May 10, 2018 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Trump Is a Good Enemy. Corruption Is Better

Trumpism is contested, but everyone gets corruption, because everyone has been its victim.

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It’s one thing to view Donald Trump’s election as part of the rise of authoritarianism around the world. It’s another to formulate a political reaction to it.

The Democrats have struggled with this internally. On the one hand are those, like me, who have said anti-Trump postures are enough to win the midterms.

On the other are those who say the Democrats can’t be against Trump and not for something. They say the party needs an “affirmative message.”

The debate is fairly academic, as Greg Sargent pointed out. Democratic candidates are putting already health care at the forefront of their campaigns, leaving Trump to linger subliminally in the background. But I think campaigns benefit from the presence of a bogeyman. Indeed, I think Democrats do not fully appreciate its rhetorical power. If they don’t want to make Trump into the enemy, for fear of alienating fence-sitting Republicans, they can focus on something abstract but widely understood.

Fortunately, Trump offers the very thing: corruption.

As I noted in Wednesday’s newsletter, the Democrats can talk about authoritarianism if they want to. That’s going to make some hay. The rule of law, due process, equal protection—Democrats can stand on these and other liberties, values and procedures. Indeed, just standing next to a Republican, fogging a mirror, offers a viable alternative.

But defending what should be normal American politics isn’t all that inspiring, because it does not harness the rage Americans are feeling for the transgression of what should be normal American politics. In other words, I suspect a lot of voters, Democrats and Republicans, are not only looking to restore regular order but also to punish those who have violated it. If I’m correct in thinking voters seek to punish Trump and all that he stands for, the Democrats should identified a crime.

And that would be corruption.

Now I don’t mean crime in the criminal justice sense (though that is and should be in play.) I mean “crime” politically so that voting for a Democrat will be seen as the obvious means of righting a political wrong. Racism, white supremacy, authoritarianism, collusion, treason—these terms are correct, as I noted, but not widely understood. Indeed, they are contested. Corruption, on the other hand, is a no-brainer. Everyone gets corruption, because everyone has been its victim.

In the beginning of this century, the federal government lied to mire the country in an endless war, broke the law and tortured innocents before it was over. Wall Street bankers faced no justice after tanking the economy. Indeed, they got richer. Powerful men abused women with impunity. Black people died at the hands of irresponsible police. Not to mention wholesale corruption in the health insurance industry.

On and on the century went like this till Tuesday when news reports suggested that the American president himself might be taking bribes. Any Democrat who is not stumping on anti-corruption is ignoring the lowest of low-hanging fruit.

Between the parties, the Democrats are uniquely positioned to exploit rising discontent from systemic corruption. The GOP must defend Trump, but the Democrats can’t be accused of protecting the powerful, because they have purged Democrats found unworthy. Former Senator Al Franken is gone, as is New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. There will be more, but the people can trust the Democrats to get rid of them. Trust the Republicans? Not so much.

Historians will tell you that corruption is the flip-side of authoritarianism. Search history and you won’t find one without the other. The same can be said of inequality. The more corrupt a society is, the greater the gap between haves and have nots.  

But that’s an observation of reality. What we need a solution. The Democrats can attack authoritarianism by defending the rule of law, due process, equal protection and the like. But they have the opportunity to take their message a step further, to stand against something that has victimized virtually everyone except the 1 percent.

Believe it or not, I have great conversations with readers on Twitter. Join me there by clicking @johnastoehr. And don’t forget to send this newsletter to your friends!

John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.

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