In a number of yearly polls, Gallup has reported that since 2010, between 73% and 79% of Americans agree that “corruption is widespread throughout the government in this country”. These staggering figures are by no means unique but there is considerable variation between countries from Greece 99% to 26% in Denmark. More than ten months before the election that made Donald Trump the President of the United States, the Chairman and CEO of Gallup, Jim Clifton, wrote:
The perception that there’s widespread corruption in the national government could be a symptom of citizen disengagement and anger. Or it could be a cause – we don’t know. But it’s very possible this is a big, dark cloud that hangs over this country’s progress. And it might be fuelling the rise of an unlikely, non-traditional leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump.
With hindsight, it seems that Jim Clifton was already on to something important in January 2016. It is well-documented that in his campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly accused the political elite in Washington and especially his opponent Hilary Clinton for various forms of very serious misuse of public office. Examples of his accusations towards the corrupt nature of Hilary Clinton included: “She ran the State Department like her own personal hedge fund–doing favors for oppressive regimes, and many others, in exchange for cash. She gets rich making you poor.” And, “Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United State …. [she] has perfected the politics of personal profit and theft”.
Surveys demonstrate that Trump’s unexpected victory was attributed to his ability to get massive support from what has historically been the strong-belt for the Democratic Party, namely low-educated white working class voters. However, as has recently been pointed out, this is a group who is likely to be the biggest losers from the policies Donald Trump has campaigned on. Many would say that race and immigration determined this election, but this can only be a part of the story because in many of the areas where Trump got most of the white working class votes there are few immigrants and they are also not areas with a significant multi-ethnic population.
Corruption has many forms, from what it called “petty” to “grand” scale abuses of power. Why the latter has resonated with a large part of the voters in this election is not hard to explain. After the ruling of the US Supreme Court in 2014, the amount of private money which flows into and dominates politics combined with the explosion of lobbyism give ample ammunition to those who argue that the system is “rigged”. However, given Donald Trump’s huge business interests, there is little evidence that suggests he is the suitable candidate for clearing up this system.
Corruption is not an easy concept to define and the academic literature is, to say the least, not unified. General misconceptions often relate corruption to bribery and fraud, however quite surprisingly; empirical research shows that “ordinary people” perceive corruption in much broader terms. Instead, it is various forms of favouritism in which money usually is not involved that is most problematic. This can be things like access to good schools, getting a building licence or a public contract where in many cases people feel that the decisions has not been impartial and based on clear rules about merit. Instead, political, social or ethnic personal connections dominates who gets what.
My argument is that perceptions of corruption as favouritism may have delivered Donald Trump the Presidency. First, one of the most surprising pieces of data that I have come across is that a majority of white people in the United States perceive that discrimination against whites is now a bigger problem that discrimination against blacks or people from Latin America. As I see it, this has nothing to do with reality but when people decide whom to vote for, it is perceptions and not reality that counts. And as has been forcefully argued by Mark Lilla, much of the politics from the liberal left in the US, including Hilary Clinton, has been focused on what is known as “identity politics”. In practice, this has resulted in targeted policies to women and various minority groups such as affirmative action and quotas to jobs and education. Instead of focusing on universal programs that includes all or very broad segments of the population, the Democrats and Clinton came to represents policies seen as favouritism to women and minority groups by the white male working class, which they perceive as a form of corruption. Targeted programs are also very vulnerable to suspicion about malpractice in the implementation processes because decisions about individual cases are often very complicated (who is actually eligible and how much preferential treatment is justified). Universal programs usually do not suffer from this problem.
“Identity politics” perceived as favouritism may thus be the explanation for why Trump’s “corruption strategy” paid off so well among the white working class. Mark Lilla has formulated this well: “In recent years, American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing…. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded.”