On Wednesday, in response to criticism that Donald Trump and other administration officials violated federal law by using government resources at the Republican National Convention, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows declared, “Nobody outside of the Beltway really cares. They expect that Donald Trump is going to promote Republican values.”
If Meadows is referring to those Americans outside the Beltway who dislike Donald Trump, he’s wrong. Anti-Trump voters may have never heard of the Hatch Act, but they care about Trump’s assault on the rule of law. During the Ukraine scandal earlier this year, a plurality of all Americans and more than 80 percent of Democrats told pollsters that Trump should be impeached.
But Meadows has a point—a deeply disturbing one—about the president’s supporters. For the most part, they don’t care about Trump’s brazen legal transgressions during the Republican convention, or at any other point in his presidency. This isn’t because they don’t care about corruption. It’s because of the way they define the term: less as the violation of America’s laws than as the violation of America’s traditional hierarchies. Thus, so long as Trump promotes “Republican values,” he can’t be corrupt.
As I have previously noted, the word corruption can connote different things. It’s used to describe the betrayal of public trust for private gain. But, etymologically, it is also linked to contamination, debasement, and impurity. And throughout American history, Americans have often labeled as “corrupt” people who undermined not the rule of law but the preexisting racial or gender order. In public discourse for much of the 20th century, the Reconstruction era—in which Black southerners gained some political representation—was synonymous with corruption. In fact, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has pointed out, the Jim Crow era that followed Reconstruction constituted the real “kleptocracy”; Black citizens were robbed of their political rights, their economic freedom, their possessions, and their land. But many white Americans associated Reconstruction with corruption because it had corrupted the white dominance that they considered essential to legitimate government.
After Black people in the South won the right to vote again in the 1960s, their political participation was deemed corrupt yet again. In his book Rumor, Repression, and Racial Politics, the University of Maryland historian George Derek Musgrove notes that, at one point in the 1980s, the Department of Justice investigated Black politicians at five times the rate it investigated white politicians. He cites a study in which the Iowa State sociologist Mary Sawyer concluded that allegations of corruption against Black officials “were pursued on the basis of less evidence” and news stories about alleged corruption were “printed with less solid information.” The reason, she argued, was that some white people “are personally affronted and threatened by the prospect of blacks having power over their lives.” Black power constituted corruption in and of itself.
That racialized definition of corruption remains very much alive today. Consider the presidency of Barack Obama. Obama’s supporters look back on his presidency as admirably scandal-free. But to many Republicans, Obama personified corruption. After all, a majority of Republicans, as late as 2017, told pollsters they believed that Obama had been born outside the United States. Which means that simply by assuming the presidency, he was violating the Constitution. No wonder Trump—who used birtherism to launch his national political career—has fumed about a fictitious “Obamagate” and called the Obama administration the “most corrupt in history.”
The accusation of corruption was also central to Trump’s 2016 campaign against “Crooked Hillary.” And it proved highly effective. The most common reason Americans gave for disliking Clinton, according to a June 2016 Morning Consult poll, was that she was “not trustworthy.” The second most common reason was that she was “corrupt.” In fact, according to Politifact, which evaluates the veracity of politicians’ statements, Hillary Clinton’s are almost four times as likely to be rated “true” or “mostly true” as Trump’s. But, like Obama, Clinton was seeking a job previously held by white men only, and thus threatened one of America’s most sacred hierarchies. As the Yale researchers Victoria Brescoll and Tyler Okimoto found in a 2010 study, female politicians who are characterized as “power-seeking” often evoke “feelings of moral outrage (i.e., contempt, anger, and/or disgust).” In other words, many Americans viewed Clinton’s bid for power as inherently corrupt.
In his book How Fascism Works, the Yale philosopher Jason Stanley argues, “Corruption, to the fascist politician, is really about the corruption of purity rather than of the law. Officially, the fascist politician’s denunciations of corruption sound like a denunciation of political corruption. But such talk is intended to evoke corruption in the sense of the usurpation of the traditional order.” To use Meadows’ language, if you’re defending “Republican values,” you can’t actually be corrupt—even if you’re using federal employees and property for political purposes, even if many of your aides and close associates have been convicted of crimes, even if taxpayers have paid your businesses $900,000 during your presidency.
In 2016, when Trump faced a woman running to succeed a Black president, his fascistic conception of corruption helped win him the election. So far, it has proved less effective against Joe Biden. It has proved less effective because, by the standards of Trump and many of his supporters, Biden really is less corrupt just by being a white man. His presidency would constitute less of a “usurpation of the traditional order.” No wonder “Corrupt Joe” has not yet caught on.