What Authoritarians Mean by ‘Corruption’

The president is following the template employed by other autocrats to destroy their rivals.

Donald Trump
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

What if the People’s Republic of China fulfilled Donald Trump’s wish and investigated the Bidens? Chinese President Xi Jinping certainly has the machinery to do the job. Upon assuming control of the Communist Party in 2012, he built a huge apparatus to root out corruption. His regime has investigated more than 1 million officials for supposedly abusing public power, with several sentenced to death. The Chinese state holds those accused of malfeasance in such low regard that it will detain them incommunicado for as long as six months. Or, to put it slightly differently, Trump would like his political opponent’s probity judged by a justice system that has stuffed 1 million Uighurs into concentration camps.

When Trump talks about the Bidens, he says that he wants to address a pressing problem. On Friday he tweeted, “I have an obligation to end CORRUPTION.” His war on corruption has involved outsourcing the investigation of supposed wrongdoing to other nations. More specifically, Trump has tried to enlist the help of governments with a distinguished history of framing their political foes. He’s turning to a state-of-the-art tactic of contemporary illiberalism, which uses corruption as an Orwellian pretext for consolidating illegitimate power. Charging opponents with corruption is, after all, an excellent means of discrediting them or perhaps even shunting them away in prison.

When Xi took over China, he promised to wage war on government officials who enriched themselves illicitly. It’s not that China was Denmark. Corruption was, indeed, woven into the fabric of government and economy. But Xi’s war on corruption was waged against carefully and selectively picked targets. The campaign provided Xi with cover to hurl rivals into jail and to install his own cronies. When The New York Times reported on Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, it described it as a tool “to imprison rivals, instill fear within the party establishment and set himself up as the nation’s most powerful leader in decades.” In the name of anti-corruption, Xi purged the party and remade the top ranks of his military. He presided over a seemingly endless cycle of anxiety-inducing investigations, glorified in state propaganda.

Or take Ukraine. The country has undoubtedly reformed itself since the reign of Viktor Yanukovych, the kleptocrat exiled in the revolution of 2014. Its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, ran on a platform of sweeping away graft and passed reforms in his earliest days in office. Still, the country has a recent track record of appointing prosecutors who serve the agenda of oligarchic forces and exploit their powers to target reformers in civil society.

Trump’s campaign chair Paul Manafort was a resolute defender of the arbitrary prosecution of rival politicians. During his time as a consultant working for Yanukovych, Manafort helped justify his client’s dubious imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Manafort hired Barack Obama’s former White House counsel Greg Craig to write a brief justifying her arrest—and he made it his job to share Craig’s findings with reporters and lawmakers in Washington and Brussels. Yanukovych wanted to punish his rival, to shred her credibility, and to imperil her political future. Is it really a surprise that Trump would find himself drawn to Ukraine in his quest to achieve a variation of this same objective?

It’s heartening that Trump hasn’t yet been able to fully exploit American institutions to execute his smear tactics—and that he has needed to enlist foreign governments in his gambits. And it’s further heartening that China and Ukraine seem unwilling to truly play along with his scheme. The Chinese have declined to meddle in American domestic politics, and the Ukrainians have issued a half-hearted statement vowing to audit a swath of past cases, which includes Hunter Biden’s energy firm. What’s disturbing, however, is the convergence of tactics. Like his corrupt brethren around the world, Trump intended to protect himself against accusations of his own corruption by deflecting the charge onto his rival. This was always the nightmare scenario lurking in the “Lock her up!” chants.

As the news accounts of Trump’s scheme unfurl, it’s worth reading the State Department’s human-rights reports alongside them. The treatment of political foes is the standard by which the United States judges the health of democracy in other nations. A democracy is only as good as the fairness it accords politicians out of power. Not only has the president attempted to exploit foreign justice systems that the United States doesn’t consider especially fair-minded; he has replicated the sin he decries in others. Donald Trump is pursuing tactics that his own State Department would condemn in any other regime as an assault on democracy.