Americans Think ‘Corruption’ Is Everywhere. Is That Why We Vote for It?
Reported by New York Times
At one of the last rallies of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, I found myself speaking with a pair of middle-aged women who emigrated years ago from the Philippines. We got to talking about Rodrigo Duterte, the belligerent strongman who was elected president there six months earlier, and I asked them if they thought Duterte and Trump would get along. “Oh, my gosh!” the first woman said. “Probably — they are the same!”
Duterte had won in a landslide on his promises to extrajudicially exterminate the nation’s drug dealers and users, a pledge understood by Filipinos as a proxy battle in the country’s long war against endemic corruption. In 2006, Transparency International ranked the Philippines 121st out of the 163 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index (that’s the bad end); a similar ranking the following year by the Hong Kong-based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy rated it the most corruptnation in Asia.
“I came from the Philippines, right?” the second woman said. “When corruption sets in, it doesn’t stop at the top. It goes down. Every appointee will be somebody that is corrupt or can be corrupted, can be silenced. Look at now. If you have a corrupt judicial system — I think the only thing that’s standing now in America that isn’t so very corrupted is the military.”
“And you think Trump can stop that?” I asked.
“I will take him,” she replied. “Because I know what Hillary did already.”
Of all the apocalyptic prophecies on offer at Trump rallies, this was in a way the most familiar. An obsession with corruption is an American tradition; it dates back to the founding fathers, who declared independence in part on the conviction that the British monarchy was wielding its expanding financial and patronage power to subvert the independence of Parliament. In a 1994 essay, the historian John Murrin observed that after the revolution, “anxiety about corruption, instead of receding in the republic designed to destroy it, acquired unprecedented force in American public life, sometimes almost enough to overwhelm all other concerns.”
You could argue that Americans have been well served by this anxiety. By international standards, we live in a cleanly run country, and always have. For all but two of the 23 years that Transparency International has published its index, the United States has appeared in the Top 20 least-evidently-corrupt countries. It’s true that we have had our share of spectacular episodes: the Whiskey Ring and Boss Tweed in the 19th century; Teapot Dome and Abscam in the 20th. In 2006, the Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff was convicted of felony corruption, bringing 20 people, including a congressman, down with him. In 2011, Rod Blagojevich, the Democratic former governor of Illinois, went to prison for trying to auction off Barack Obama’s old Senate seat. But the fact that these incidents remain so memorable is the point; they were seen as unacceptable aberrations, with consequences in the courts of law and public opinion. People went to prison, lost elections and, in Abramoff’s case, were played by Kevin Spacey in a biopic.
And yet, in a Gallup poll released three years ago, 75 percent of American respondents said that corruption was “widespread” in the country’s government. Among the other countries in Transparency International’s Top 20 that were also surveyed by Gallup, none were remotely as pessimistic about corruption as the United States. No other country has done so well at containing corruption while leaving so many of its people convinced that it has done poorly.
If this reflects the legacy of the founders’ anxieties, it also reflects Americans’ expansive definition of “corruption.” The idea suffuses our politics and hangs heavily over any intersection of money and politics, however legal: The practice of earmarking appropriations bills is “inherently corrupt,” in the view of the former Republican senator Tom Coburn; the sweeping tax bill that Republicans hastily drafted and passed last year would have them “nailed with corruption,” Howard Dean vowed; post-Citizens United election spending is a “corrupt campaign-finance system,” in Bernie Sanders’s formulation.
Is it even worth distinguishing between this unseemly-but-legal stuff and true corruption if the outcome is, arguably, not much different? It’s an interesting question, but one you would only think to ask in a country, like the United States, where illegal corruption is relatively rare. The true cost of illegal corruption, in countries where it is rampant, is rarely the direct one; it is the way even the most banal and minor forms of it erode the rule of law, introducing uncertainty into every dealing with the state and reducing it to the self-interest of its human agents: not just politicians but also customs inspectors, permit issuers, police officers, anyone vested with enough power to extract a dollar.
Eventually the idea of reforming institutions starts to seem bewilderingly difficult — harder than just tearing them down. This is why anti-corruption crusades are expedient platforms for demagogues and authoritarians who, like Duterte, have no serious interest in corruption — the Philippines had generally improved under his predecessor and has slid back down the rankings during his presidency — but are eager to tear down institutions for very different reasons.
Trump’s invocations of corruption, like Duterte’s, have rarely been far from his own open pining for unchecked authority. “You look at the corruption at the top of the F.B.I. — it’s a disgrace,” he told the hosts of “Fox and Friends” in April. “And our Justice Department, which I try and stay away from — but at some point I won’t.”
What is incredible about this is not just that so many Americans now accept the sort of drastic rhetoric that usually only flies in countries with actual, existential corruption problems. It’s the fact that so many people accept it from, of all people, Donald Trump. “The Democrat I.T. scandal is key to much of the corruption we see today,” he tweeted on June 7. This was a week before New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit seeking to disband Trump’s philanthropic foundation following a two-year investigation, alleging extensive campaign-law violations and extravagant self-dealing. (Trump blamed the lawsuit on “sleazy New York Democrats,” but the state’s evidence included a note in Trump’s own handwriting diverting foundation funds to his personal legal expenses.)
“Total corruption — the Witch Hunt has turned out to be a scam!” Trump tweeted about the F.B.I. on June 20, two days after Forbes reported that his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, had lied to the Office of Government Ethics about his stakes in companies co-owned by the Chinese government and allies of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. “So many questions, so much corruption!” Trump fumed about the F.B.I. (again) on June 28, the day after the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief ethics officer reported that he was assisting in investigations of his own boss, Scott Pruitt, the target of 13 federal inquiries into his spending and management as the agency’s administrator. (A week later, Pruitt resigned.)
And that’s just in June. With each new revelation, reporters dutifully observe that it would be, for any other presidency, a defining scandal. This is a country where, as recently as 2009, failing to account for the use of a borrowed limo on an income-tax return, as Tom Daschle did, could force you to withdraw from a cabinet appointment. How did we get from there to Wilbur Ross, let alone Trump himself?
Forget political tribalism for a moment. There was a time, back before Trump locked up his party’s 2016 nomination, when a plurality of Republican primary voters decided to take at face value the anti-corruption bona fides of a man whose most sustained previous relationship with politics was navigating the favor exchanges of 1970s Brooklyn Democratic clubhouses; who had spent much of the last decade in business with an unambiguously corrupt Azerbaijani oligarch; who had derided the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which forbids American companies to bribe officials in other countries, as a “ridiculous,” “horrible law”; whose companies, according to his own campaign disclosure form, carried at least $315 million in debt to an opaque web of financial institutions, many of them in foreign countries. It’s still a nagging question: This guy?
It’s possible, however, to see Trump not as an exception but as the logical conclusion of a national fear of corruption that long ago curdled into a self-satisfied conviction that everything and everyone in politics already is corrupt. Trump campaigned on the idea, after all. He has always had a knack for channeling Americans’ fundamental cynicism about politics, no doubt because he shares it. In May, he mused that he was considering commuting Blagojevich’s 14-year sentence; the governor, he argued, had really only been convicted of “being stupid and saying things that every other politician, you know, that many other politicians say.” Most Americans would probably agree. If you believe all politicians are crooks, it no longer seems to matter much whether a particular one among them is: The answer to “This guy?” becomes “Why not this guy?” And in the end, you get the country you thought you had all along.
Charles Homans is the politics editor for the magazine. He last wrote about the rallies Trump has held since becoming president.