Populism and Political Corruption in the Age of Trump

by Professor Bruce Morrison

Populism places substantial emphasis on corruption as a scourge and a primary source of political motivation. And yet populism cannot be counted on to produce clean government. The election in the United States of the populist candidate Donald Trump has been the occasion for a massive increase in strikingly overt corruption. President Trump has barely even tried to conceal his disdain for the rules and norms that set boundaries to what can be done by a sitting president. He and his family have with abandon blended political power with economic advancement. Remarkably, while some have striven to draw critical attention to the surge in corruption, this has remained a secondary issue, and a great many simply see nothing worthy of mention here. Why might this be?

In part, certainly, corruption under Trump has been cast in relief by the constant rush of offensive remarks and salacious stories, as well as the real threats produced by Trump and his administration on a regular basis. The fact that Trump is enriching himself through the exercise of presidential power may simply not seem as important as whether he might prod Kim Jong-Un into initiating a nuclear exchange, or vice versa. 

But there is also a paradox of populism that needs to be taken into account. Populism involves not just giving the people the power and policies they deserve. For who are ‘the people,’ after all? And when do ‘the people’ ever find themselves united in support of a particular political program? Populism is best defined as an approach to politics that casts a subset of the people as the ‘real’ people, the only group whose interests are worth taking into account. This construct, the people, can then be established as homogeneous and complete through exclusion. According to the campaigning Donald Trump, “the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.”(1) Just as important is (a) affirming the anger of the people who have been deprived of their birthright, for instance in the form of lost manufacturing jobs and communities they no longer recognize as traditionally their own; and (b) attributing responsibility to elites whose narrowly self-interested policies, say of unfair trading arrangements and unchecked immigration, have left the ‘real’ people tragically vulnerable.(2) Populists therefore set the pure, virtuous, and victimized people against elites conceived of as fundamentally corrupt. And, axiomatically, the only way in a democracy the elites could have acquired and held on to power is through corruption. Hillary Clinton, as a defender of the globalizing elites, and a supporter of a borderless hemisphere, needed to be strenuously resisted, and perhaps even locked up. 

It is possible for populism to stimulate an effective campaign against corruption. Quite arguably, the popular radicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries initiated and sustained popular pressure against the ‘Old Corruption’ of Britain’s fiscal-military state, and ultimately succeeded in forcing a truly impressive shredding of questionable forms of political influence.(3) However, populism can also fall prey to oversimplification in terms of the character of corruption and the ease of its eradication once the people have assumed power. Populists in power may use the claim of popular representation as a cudgel against the attempts of the media and the judicial and law enforcement communities to establish transparency. And the ‘real’ people, strongly identifying with a populist leader who presents him or herself as the enemy of corruption, may offer cover for fresh corruption. 

In the United States, many of those who saw themselves as part of the ‘real’ people also recognized in the brash Donald Trump a leader who understood the danger posed by immigration, unfair trade deals, and the Washington swamp that enabled these policies to persist against the people’s interests. President Trump’s inaugural address declared his populist credentials: “We are not merely transferring power from one administration to another or from one party to another, but we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.” Only with the people’s true representative in power could corruption be effectively rolled back. But it is not at all clear that Donald Trump understands, as do scholars like Michael Johnston, that the greatest opportunities for corruption in the American “Influence Market” reside at the many points of intersection between private wealth and public authority.(4) The Trump administration has instead deregulated in a way that has enhanced the ability of private interests to frame and sidestep the rules that govern their industries. And President Trump will, certainly, do nothing to set limits to the role of private money in competitive democratic politics. ‘Draining the swamp’ remains a slogan without a specific plan of action because it is held merely to require replacing existing elites with the people’s emissaries.  

Meanwhile, President Trump has governed in openly kleptocratic fashion. He has continued to profit from and promote his businesses, and is by all accounts fully aware of what goes on within them. His Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, has become a site for those seeking to curry favour with the administration, while Mar-a-Lago doubled its membership rates in recognition of the ample opportunities it provides for access and influence. Foreign governments have not only patronized Trump properties, but also supported Trump trademark applications. This past week, Donald Trump, Jr, Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization, combined business with a foreign policy speech on a trip to India, cultivating plenty of ambiguity as to whom he represents. 

Trump’s untouchability thus far has served as a reminder that American presidential power, easy to check in some respects, but in others demonstrably capable of significant expansion, has remained dependent upon restraining norms for which the current White House occupant holds no respect. But, above all, Trump has established himself as the defender of the needs and interests of the pure-as-the-driven-snow people against the corrupt elites. The ‘real’ American people seem to be relying upon an earlier understanding of corruption, not as the abuse of public power for private advantage, but rather as involving the subversion of the fundamental principles of the polity as they understand them. The restoration to power of the ‘real’ people has therefore required no apologies. Trump has identified the right enemies – the technocrats and globalists, foreigners and immigrants, as well as the potentially critical voices in the media and legal apparatus – and in fulminating against them repeatedly has solidified his identification with the people, and established himself as by definition free of corruption. President Trump could accept a bribe in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any supporters. As populist politics continues to spread, therefore, it is past time to begin challenging its anti-corruption discourse, as well as its performance in power. 

(1) From Jan-Werner Muller, What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
(2) Blame is also extended to foreigners and newcomers.
(3) Harling, The Waning of ‘Old Corruption’: The Politics of Economical Reform in Britain, 1779-1846 (Oxford University Press, 1996).
(4) Michael Johnston (2012), “Corruption Control in the United States: Law, Values, and the Political Foundations of Reform.” International Review of Administrative Sciences 78 (2).