Annie Lowry: The party of no content
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.”
George Packer: The president is winning his war on American institutions
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.