…Trump’s base, as the pollster Stanley Greenberg has written, believes that “politics has been corrupted and government has failed.” It’s not that they approve of self-dealing per se—a poll during the campaign found that ninety-nine per cent of Trump supporters cited corruption as a key issue of concern. But they’re less bothered by individual instances than by the sense that the whole system is rigged to favor élites. Trump’s apparent willingness to blow up the system matters far more to them than the possibility that he might feather his nest along the way. When a focus group of Trump voters with whom CNN meets regularly was asked about his potential conflicts of interest, their response was “Who cares?” These voters may not understand the full extent of the issues. But the example of Traficant suggests that Trump’s conflicts of interest won’t much dent his popularity. In fact, seventy-three per cent of Republicans told a Politico/Morning Consult survey that Trump’s business interests would help him do a better job.
Furthermore, though voters claim that they worry about corruption, a lot depends on context. Partisanship plays a big role: Republicans cared a lot about the Clinton Foundation but gave Trump a pass. Besides, issues that the press and government reformers take very seriously often matter less to ordinary voters. A recent study of Berlusconi supporters found that the constant barrage of scandals simply increased their tolerance for corruption. The political scientist Arnold Heidenheimer draws a distinction between “black corruption”—things that just about everyone thinks are unacceptable, like outright bribery—and “gray corruption,” which appalls élites but elicits only shrugs from ordinary voters. Absent a clear quid pro quo, conflict of interest seems like a classic example of gray corruption.
That doesn’t mean that ethics watchdogs should stop going after Trump. But his opponents would be unwise to place too much hope in the process. Traficant remained popular because voters felt he represented their interests, and because he was able to get them their share of pork-barrel money. As one Youngstown native said in the recent documentary “Traficant,” “He was a crook. But he was our crook.” Likewise, with Trump, the real question is whether he’ll be able to deliver the goods that his supporters expect, so that they continue to believe he’s on their side. Voters sent Trump to Washington to shake things up. Saying that he isn’t playing by the rules only affirms their faith that he’s the right guy for the job.
James Surowiecki, “The Corruption Conundrum”, The New Yorker (6 February 2017), 19.