What it means when Trump talks about 'corruption'

Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE has spoken a great deal about corruption this year.


In the third and last presidential debate, he lashed out at the media for its alleged corruption. In the first debate, he speculated about corruption in our immigration system. On the campaign trail, he has described a variety of targets — including the FBI, the Obama administration and Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE — as being corrupt.

Some people might contend that he’s just describing reality.

Yet the plethora of targets suggests that there’s something larger afoot. Is this just bluster from a candidate trailing in the polls? 

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There is a long history of debate among philosophers, political scientists and legal scholars about what, exactly, corruption is. They have concluded that there are essentially two ways to talk about corruption:

As an inevitable process of decline or decay, in which a thing ceases to function in the way it should (as when computer files are corrupted); or As a prioritization of personal gain over the public good, as occurs when, for instance, a public official accepts bribes.

The first is a big thing that can happen to entire societies, whether we are aware of it or not. The second is more of an individual failing.

Trump’s language seems mostly to be about corruption in the first sense, although he has not been hesitant to allege several corrupt acts in the second sense, hinting at secret deals among his opponents.

He surely does not mean that everyone in the media has literally been bought off. Instead, the implication seems to be that the media simply is not functioning as it should; that it has lost its sense of purpose or the principles it once held.

In his mind, America was once great and needs to be made so again.

Claims such as these are effective conversation stoppers. If someone is corrupt, or is part of a corrupt system or organization, nothing he says is to be trusted — whatever it is he’s saying, he’s saying for the wrong reasons.

Trump and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote The Hill’s Morning Report – Trump’s public standing sags after Floyd protests GOP senators introduce resolution opposing calls to defund the police MORE (R-Texas) — another frequent commentator on corruption — had several back-and-forth exchanges during the Republican debates as to whether either had the moral standing to fight corruption.

Allegations of corruption, in this first sense, have always been a part of American political discourse, but there is more talk of corruption at moments of populist uprisings against the status quo.

The two presidential candidates who spoke most often of corruption were Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom subsequently framed their administration around the need to fight corruption. Their language tended to allege that America had taken an irreversible step toward decline and that drastic measures were necessary to save it.

Furthermore, presidents of the opposing party — Whigs, in Jackson’s case, and Democrats in Roosevelt’s — were quick to adopt the same sort of corruption talk. Both parties enthusiastically cast themselves as opponents of the corrupt status quo.

We can see this pattern in contemporary American politics as well. Apart from Trump and Cruz, the other most vocal opponent of corruption this year has been independent Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE of Vermont, who ran in the Democratic primary for president.

He spoke repeatedly during the Democratic debates about rampant corruption in campaign financing and the financial services sector. Like Trump and Cruz, Sanders views these matters not as individual failings but as much larger, systemic problems in government.

When corruption is presented in the first sense, it serves as an indictment of the entire political system. Corruption claims in the second sense, in contrast, can serve as invitation to a bipartisan effort to prevent wrongdoing.

Think, for instance, about the stated rationale of our campaign finance laws: Contribution restrictions exist to prevent corruption, or the appearance of corruption. This is corruption in a much narrower sense, and such corruption has nothing to do with political ideology.

Such corruption talk is usually engaged in by “establishment” politicians. When George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE referred to corruption in their presidential speeches, they talked about malfeasance by foreign governments, ongoing criminal investigations or other instances of identifiable individual lawbreaking.

This divide is certainly evident this year. Hillary Clinton has made no references at all to corruption in any of the primary or general election debates. Nor did former GOP presidential contenders Jeb Bush, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: Georgia officials launch investigation after election day chaos | Senate report finds Chinese telecom groups operated in US without proper oversight Republican Senators ask FCC to ‘clearly define’ when social media platforms should receive liability protections Trump’s tweet on protester sparks GOP backlash  MORE or other more conventional Republican candidates.

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence posts, deletes photo of Trump campaign staff without face masks, not social distancing Pence threatens to deploy military if Pennsylvania governor doesn’t quell looting Pence on Floyd: ‘No tolerance for racism’ in US MORE, in his role as the grown-up in the Trump campaign, has only talked about corruption in reference to specific actions taken by the Russian government.

So in one sense, we have a clear explanation of how corruption claims are a weapon used by outsiders to attack the establishment.

Another and perhaps more sobering lesson from American history is that when corruption talk becomes widespread, it is always successful.

Sooner or later, an increase in corruption talk on the part of presidential candidates has yielded a dramatic change in American politics and in the regulatory role of government.

At this point, it is looking unlikely that Trump will wind up as our third “anti-corruption” president.

But history suggests that this aspect of his message may well outlive his campaign.

Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.