What it means when Trump talks about 'corruption'
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Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpOmar, Muslim Democrats decry Islamophobia amid death threats On The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Trump cheers CNN's Cuomo suspension MORE has spoken a great deal about corruption this year.

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In the third and last presidential debate, he lashed out at the media for its alleged corruption. In the first debate, he speculated about corruption in our immigration system. On the campaign trail, he has described a variety of targets — including the FBI, the Obama administration and Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE — as being corrupt.

Some people might contend that he's just describing reality.

Yet the plethora of targets suggests that there's something larger afoot. Is this just bluster from a candidate trailing in the polls? 

There is a long history of debate among philosophers, political scientists and legal scholars about what, exactly, corruption is. They have concluded that there are essentially two ways to talk about corruption:

  1. As an inevitable process of decline or decay, in which a thing ceases to function in the way it should (as when computer files are corrupted); or 
  2. As a prioritization of personal gain over the public good, as occurs when, for instance, a public official accepts bribes.

The first is a big thing that can happen to entire societies, whether we are aware of it or not. The second is more of an individual failing.

Trump's language seems mostly to be about corruption in the first sense, although he has not been hesitant to allege several corrupt acts in the second sense, hinting at secret deals among his opponents.

He surely does not mean that everyone in the media has literally been bought off. Instead, the implication seems to be that the media simply is not functioning as it should; that it has lost its sense of purpose or the principles it once held.

In his mind, America was once great and needs to be made so again.

Claims such as these are effective conversation stoppers. If someone is corrupt, or is part of a corrupt system or organization, nothing he says is to be trusted — whatever it is he's saying, he's saying for the wrong reasons.

Trump and Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzSenate nearing deal on defense bill after setback Congress's goal in December: Avoid shutdown and default Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE (R-Texas) — another frequent commentator on corruption — had several back-and-forth exchanges during the Republican debates as to whether either had the moral standing to fight corruption.

Allegations of corruption, in this first sense, have always been a part of American political discourse, but there is more talk of corruption at moments of populist uprisings against the status quo.

The two presidential candidates who spoke most often of corruption were Andrew Jackson and Theodore Roosevelt, both of whom subsequently framed their administration around the need to fight corruption. Their language tended to allege that America had taken an irreversible step toward decline and that drastic measures were necessary to save it.

Furthermore, presidents of the opposing party — Whigs, in Jackson's case, and Democrats in Roosevelt's — were quick to adopt the same sort of corruption talk. Both parties enthusiastically cast themselves as opponents of the corrupt status quo.

We can see this pattern in contemporary American politics as well. Apart from Trump and Cruz, the other most vocal opponent of corruption this year has been independent Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOn The Money — Powell pivots as inflation rises Pence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Senators huddle on path forward for SALT deduction in spending bill MORE of Vermont, who ran in the Democratic primary for president.

He spoke repeatedly during the Democratic debates about rampant corruption in campaign financing and the financial services sector. Like Trump and Cruz, Sanders views these matters not as individual failings but as much larger, systemic problems in government.

When corruption is presented in the first sense, it serves as an indictment of the entire political system. Corruption claims in the second sense, in contrast, can serve as invitation to a bipartisan effort to prevent wrongdoing.

Think, for instance, about the stated rationale of our campaign finance laws: Contribution restrictions exist to prevent corruption, or the appearance of corruption. This is corruption in a much narrower sense, and such corruption has nothing to do with political ideology.

Such corruption talk is usually engaged in by "establishment" politicians. When George W. Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHead of North Carolina's health department steps down Appeals court appears wary of Trump's suit to block documents from Jan. 6 committee Patent trolls kill startups, but the Biden administration has the power to help  MORE referred to corruption in their presidential speeches, they talked about malfeasance by foreign governments, ongoing criminal investigations or other instances of identifiable individual lawbreaking.

This divide is certainly evident this year. Hillary Clinton has made no references at all to corruption in any of the primary or general election debates. Nor did former GOP presidential contenders Jeb Bush, Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioWisconsinites need infrastructure that is built to last  Republicans struggle to save funding for Trump's border wall Rubio: Dropping FARC from terrorist list threatens Colombians, US security MORE or other more conventional Republican candidates.

Republican vice presidential nominee Mike PenceMichael (Mike) Richard PencePence-linked group launches 0K ad campaign in West Virginia praising Manchin Jan. 6 panel releases contempt report on Trump DOJ official ahead of censure vote Pence calls for Roe v. Wade to be sent to 'ash heap of history' ahead of abortion ruling MORE, in his role as the grown-up in the Trump campaign, has only talked about corruption in reference to specific actions taken by the Russian government.

So in one sense, we have a clear explanation of how corruption claims are a weapon used by outsiders to attack the establishment.

Another and perhaps more sobering lesson from American history is that when corruption talk becomes widespread, it is always successful.

Sooner or later, an increase in corruption talk on the part of presidential candidates has yielded a dramatic change in American politics and in the regulatory role of government.

At this point, it is looking unlikely that Trump will wind up as our third "anti-corruption" president.

But history suggests that this aspect of his message may well outlive his campaign.

Boatright is a professor of political science at Clark University and the director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse Research Network.


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