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American Political Cynicism Could Benefit Trump in November

If voters believe that democracy works only for the corrupt elites, leaders can more easily subvert democratic norms.

President Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a campaign rally at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport on September 3, 2020, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Steve Bannon’s recent arrest marked the eighth time that a former adviser of President Donald Trump had been taken into custody. When asked about the “culture of lawlessness” that seems to permeate his administration, the president replied, “There was great lawlessness in the Obama administration.”

This response represents a well-established pattern: When accused of corruption, Trump and his allies attempt to levy those same charges against his opponents.

Unfortunately, the focus on presidential corruption plays into the cynical view many Americans have of politics and politicians. Perversely, such cynicism could benefit the Trump campaign for reelection. If all politicians are corrupt, whoever holds the highest office is immaterial.

Given the administration’s past and present scandals, and the well-documented corruption of several of his current and former cabinet members, it may seem like an odd campaign strategy to draw more attention to the notion of corruption with false allegations against former President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

Transparency International — an organization focused on tackling corruption worldwide — gives each country a transparency score from 0 to 100. The transparency score is a composite measure of 13 independent surveys from organizations like the World Bank and World Economic Forum, which look at variables like instances of bribery, protection for whistleblowers and anti-corruption infrastructure in measure corruption. Denmark and New Zealand were the least corrupt countries in 2019, according to Transparency International, with a score of 87. The United States scored a 69, tying with France for 26th place. The average country score was 43.

Polling data paint a far bleaker picture of recent public perceptions of political corruption over the past few years. A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 75 percent of Americans believed government corruption was “widespread.”

A growing cynicism about the value of democracy in both the United States and Europe can increase support for more authoritarian alternatives, according to a 2016 Journal of Democracy study. For example, the authors found that when asked — on a scale of 1 to 10 — how important it was to live in a democracy, 72 percent of respondents born in the United States before 1941 choose 10, as opposed to only 30 percent of respondents born after 1980. Relatedly, the authors note that in 1995, 1 in 16 Americans thought that military rule would be a “good thing.” By 2016, that number was one in six. The study found that Western European countries exhibited similar trends.

Evidence from a Pew Research Center 2019 global study echoes this idea, and suggests citizens of Western democracies — like Canada, the Netherlands and Sweden — who believe that “most politicians are corrupt” also tend to be dissatisfied with the way democracy works in their country. This lack of support for democracy can lead to support for anti-establishment or fringe parties. For instance, a recent study by the European Data Journalism Network measures the growth in support for anti-European Union and populist parties over time. Even in well-established democracies like the Netherlands, the vote share of these parties has increased from 5 percent in 1998 to 30 percent in 2017.

A 2018 Cambridge University Press journal study of contemporary autocrats reveals that strongmen were able to rise to power in previously democratic countries of Hungary, Venezuela and Turkey in part due to their promises to expose the corruption of political elites.

A later 2018 study from the Center for American Progress showed 91 percent of respondents believed that the U.S. government worked to benefit politicians, while only 26 percent answered that the government worked to benefit people like them. In that same study, 68 percent of voters thought that reducing corruption at the federal level was more important than reducing government spending.

When asked about specific instances of corruption, those same poll respondents overwhelmingly stated that these actions lowered their trust in the administration. For example, when asked about Trump family businesses profiting off of the presidency, 57 percent of respondents said this made them feel less confident in the administration versus the 7 percent who said it made them feel more confident.

Yet, without denying corruption in his administration, Trump insists corruption doesn’t matter because everyone else is corrupt too. Americans, historically cynical about the levels of government corruption before Trump, have been primed to accept this argument. When voters adopt the attitude that “all politicians are corrupt,” it allows those who are most corrupt to remain in office.

As a political scientist working in Ecuador, I watched as cynicism regarding the corruption of traditional elites allowed a populist president to rewrite the constitution to strengthen his power and extend his own term limits.

Ultimately, if voters believe that democratic government works only for the corrupt elites, leaders can more easily subvert democratic norms. Voters are less likely to fight to preserve a system that they believe was not working for them to begin with.

In the United States, voter cynicism regarding corruption — and the desire for a perceived strongman to fix it — has been pushed to the extreme by the rise of the QAnon conspiracy theory.

QAnon followers reportedly believe that Trump is secretly working to root out corruption and pedophilia at the top levels of government. The FBI has labeled the movement a domestic terrorism threat, yet 19 Republicans running for Congress and the Texas Republican Party openly support QAnon.

When the president was recently asked about QAnon and its followers, he acknowledged that while he didn’t know much about them, he considered them “people that love our country.” His remarks gave new legitimacy to the shadowy group.

Additionally, GOP supporters in the Senate continue to push a false narrative about Biden’s role in the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor when Biden was vice president. Though these allegations have been thoroughly debunked, White House intelligence officials have warned that the false allegations against Biden are part of a Russian disinformation campaign to influence the November elections.

Addressing voter cynicism regarding the corruption of elites and the intrinsic value of democracy will require concerted action on the part of politicians and voters themselves.

While voters may have overestimated the level of government corruption in recent history, their fears were also not unfounded. That is why Trump’s 2016 campaign promise to “drain the swamp” held appeal to voters.

To counter that push, the Democratic presidential campaign can endeavor to rebuild trust in the federal bureaucracy and demonstrate that any corruption is unacceptable.

A Biden administration could start by investigating ethics violations committed during the Trump administration. The public needs to see officials who misused government funds or lied under oath to Congress being held accountable for their actions.

Future administrations also need to demonstrate that politicians work for their constituents rather than special interests. In so doing, a possible Biden administration should adopt an anti-corruption agenda that reforms campaign financing, better regulates lobbying and ends practices like partisan gerrymandering that make it difficult for voters to hold politicians accountable.

Additionally, the economic crisis surrounding COVID-19 is on course to increase wealth inequality just as the 2008 financial crisis did. This is dangerous as economically disadvantaged citizens — perhaps rightly — take a more skeptical view of government. To start, Congress needs to pass a better economic relief package for citizens economically impacted by COVID-19.

Finally, voters need to do their part. There are real substantive differences between candidates like Donald Trump and Joe Biden in terms of public corruption. While it is easy to be cynical about government — particularly in the Trump era — there are still decent people who serve in office. Rather than cynically expecting politicians to be out for themselves, voters can look to politicians who behave like true public servants.

Yes, some cynicism is healthy. But voters need to stop accepting corruption as a matter of course.

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