Chait’s argument, which may seem small but which can sometimes be politically important. Recall that Chait’s main rationale for why Trump’s voters would be incensed by his corruption is that, although his voters “harbored few illusions” about Trump’s character, they thought that if he were elected they would prosper materially, and Trump’s corruption shows that Trump is reneging on this implicit deal. I agree that there are likely many voters who thought that they would be materially better off under Trump, though I think Chait may be underestimating the extent to which for many voters certain of Trump’s character flaws (the racism, the sexism, the crudeness) were considered features rather than bugs. I also think Chait is assuming too quickly that the “deal” those Republican voters who detested Trump as a person thought they were getting was mainly about material benefits—it seems to me that the policy benefits most Trump apologists are apt to point to these days are culture-war items or judicial appointments. (Trump’s wealthiest supporters of course got a big material benefit in the form of a tax cut, but I don’t think those are the voters Chait has in mind.) But let’s temporarily put all of those difficulties to the side, and supposed that it really is the case that the bulk of Trump’s voters thought to themselves, “Well, he’s crude and boorish and unprincipled and sexist and racist, but at least if I vote for him my material circumstances will improve.” Even so, it’s not obvious why the accumulation of Trump administration ethics scandals would be necessary or sufficient to convince these voters that Trump had reneged on the deal.
- Corruption wouln’t be necessary for such voters to feel betrayed because, if enough voters think that Trump hasn’t come through for them—if they’re feelings of economic anxiety haven’t waned, and if the country seems to be doing worse overall—then presumably they’d be primed to abandon Trump even if his administration weren’t a cesspit of petty self-dealing.
- Corruption wouldn’t be sufficient to convince Trump voters of the sort Chait imagines to abandon Trump, because if these voters did feel that Trump was coming through for them on his economic promises, they might well forgive his self-dealing and profiteering, for the same reason they forgive his racism and his infidelity. The Brazilians have a saying, “He steals, but he gets things done” (rouba mas faz). If Chait is right about the implicit deal that Trump voters thought they were striking, they might say the same thing. It’s not Trump’s corruption that would lead them to think he’d breached the deal—it’s the failure to deliver on his economic promises.
Those considerations suggest that focusing monomaniacally on the corruption of Trump’s administration, at the expense of talking about policy issues like taxes and health care, might be a mistake. Of course, these themes aren’t mutually exclusive, and indeed can be quite complementary: “He hasn’t delivered for you, he only cares about delivering for himself.” And Chait is absolutely right that corruption allegations can often be politically damaging, and sometimes devastating. But I do think that we should be careful before leaping to the conclusion that our own revulsion at the rampant corruption in Trump’s administration will turn off voters generally, and Republican voters particularly, in the 2018 midterms. Chait has offered a succinct, lucid, and in some ways persuasive case for corruption as a winning political issue for the Democrats. But that case ought to be subjected to careful scrutiny—perhaps especially by people like me (and perhaps many GAB readers) who might be professionally or dispositionally inclined to believe it.