On Trump’s Final Argument for America: “Corruption”

It’s important that we Democrats get this right, so we don’t make this mistake again. Please watch the final ad from Trump’s campaign (above) and then read what follows.

Over the past decade, I’ve come to know an America furious with the “corruption” of its government. Not through polls, or focus groups, but through the experience of speaking in hundreds of venues, both conservative and not, across the nation. In practically every one of those contexts, I just had to touch the “corruption” button, and the audience would explode. The only time that button didn’t work was when I was in DC.

What America thinks “corruption” is, however, is not easy to characterize. But it’s clear that it isn’t just, or only, a crude sense of illegal corruption. Certainly some believe that Congress is filled with criminals. Some think that every public servant is on the take. But most have a more subtle sense of the thing they call “corruption” — DC is filled, these people believe, with insiders, and the game is rigged to benefit those insiders. That, they believe, is “corruption.”

I spent a long time trying to understand, and then describe, this sense of corruption. Republic, Lost (2011) and Republic, Lost v2 (2015) were the products of that effort. Both books argued that indeed, our government is “corrupt.” That an economy of influence has taken over DC and that economy corrupts the representative process. That it produces a Congress not, as Madison promised, “dependent on the people alone,” but one dependent on the funders of political campaigns. America, in other words, is right. It’s government is “corrupt.” And that certainly justifies America’s anger.

And not just me — obviously. Zephyr Teachout’s fantastic book, Corruption in America (2014), advances a similar conception, grounded quite explicitly in the Framers’ understanding of the term. John Kerry spoke directly of the “corruption of the system” in his final speech on the floor of the Senate. Represent.US pulled together the powerful American Anti-Corruption Act which addresses precisely this sense of corruption. And there are many many more, including some on the right (for example, Richard Painter’s, Taxation Only With Representation (2016)).

Yet throughout this period, these charges of corruption have been resisted by corruption deniers: politicians and political insiders who insist “the system isn’t corrupt, it just has too many ….” and here insert either “Democrats” or “Republicans” depending on who the apologist is. Deniers come in both Democratic and Republican flavors. Here’s a great debate between Mitch McConnell (corruption denier) and John McCain (corruption asserter). My favorite is an exchange between Nancy Pelosi (corruption denier) and Jon Stewart (genius):

Corruption deniers don’t believe there’s much utility in making the fight against corruption central in any political campaign — obviously. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been lectured by “experts” who are sure they know what America cares about and that America doesn’t care about this. America doesn’t vote for reform, they say, it votes for issues. Voters, that is, might tell a pollster that she thinks money has corrupted politics, but when it comes to voting, that voter is going to pull the lever of the candidate who agrees most with her on the issues.

The data certainly supported that view of these experts. Invoking the word “corruption” is not a magic bullet in any political campaign.

But it was never clear to me whether this was because voters didn’t care about corruption (their words notwithstanding), or because voters didn’t think that any ordinary politician would actually do anything about it. Indeed, if voters thought the latter, then a candidate talking about the issue might well weaken his own campaign, by weakening his credibility.

The election of Donald Trump may finally have resolved this ambiguity — and tragically so. Because while we readers of HuffPo, watchers of Comedy Central, and students of the New York Times only ever saw “Donald Trump the Absurd,” the heartland of America saw Mr. Smith, aka, Donald Trump, who wanted to go to Washington. He met America where America was, and he promised her that he would cure the disease that America thinks Washington is. He promised to “drain the swamp.” And so desperate were so many for the idea that maybe this outsider could actually succeed that a significant number voted for him, despite the endless list of absurd ideas, and embarrassing (and worse) behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. There are many who supported Donald Trump for much less lofty reasons. And I certainly don’t think Donald Trump has a clue about how to end the corruption he so powerfully attacked. He has not identified a single idea that would actually fix the problem, and he hasn’t even hinted that he would support the only reforms that could.

But America never heard that side of the argument — because of a strategic decision by the Clinton campaign. Though pressed again and again by many to take up the issue (Robert Reich made the argument most powerfully), and show America that only she had a actual plan that could fix the problem Trump so effectively targeted, the Clinton campaign was resolute in either denying the charge, or ignoring the issue. When Sanders effectively called her corrupt, she asked, “where is the quid pro quo?” And while Trump railed again and again against the “insiders” and their “corruption,” she acted as if she didn’t even hear the question. The Clinton campaign decided that in the year of Brexit, in a moment of anti-establishment furor, they could simply ignore the issue and it would magically go away. That, I believe, was a mistake.

I may be wrong. Maybe there’s nothing she could have done. Maybe the campaign had tons of data to show that regardless of what she said, the issue was a loser. Maybe it was impossible for her to pull a Johnson — to take a weakness (for Johnson, beneficiary of racism, for Clinton, beneficiary of a corrupt system), and turn it into a strength (for Johnson, champion of civil rights, for Clinton, champion of democracy reform.)

But if that’s true, then Clinton was the wrong nominee. And in that, there is a critical lesson for the Democratic Party. As a friend wrote just after the election:

The Dems screwed … this [up] and it was the big donors who did it. The donors picked their nominee without testing her with voters in so much as a single primary, and none of the other Democratic heavyweights got in because the donors were all behind Clinton. And with her money she crushed everyone else who did get in. The Republicans at least had a competitive primary (a competition as to who could appeal to the basest instincts of uneducated voters, but a competition none the less). They chose the man who did that best and he beat Clinton.
Money killed the Democratic Party. Without the money connection they probably would have gone with Biden or someone else without as good fundraising connections as Clinton but much less baggage and much more appeal to ordinary people.

But there may be good news here — at least if America can survive without a catastrophe in the next four years. Trump is not going to “drain the swamp.” He is not going to reform the system. In two years, if the Democrats finally learn to speak the language of America, there will be an endless list of examples of just how the Republicans once again sold out. 2018 could be a shot for the Democrats to gain control of Congress. And if it gains control with the right commitments, it could then enact the reform that would begin to convince America that it might—finally—have a democracy.

That reform has to be much more comprehensive than what’s on offer just now. But maybe the lesson of this loss is enough to move the Democrats in the right direction.

Maybe.

UPDATE: Now Vox says the same, so it must be true: