In 2016, US presidential candidate Donald Trump ran a populist, anti-corruption campaign, promising, as he said, “to drain the swamp.” And yet Trump’s presidency has been riddled with credible claims of corruption. This paper examines the ways in which anti-corruption political rhetoric provides cover for corrupt governance. Of course, Trump supporters do not believe they elected a saint; many accept his transgressions in the name of a perceived larger good. But Trump has also deflected much criticism, at least among his supporters, by criticizing the integrity of the media reporting on him, which plays very well with his anti-elitist supporters. It would be easy to dismiss Trump voters as ignorant, but at least two factors push against this assumption: 1) Trump supporters display marked cynicism toward the political process, essentially adopting the view that if someone must “get his hands dirty,” it might as well be their guy, and 2) their support for Trump is largely driven by their identity as either salt-of the-earth “honest folk,” or pro-business/ anti-regulation Republican, with Trump as the latest iteration of the GOP alchemy that combines both. But cynicism and identity politics are hardly unique to Trump voters – they are the hallmark of this political age. Trumpism is only the most shameless example of an Identity politics that distorts public perceptions of corruption and a cynicism that leads many to assume that the corruption in plain sight is “business as usual.” Consider attempts to explain Trump’s phone call to Ukrainian president Zelensky, which alternated between an insistence that quid pro quo “happens all the time,” as Mulvaney and Giuliani suggested, and Trump’s insistence that his request was a legitimate attempt to investigate corruption, fueled by populist outrage that Hunter Biden’s position on the Burisma board was so lucrative. Clearly, Trump, his inner circle and his supporters move between cynicism and identity politics, sometimes frantically, in attempts to excuse or deny bad behavior. While this corruption seems unparalleled in recent US politics, the cynicism and identity politics which allow it to flourish will be around, I fear, long after Trump is gone.
Dr. Olivia Newman