In Bonita Springs, Florida, this March, Bill Lonkart was preparing for the coming Republican presidential primary. In Philadelphia this July, Amanda Berg was gearing up to protest the Democratic National Convention.
Lonkart was 77 and finishing up his second term as a city commissioner. Berg was 22 and still in school at the University of Utah.
But the hardcore conservative and the bleeding-heart progressive had this in common: Both believed the nation’s political system was badly and thoroughly broken. “It needs to be blown up,” Lonkhart said.
Rigged system. Burn it all down. Political revolution. Drain the swamp.
From the crowds cheering on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination to the throngs supporting developer-turned-reality show host Donald Trump, it was the theme that defined the election year: The United States has become so completely broken that it needs a thorough flushing to fix things.
It was also a theme somewhat detached from reality. The nation holds elections regularly, the courts function, and agencies at local, state and federal levels provide services according to established rules ― and without the expectation of bribes or kickbacks, a staple in many dozens of actually corrupt countries.
Indeed, elected officials at every level keep careful track of feedback from constituents, so that in instances where they must choose between angry campaign donors and angry voters, they typically side with the voters.
Thomas Mann, a longtime Congress watcher at the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution, points to issues like abortion, same-sex marriage and even guns, which occupy a disproportionate amount of policymakers’ time even though they are not priorities for big business. “A lot more goes into policymaking and decisions than money, and the idea that it’s all bought and sold is really quite destructive,” he said.
Transparency International, a group that tracks corruption worldwide, ranks the United States 16th among 168 nations ― on par with other Western, industrialized nations and considerably better than China (83rd), Mexico (95th) and Russia (119th), countries mentioned favorably by Trump during the campaign.
“The U.S. doesn’t really do terribly,” said Shruti Shah, vice president of transparency at the group’s United States branch and whose native India is rife with bribery in everything from school placement to construction contracts.
Nevertheless, a sense that the nation is afflicted by pervasive corruption led Berg to travel to Philadelphia to make one final push to persuade Democrats to nominate Sanders before switching her allegiance to Green Party candidate Jill Stein. And it led Lonkart, who spent years holding real responsibilities running a city, to cast his ballot for Trump.
Lonkart said he wasn’t at all bothered by Trump’s lack of knowledge about or interest in the federal government. What mattered, he said, was that Trump was willing to break things. “I don’t want inaction. I want action.”
The concept of change was a really important force. Almost to the point where people were willing to play political 52 card pickup in order to get the person who was going to bring the most change.
David Winston, GOP pollster and consultant
Polling suggests that the attitudes represented by Berg and Lonkart played determinative roles in Trump’s victory last month. Nearly all self-identified Republicans, despite the party’s fractious primary, came back to Trump, who also benefited from support from a significant number of independent voters who cared more about dramatic change than a basic level of competence.
Of voters who backed Trump, according to exit polls, a full 17 percent believed he was not qualified for the job.
“The concept of change was a really important force,” said David Winston, a Republican pollster and political consultant. “Almost to the point where people were willing to play political 52 card pickup in order to get the person who was going to bring the most change.”
Winston attributed the hunger for change to the personal situations of a significant percentage of voters ― the loss of jobs or homes during the recession of 2008-09, and their inability to climb back. “Things weren’t going to change in their lives, and they weren’t happy with where they were,” he said.
According to Mann, though, the overarching sense that everything is terrible, while exacerbated by the financial crisis and prosecutors’ failure to send any bankers responsible for it to prison, is the end result of the Republican Party’s strategy over the past two decades to delegitimize government.
Starting with Newt Gingrich, when he was House minority whip in the early 1990s, Republicans have denounced government itself as disgustingly and hopelessly corrupt, Mann said.
One factor that increased transparency but, ironically, has reduced Americans’ faith in government, Mann added, was easier access to campaign contribution data on the internet. This dramatically increased the number of news stories that sought to connect politicians’ actions to specific donations ― even in cases where donors had given a few thousand dollars in races that in total cost millions. “There’s too much reporting that reinforces the public view that it’s all corrupt,” Mann said.
Meanwhile, Mann’s co-author on a pair of books about congressional dysfunction, Norman Ornstein of the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Republicans’ approach of attacking government grew even worse over the past eight years. “You had a doubling down on Newt’s strategy from the moment [President Barack] Obama got elected,” Ornstein said.
Republicans in Congress treated Obama’s win as illegitimate and, in so doing, legitimized the segment of the party’s base that opposed him primarily because of his race, Ornstein said. “This created kind of a toxic stew.”
And if Sanders’ rhetoric during the primaries started that stew simmering with his talk about the system only working for the rich, Trump brought it to a full boil with his remarks blaming undocumented immigrants and trade agreements that he claimed were forged as the result of open corruption.
I think he was able to thread a certain toxic needle. But he did win, and we’re all going to pay the price.
John Weaver, aide to Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s presidential campaign
The underlying irony for those who sought to end what they perceived as corruption is that they may well have elected a president whose record through the years and whose actions since the election signal it could be the most openly corrupt administration in generations.
Trump, who flouted four decades of tradition by refusing to disclose his tax returns as a candidate, is now refusing to make a clean break from his far-flung business interests ― and is permitting his children to participate in the formation of the government as well as the operation of the family empire. What’s more, it appears so far that he is willing to actively profit from his presidential victory. His hotel in Washington, D.C., just blocks from the White House, for example, has solicited the business of foreign dignitaries who visit the capital.
Critics see Trump bringing the precise sort of kleptocracy and nepotism to his administration that the United States has long criticized in third-world countries.
“He’s doing the exact opposite of everything he promised,” said Robert Weissman, president of the group Public Citizen, which advocates to reduce the influence of money in politics.
John Weaver, a longtime Republican strategist who has worked for Arizona Sen. John McCain and, most recently, the presidential bid of Ohio Gov. John Kasich, said Trump was able to latch on to Sanders’ “rigged system” talk and persuade enough voters in enough key states that he would do something about it.
Weaver said he remembers going to Trump rallies where attendees would tell him that the media were corrupt, too. “What does that even mean?” Weaver asked. “I think he was able to thread a certain toxic needle. But he did win, and we’re all going to pay the price.”
As for hardcore Sanders supporters ― many of whom appear to have stayed home Nov. 8 or voted for a third-party candidate ― Trump’s win seems to have hardened their conviction that they were right all along.
On election night, Berg posted on her Facebook page: “Hey DNC, do you need any more proof that your candidate sucks? She can’t even win against Hitler.”
And Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager, this month continues to attribute Trump’s victory to the Democratic Party’s participation in that same “rigged” system. In an opinion piece published in The Hill, he wrote: “When elements of the party spend decades supporting job-destroying trade deals and cozying up to Wall Street and other corporate interests, it only makes sense that working people and young people’s confidence in the party as a whole has been shaken, if not shattered.”
To Brookings’ Mann, that could be the Sanders campaign’s lasting legacy: convincing an entire cohort of first-time Democratic-leaning voters that the system is beyond repair. “That was his major contribution to this election, unfortunately,” Mann said. “I thought Bernie was very harmful.”