It is the day before the 2016 US presidential election. Donald Trump is addressing a rally in Sarasota, FL. Fourteen minutes into his speech, he pauses: “My contract with the American voter begins with a plan to end government corruption and take back our country and to take it back swiftly from the special interests who I know so well. I want the entire corrupt Washington establishment to hear the words we are all about to say. When we win tomorrow, we are going to drain the swamp!” The crowd erupts with “drain the swamp!” incanting a meme that spread swiftly on social media in the lead-up to the election. The notion that Trump—a billionaire who profits from global urban real estate development—could rid politics of special interests, wealth concentration, and rigged systems captured a base of rural white voters across incomes in a way that the left vastly underestimated. Even as corporate barons and Washington insiders now crawl around Trump’s swamp, he continues to dangle anti-corruption in front of his base.
How did a New York real estate magnate mired in scandals, including a lawsuit for fraudulent advertising by his university, the refusal to reveal his tax returns on the pretext that “Americans don’t care at all” (it turns out many do), a federal investigation into anti-black bias on his properties, and the confessed misuse of funds by his charitable foundation—not to mention personal sexual misconduct—manage to make anti-corruption a centerpiece of his campaign? Now in power, how will the vast entanglements and conflicts of interest between Trump’s real estate empire and political life be assessed, especially since he has declared himself above the law and stated emphatically that he can “run his business and run government at the same time,” thus violating the constitutional emoluments clause? In short, what is and what is not “corruption?” Rather than focusing on Trump’s scandals per se, we suggest that critical attention to the uses and silences surrounding the word “corruption” sheds light on more fundamental cultural and political dynamics undergirding the turn to the right in the US and elsewhere.
Trump understands what many have missed: corruption is a powerful story. And stories can be spun. Promises to root out corruption—by leaders who are often themselves embroiled in nefarious activities—are a common feature in authoritarian populist rhetoric from early 20th century Germany (Paxton, 2004) to contemporary Brazil, Thailand, Nigeria, and India. Talk of corruption legitimates authoritarianism and is often the deciding factor behind who gets to decry and be absolved of “corruption.” Talk of corruption is opportunistic. It can win elections by stoking popular discontent. And sometimes, depending on the winds of change, corruption stories can even be purposed to expose exploitative collusions between the private and the public, and the corrosive influence of money in politics, as Bernie Sanders set out to do with his campaign. Whether or not a corruption story gains traction depends less on definitions, data, and criminality—which, in any case, is a flexible social construct—than it does on the wider power relations and historical context in which the corruption story is embedded.
Our research shows that corruption narratives powerfully harness different worldviews, including those deriving from political and economic ideologies, as well as those based—however subtly—on bigotry, patriarchy, and xenophobia. In particular, what is imagined as corruption is inextricably tied to race, class, gender, and other relations of power. Recent analyses attribute Trump’s victory to the rise of white working class populism, yet few appreciate the role of corruption—imagined and real—in conjuring racialized imaginaries of a nation in moral and economic decay. We propose that in the current political conjuncture, fixing “corruption” and the “establishment” is an affective—and effective—subtext about asserting whiteness and its imagined corollary, Americanness. It is thus entirely consistent for Trump to claim to fight “corruption” in the face of his own myriad conflicts of interest and the potential kleptocracy and nepotism of his reign. These dubious entanglements do not stick in the minds of many Americans as “corruption” because such agendas reaffirm whiteness in subtle and not so subtle ways. His cabinet’s positions on defunding public education, turning over health insurance to the free market, eroding environmental protection, turning back fair housing, undermining voter rights, and criminalizing immigrants are all seen as consistent with fighting “corruption” because these are moves that reinforce whiteness. And what reinforces whiteness will always be perceived as morally superior to what challenges it. This is the perverse morality of whiteness in our age.
Our concern here is not with a thin notion of whiteness as white skin color, though it is undeniable that Trump’s cabinet is the whitest and male-est in recent history, and at least one member openly embraces white nationalism, while another has a documented history of anti-black racism. Rather, following critical race theorists, our concern is with whiteness as a normalized and unspoken “structure of values, a worldview, and way of life” (Birt, 2004: 54). Whiteness is a foundational system of laws, ideas, economic relations, and cultural and normative codes that normalizes racial and economic hierarchy. Whiteness is a form of amnesia that erases the processes of racial capitalism, imperialism, and patriarchy in which racialized dispossession is embedded. Whiteness is the refusal to acknowledge how property, accumulation, and knowledge privilege white skin. Whiteness also enrolls people of color through the exceptionalist mythology of Asian and other “model minorities” (Prashad, 2001). Whiteness perpetuates structural racism by taking as natural structures of oppression—prisons, schools, and neighborhoods—focusing instead on the moral deviance of individuals subjugated by these systems. Finally, whiteness is a way of being-in-the-world that is unmarked, yet is a profound marker of others; as the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon (1967: 87) put it: “white eyes” are “the only real eyes.”
