Opinion

Democrats: Don't waste your time hounding President Trump for corruption

Experts on authoritarians repeat the same lesson: Tyrants are brought down by their ineffective policies, not their self-dealing

We're only a few weeks into the presidency of Donald Trump, and already the self-dealing is piling up.

Trump hasn't divested from any of his businesses, and he's poised to use the White House's regulatory powers and political clout to juice his own profits. He's already stumping for his hotels and golf courses during his diplomatic duties. He's fighting with Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's product line. Most recently, Trump's senior adviser, Kellyanne Conway, told Fox News viewers to buy Ivanka Trump's brand during an interview from the White House — a clear violation of executive branch ethics rules.

Democratic Party officials and Hillary Clinton's former team must be tearing out their hair in disbelief.

For months during the campaign, Clinton was dogged by accusations of corruption, from her emails to her speaking fees to alleged donate-for-influence arrangements at the Clinton Foundation. Yet here's Trump and his underlings engaging in far more brazen self-dealing with apparently no consequences. Politically, it all just rolls off them.

Why?

In the case of Republican politicians who refuse to hold Trump accountable, the answer is obviously raw opportunism and hypocrisy.

But in terms of Trump's standing with voters, I suspect something deeper is going on. When Trump's opponents point out his corruption, expecting it to hurt him politically, they make a basic error. They assume Trump's support, like Clinton's, derives from voters' desire for responsible management by a sober member of the American elite. Indeed, Clinton's campaign strategy was built around this theory: It presented her as the very best that American meritocracy has to offer — exceptionally well-educated, unfailingly politically correct, earnest, intelligent, and morally upstanding. And it presented Trump as an erratic and intemperate vulgarian, a demagogic racist, and a crass misogynist.

Except Trump sold himself by effectively agreeing with Clinton on this. He intuited that vast swaths of American voters have completely lost faith in the competence and good intentions of America's meritocratic elite. Voters have lived under a gargantuan economic collapse and disastrous wars. They've watched their jobs disappear, their wages stagnate, and their children's futures disappear, all while the elites make out like bandits.

So Trump pitched himself as the antithesis to Clinton's crowd.

This isn't simply a matter of Trump's policy positions on immigration or free trade, which reject the elite consensus of the center-left and center-right. It's a matter of his brash and bullying personality, his contempt for educated expertise, his relentless dissembling, and his complete disinterest in abiding by moral norms against racism and sexism. The whole package amounts to one giant middle-finger shoved in the face of the tribe Clinton represents.

Trump entered office with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in at least 40 years. Large numbers of his own voters don't like him. The point of electing Trump was to let the bull loose in the China shop. While corruption isn't part of that point, it doesn't really contradict it either. Not the way it contradicted the point of electing Clinton.

I bet this is also why the corruption charges stuck to Clinton so relentlessly. They directly undermined her campaign's own narrative about herself. She's supposed to be the consummate public servant, but really she's just out for herself. And regardless of how fair the specific charges were, the overall story was plausible to voters precisely because their prospects really have rotted in the last few decades under the elites' watch.

This also hints at how Trump can be brought down politically.

The president may be a nihilist, but his voters aren't: Many of them feel optimistic about the future. And again, you can see why: After decades of disastrous rule, the elites have finally been booted from power. Someone has entered the White House who will finally improve the lives of the broad middle of American workers.

But Trump will inevitably fail to live up to these hopes. His promise to repeal ObamaCare is already turning into a debacle, complete with a ferocious backlash at GOP town halls. His reactionary Cabinet picks and hard-charging zeal for deportation are already sparking major protests. His economic agenda is virtually guaranteed to squash the already middling recovery. Other democracies like Italy have recently dealt with bellicose authoritarians like Trump, and observers repeat the same lesson: Don't get distracted by the corruption or the personality or the violations of norms. Concentrate on the results of their policies for the population as a whole.

Pointing out Trump's corruption in and of itself will never be more than symbolic. But once public dissatisfaction sets in, it could become a powerful symbol.

This all means the Democrats must change, too.

When he was first elected in 2008, Barack Obama had one of the most impressive grassroots organizations ever assembled. But then it was muzzled and placed under the umbrella of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), so the party's politicians wouldn't face inconvenient pressure and protests from their own side. Then the party treated Bernie Sanders' insurgent 2016 campaign as a left-wing version of the Trump phenomenon: unworthy rabble that had to be kept from power. The Democrats' governing philosophy seems to be that their voters should elect competent elites, then quiet down and be grateful for whatever half-measures those elites provide them.

Now Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) is running to chair the DNC. He seems to understand how this aristocratic, top-down thinking allowed on-the-ground organizing to whither and the party's power in local government to collapse. My colleague Ryan Cooper convincingly argues that Ellison's rival for the position, former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, is basically running for DNC chair to make sure the Democrats' strategy and institutional design remain under the control of the Obama-Clinton tribe. So the DNC race is shaping up to be the first real test of what the Democratic Party is learning in defeat.

If they insist on remaining elitist meritocrats, they will keep losing.

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