Democrats Need to Make Voters Care About Corruption
The Democratic party has to figure out how to make dishonesty a campaign issue
The Republican National Convention (RNC) was tough to watch for a lot of reasons. Screechy speeches, and the nauseating praise of Donald Trump were the most obvious issues, but a more pernicious problem was woven through the event.
During the RNC itself, there were at least four separate moments where Trump’s campaign took actions that were either unethical or illegal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo showed up via teleconference from Israel, despite it being against the law for government officials to participate in campaign events when carrying out official duties. Trump performed a naturalization ceremony on camera during the RNC, which is also a violation of ethics rules. It was later reported that at least one of the individuals who took part in the ceremony did not know it would be part of a televised event, just as two people who appearing in a promotional video claimed they were not told the interview would be used at the RNC. To cap things off, the final night of the conference was held on the White House lawn, a massive violation of campaign ethics rules.
What was most bizarre about these blatant abuses of office was that no one seemed to make a fuss. Commentators and politicians observed these irregularities, sometimes commenting on their potential illegality, but many were quick to note that “normal” people don’t really care about these issues. Even some left-leaning figures seemed to give up this fight before it even started. Less than a week later, and the world seems to have moved on.
While this response may seem bewildering, it is part of a pattern. The Mueller investigation and the impeachment hearings were not particularly effective at shifting public opinion. Yes, there were moments where Trump’s approval would inch up or down in response to some development in these scandals, but the net effect is difficult to quantify. Perhaps folks just don’t care how Trump conducts himself; people have made up their minds whether he is bending the rules for the greater good, or is just a corrupt thug.
But things are different now. We are in the middle of an intense election season, and the public is going to be far more attentive to politics than usual. We are also in the midst of a pandemic and a historical racial justice movement, which may cause people to be more open to changing their minds than they were over the last four years.
Beyond this, the stakes are higher now. For impeachment, everyone knew how things would resolve in the final Senate vote from the moment Pelosi launched the inquiry last September. Trump wasn’t going to leave office, so the whole exercise was about everyone showing where they stood. Not that impeachment wasn’t important — I think it was — but the drama wasn’t going to impact everyday people. Now that we are in the campaign, educating people on Trump’s underhanded shenanigans has a real chance to influence the outcome of the election.
The use of shady political tactics has only accelerated since the close of the RNC. On Saturday, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence announced they would stop briefing Congress on foreign efforts to interfere in the election. On Sunday, Congressman Scalise posted a video (since deleted) that had been doctored to show activist Ady Barkan saying that Joe Biden was planning to defund police. For those who don’t know, Barkan is dying of ALS, and uses a machine to help him speak. As I write this, Fox is airing an interview where Trump accusing Biden of being controlled by unnamed “people in the dark shadows”, and claimed it is being investigated. If the Democrats aren’t able to make corruption an issue for voters, the Biden campaign will need to stand against a tsunami of misinformation, corruption, and dirty tricks.
Trump’s abuse of office isn’t just a campaign issue. When tax payer dollars are being spent directly or indirectly on Trump’s reelection, that is functionally stealing from all Americans! Any time directed to the campaign and away from important matters like the Coronavirus and the economy is grossly negligent. Citizens should care when Trump’s political cronies sap the government’s resources, and use them to help the president’s reelection campaign.
Do independent and swing voters care about corruption? Norms? Decency? Honesty? The Democratic Party needs to find a way to make them care. Trump’s reckless attack on civil society are not slowing down, and it will be impossible to address these controversies one-by-one for the next three months. While it would be naïve to think that any election against the GOP would be a fair fight, it is essential to at least try drawing attention to Trump’s systematic campaign of dishonesty. Today’s Hatch Act violations could transform into even more despicable abuses in the coming months.
Make people care! Experiment with messaging, advertising campaigns, and other tools. Have surrogates constantly refer back to Trump’s ethics violations in interviews and op-eds. Find anything that gets people talking about Trump’s rule breaking. If Democrats can come up with a way to make this issue break through it will be a game changer. Until they find a solution, things will only get worse.
Issues like Benghazi and Clinton’s emails were not hot-button issues when they were first mentioned. By talking about the “scandals” ad nauseum, Republicans were successful engineer a mountain out of a molehill. Trump’s corruption is an entire mountain range, we just need to find a way to make people recognize what it is.