When Trump fanned the flames of his base with #MAGA, #draintheswamp, and “build the wall,” he was hailed as an economic populist empathetic to the grievances of the “forgotten” who were up against the corrupt establishment epitomized by the Clintons. Sensitive portrayals of Trump’s America (e.g. Hochschild, 2016) point to the deep anxieties of downwardly mobile whites who feel looted and abandoned by a distant and bloated government; their Christian family values under assault. At the same time, as Robin DG Kelley writes in the forward to Henry Giroux’s (2017: xiii) book, America at War with Itself, the portrayal of Trump as a crusader for working class interests “ignores both the historical link between whiteness, citizenship, and humanity, and the American dream of wealth accumulation built on private property.” This unspoken and normalized white morality is not new, but sits at the heart and soul of American liberal democracy. As Petrella and Loggins have recently put it: “rather than existing at the recalcitrant edge of US politics, white supremacy is central to the US nation-state—a political entity whose very kernel rests on exclusionary practices, policies, and laws that racialize national belonging.” Evidence of entrenched white supremacy in contemporary America is legion: mass incarceration of African Americans, the destruction of voter rights protections, anti-immigrant policies, and ongoing practices of neighborhood redlining that perpetuate disinvestment in black, immigrant, and other minority neighborhoods. Such racial hierarchies have long been asserted alongside public opinion blaming inequality on the “culture” of poverty, immorality, and irresponsibility that is said to beset people of color.
Due in no small part to the perceived economic and political advancement of blacks and Latinxs, the Obama years saw a return to such cultural arguments and widespread suspicion of welfare (Taylor, 2016). The right masterfully harnessed this resentment, while thwarting programs that could genuinely support working class interests. The net result is that Trump’s supporters shun a corrupt establishment that is perceived to cater to racial minorities, “illegal voters”, “burning and crime infested inner-cities,” and myriad non-Americans at their expense. This, then, is the “corruption”—not the vested interests of his super-rich cabinet nor the skewed policies they embrace—that Trumpian logic seeks to “drain,” a corruption seen to be fundamentally at odds with a muscular white identity. This is a very potent racialized narrative.
Trump’s anti-corruption story possesses a semantic force rarely seen in political speech in America in recent memory. The word “corruption” has a long and curious career in American politics. At the turn of the 20th century, progressives railed against influence peddling by big business, eventually laying the foundations for antitrust and anti-corruption laws—that is, laws prohibiting the concentration of business power via cartels or monopolies. Such laws were to become pivotal in prosecutions surrounding Watergate and other political scandals by the 1970s, as Zephyr Teachout (2014) has chronicled. The Civil Rights victories and anti-Vietnam War protests of that era also foregrounded structural racism, US imperialism, and the immorality of unchecked capitalism. In other words, the 60s and 70s were a period in which anti-corruption was and could be—given prevailing circumstances—leveraged as a progressive anti-racist critique.
Yet, the rise of counterinsurgency attacks against anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism in the late 1970s, followed by the end of the Cold War, has meant that “corruption” has been much more selectively used in US domestic affairs, even as it has readily been applied to denounce and sanction “Third World” governments abroad. Post-Watergate, the Democratic Party “killed their populist soul,” as Stoller argues, by abandoning its anti-trust agenda, choosing instead the moderate neoliberalism—i.e. market reform of public services, trade liberalization, and corporate concentration—exemplified by the Clinton-Obama agendas. The move towards the market in America was mirrored internationally, and, in turn, anti-corruption abroad became profoundly inflected by a pro-market agenda contrary to its original intention.
International anti-corruption efforts in the 1990s, led, in particular, by the World Bank and its sister agency, Transparency International, dovetailed with the global push for market and financial liberalization and the downsizing of states, often affecting the poor and ethno-racial minorities in postcolonial and postsocialist states the most. As anthropologist Janine Wedel argues, in the geopolitics of the post-Cold War era, anti-corruption reform was found to be politically advantageous to western actors seeking an enabling environment for business investment in the former Soviet Union, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. The potential corruption of western anti-corruption warriors themselves and the history of colonial, neocolonial, and capitalist relations in perpetuating state looting, autocracy, and oppression abroad were often rendered invisible by neoliberal anti-corruption agendas.
Simultaneously, as corruption was being policed abroad through the iron fist of the market, in America it was underemphasized and effaced. This is not because corruption somehow disappeared in America, but because it had been cloaked, as Jean and John Comaroff (2006) put it, in “a veneer of legality” by those that stood to gain the most from it. When it comes to Citizens United or corporate influence in politics or the blatant dispossession that occurs via the upward concentration of wealth and land, there has been laxity in the application of the term “corruption,” as new anti-corruption movements have sought to redress. Perhaps it is time that we return to a definition that acknowledges corruption as a powerful narrative, and harnesses this narrative to demonstrate how abuses of power dispossess groups of all races and ethnicities.
If stories can be spun, they can also be re-spun. In this age of global inequality, how people tell stories about corruption matters a good deal. We have argued in our research that “corruption” can also be the name given to what many around the world see as an increasingly inequitable political-economic order. Recent anti-corruption mobilizations from Cairo to Mumbai express discontent over extreme inequality, authoritarianism, and a host of wealth-usurping collusions between states and elites—especially those concerning urban land (Doshi and Ranganathan, 2016). In pivotal moments, these movements have demonstrated how diverse cross-class coalitions can reimagine anti-corruption to call out wealth concentration without resorting to regressive ethno-national politics. In America, the left could lead such an agenda by returning to its anti-trust roots and making visible the effects of corruption and its longstanding connections to racial capitalism.
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Comaroff J and Comaroff JL (2006) Law and Disorder in the Postcolony. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Doshi S and Ranganathan M (2016) Contesting the Unethical City: Urban Land Disposession and Corruption Narratives in Urban India. Annals of the American Association of Geographers 107(1): 183-199.
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Malini Ranganathan (@maliniranga) is Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University, Washington, DC.
Sapana Doshi is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona.