In 2016 election, a division over what 'corrupt' means

Donald Trump's campaign has capitalized on a widespread notion that the Washington is corrupt. But populist voters interpret that differently than establishment voters do.

Evan Vucci/AP
A supporter of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump holds a sign during a campaign rally, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, in Springfield, Ohio.

In the hyperpolarized world of the 2016 election, one of the best markers of political division may be a single word: “corrupt.”

Donald Trump uses it and its offshoots – “corruption,” “corrupted” – a lot. He’ll begin by referring to specific Hillary Clinton activities he charges are corrupt, such as her use of a private email server as secretary of State, and then expand it to cover much of what occurs day-to-day in Washington.

“I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear and to hear and to heed the words I am about to say,” Mr. Trump said at a North Carolina rally Wednesday. “If we win on Nov. 8, we are going to Washington, D.C., and we are going to drain the swamp.”

The image is striking: The “entire corrupt Washington establishment” is fetid, stinking, and needs to be swabbed out.

Some of this is pure partisanship, of course. But there’s a deeper division over what corruption means.

To the Clinton campaign, to establishment Democrats at large, to many anti-Trump Republicans, and to much of official Washington, “corrupt” largely refers to facts. It is a charge of self-dealing or other type of bounded illegality. It is investigated through appropriate channels. Evidence is aired and weighed. It is established, or not.

To populists – the insurgent wing of the GOP, some of the Democratic left, and others historically suspicious of established authority, it’s more of a feeling that something about the system is fundamentally flawed.

After all, it was left-wing Sen. Bernie Sanders who, earlier this month, said Trump’s ability to avoid paying federal income taxes highlighted the “corrupt political system in this country.”

Such concerns about the system are widely shared: Fully 75 percent of Americans think corruption is widespread in the country’s government, according to a Gallup poll from September 2015. That’s up from 67 percent in 2007.

Trump's conspiracy 

It is Trump who has capitalized the most on this suspicion, running less on implementable policies than emotions. He uses “corrupt” as an all-purpose negative modifier that links together all the things he opposes.

“In general, the entire election, at least what we’re hearing from the Republican side, is about conspiracy,” says Jennifer Mercieca, historian of American political rhetoric at Texas A&M University. “And corruption is the action of conspiracy.”

Will this work for Trump? Wikileaks is putting some details into Trump’s generally vague charges, after all. Its latest leak is a 12-page memo that outlines the tangled business ties between ex-President Bill Clinton, former aides, and the Clinton Foundation. That’s part of a steady drip of revelations about actions which, whatever their legality, seem politically inept, at best, darkly conspiratorial, at worst.

On Monday, James O'Keefe's controversial Project Veritas, which infiltrated the Clinton campaign, released an undercover video reinforcing the conspiracy theme. It showed Democratic operatives talking about how they encouraged violence at Trump rallies and other GOP events. The two Democratic operatives have left their positions.

That video and others released this week have generated plenty of attention in conservative circles. But they have received relatively little attention in the mainstream media, in part because the group’s reporting has been misleading in the past.

Obama scandal-free?

A February column from New York Times writer David Brooks might exemplify what’s behind this split. As political primary season got under way, the center-right leaning Mr. Brooks decided to list the ways he’d miss President Obama. Brooks said he disagreed with many of Obama’s policies. But he’d come to appreciate the president’s basic decency, he said. There had been nothing like the Reagan-era Iran-Contra Affair during the Obama years.

“The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free,” Brooks wrote.

A wide array of conservative writers and interest groups denounced this conclusion as ludicrous. Their list of perceived scandals began with Benghazi and included the “Fast and Furious” gun sting operation, the IRS treatment of conservative nonprofits, the botched rollout of the Obamacare website, and a dysfunctional bureaucracy that denied vets health care from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Brooks’ conclusion ignored a “culture of corruption that has seeped into every major federal agency over the past eight years,” wrote conservative writer and pundit Michelle Malkin at the time.

The columnist and his critics may have been arguing less over the facts than about their implication. To Brooks and other establishment figures, some of what Ms. Malkin labeled corruption was perhaps something less nefarious: incompetence, or bad luck, or poor planning, or not even a problem at all.

To the GOP populists, they were more evidence of nefarious connections, a web, a confederacy of dunces. Obama’s scandals didn’t get more publicity because the mainstream media is part of the defending team.

“A corrupt media is willing to overlook massive amounts of evidence of malfeasance to benefit their allies in the Democratic Party,” wrote Roger Aronoff of the conservative Accuracy in Media watchdog group following the Brooks column.

Language of George Washington

In some ways, the ease with which the right throws around the word “corrupt” is a throwback to the Founding Fathers, notes Professor Mercieca. They had inherited a more expansive meaning of the word from Greek and Roman political tradition. To George Washington partisanship by itself was a corrupt practice.

That changed with the rise of political parties. Now in our own time the Republican Party has returned to this broader definition to discredit Democratic administrations. This has been greatly amplified by the rise of a conservative media establishment more interested in its principles than actually gaining power.

“So much of center-right political discourse over the last 10 years or more has really been rooted in this notion of conspiracy,” Mercieca says. “The apparent is not the real.”

A Trump loss wouldn’t do much to change this dynamic. If Hillary Clinton does win the Oval Office, a GOP-controlled House is almost certain to mount yet more inquiries into the details of her emails, her Benghazi testimony, and the Clinton Foundation.

And at least one Clinton adversary has gone so far as to raise the I-word in advance.

“I know this generation of Republican leaders is loath to exercise these tools, but impeachment is something that’s relevant,” Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a group that has pushed legal efforts against the Clintons for decades, told NBC News this week.

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