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Donald Trump Might Become Corrupt. But Will It Matter?

History shows voters often re-elect corrupt leaders. New research explains why.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Donald Trump is at risk of becoming a corrupt president.

That’s not to say it’s happened already. Despite the many controversies that have dogged the administration’s first 46 days, none meet the commonly cited, World Bank definition of political corruption: Politicians using their offices to enrich themselves or their families. The Trump administration has not used the presidency in that manner, except when advisor Kellyanne Conway told Fox News viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.” But Trump is at risk for further trouble because he hasn’t divested from his businesses, which could tempt him to use his public position for personal gain, according to Catherine de Vries, a professor of politics at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. He may even do it unconsciously, even if he wouldn’t do it on purpose. Worse yet: Even in the event that corruption does occur, it may not make a difference to Trump’s re-election chances.

“The hurdles of holding someone to account for corruption are much higher than we think,” de Vries says. “That also means you can get away with corruption much more than what had been previously assumed.”

Earlier this year, de Vries reviewed the research on whether corruption hurts politicians’ likelihood of re-election in democracies around the world. She and her co-author Hector Solaz, her husband and a fellow researcher at the University of Essex, came up with a surprising finding: Voters do often re-elect corrupt leaders.Their work offers lessons for the United States as it comes under the steerage of a man whose divestment plan many ethics lawyers have called inadequate, and who has involved his children in his administration to an unprecedented degree.

So why do voters choose corrupt politicians? De Vries thinks of voting as a multi-stop journey and attributes voters’ acceptance of leaders who steal from them to breakdowns in at least one of those steps.

Voters first must learn of the corruption, of course. Severalstudieshave found that press coverage of corruption is correlated with voters turning against those leaders charged with wrongdoing.

Information alone isn’t enough, however. Stop number two on the journey is for voters to actually blame politicians for their corruption. That can be surprisingly difficult. Human psychology works against us. In experiments, people who identify with one political party tend to dismiss reports of wrongdoing among party members. That’s a worrying pattern in light of data that shows Americans are dividing themselves ever more deeply along political lines. Hopefully, the research also suggests being highly politically aware helps overcome partisan bias.

Finally, voters have to care more about corruption than other issues, such as who they think will grow the economy, or who seems to represent them best ideologically. “We know that what people really care about is these labels, like being left-wing, being conservative,” de Vries says. In America, which is dominated by just two parties, voters may tolerate corruption in order to vote for the candidate with whom they most closely identify, among limited options.

Indeed, many American voters in the recent presidential election felt they were choosing between the lesser of two evils, although de Vries thinks Trump and Hillary Clinton are not comparable. Trump’s main line of attack against Clinton, that she used a private email server, might have been a case of breaking professional rules, but it’s not corruption. “I don’t see, in any way, that she was using her Department of State position to favor a company or her foundation,” de Vries says. “She hasn’t committed a crime.” I asked de Vries about an Associated Press report that found that, as secretary of state, Clinton granted an undue number of meetings to donors to the Clinton Foundation. De Vries replied, “That doesn’t necessarily prove she was misusing her office,” meaning there’s no evidence that Clinton changed her policies to favor donors of her namesake foundation. But de Vries concedes that, if indeed those meetings did lead to a change in policy, that would be hard to prove.

Should Trump act corruptly during his presidency, campaign strategists from both sides could use the research to their advantage. The campaign of Trump’s challenger in 2020 — assuming he or she has no corruption troubles of their own — could try to ensure voters make the journey to voting for the clean candidate at every step of the way. They could spread the information about their opponent’s corruption, explicitly blame Trump for corruption, and try to get people to care about it. Trump strategists could emphasize identity and ideology, which often matter more to voters than corruption.

If voters are bound and determined to choose an ethically risky candidate, however, are there any arguments against letting them? They are working to their own disadvantage. The research shows corruption can worsen poverty and income inequality, reduce a country’s tax revenues, and make people disengage from their democracy altogether. It may feel good to vote for someone who reflects your identity and views, but, in the long run, it undermines the country’s future. But Americans, take heart: Independent organizations have rated American politics as relatively clean.