Trump and anti-corruption — scary but could we talk Tea?

Dieter Zinnbauer
5 min readDec 1, 2016

Over at the fantastic Global Anti-Corruption Blog Matthew Stephenson kicked us off on this highly important discussion what the era of Trump means for anti-corruption activism. I agree, there is a 99% chance that Trumpism is going to be awful for many things in anti-corruption and that a pro-active strategy to try to counter the worst implications needs to be developed quickly. But am I totally wrong in sensing a small sliver of hope for at least a couple of pretty important issues?

And this sliver of hope rests on two pillars:

1. No matter what we think about the actual intentions of the president-elect he has a size-able support base for whom cleaning up undue influence and corruption in the political system really matters.

This is neither new, nor a surprise, but worthwhile recalling. A few years back I did a bit of exploring of grass-roots anti-corruption activists by looking at sites like Etsy or Ebay. As it turned out to my surprise, these are huge market-place for accessorizing against corruption with anything from bumper stickers, to coffee mugs and hats (such as the one pictured above that I actually purchased) offered by a myriad of what seemed to be small vendors and DIY entrepreneurs. And it looked like many of these offering were coming out of and are targeted at the tea party environment. What’s more according to a July 2016 Pew survey, reducing special interest influence was the only issue for which voters thought Trump would do a better job than Clinton by a whopping 20 percentage point margin. Or as Amy Davidson at the New Yorker put it in her post-election analysis:

He did have a sense of what his crowds responded to and knew how to play that up. And what he found that they most responded to if you watch rally after rally is the charge of corruption…. The leveraging of influence and position has become a definition of corruption for a lot of people in America in a way that we did not entirely appreciate.[1]

2. Holding him to account for these promises by trying to hold HIM to account for these promises will not work.

Now this sounds cryptic, but is a pretty simple idea. There may be a point in firing off aggrieved op-eds and press releases into our conventional advocacy to rally the troops. I am sure the pick-up and visibility among the usual suspects could be pretty good. But the chance to get the president elect or his staffers to listen and respond (cave in to the “pressure?) looks like a bit of a very distant hope.

Instead, the only somewhat promising tactics might be to get his grass-roots supporters base to do this type of holding feet to the fire. And this will require a fundamentally different communication and outreach strategy. It would entail channeling the huge appetite for clean politics into a small set of clear, worthwhile ambitions and planting a flag for these prominently in his supporter community. Perhaps along the lines of: “look, if you really do care about cleaning up Washington you should pester your man to make true on the following five things that would really make a difference.” This is aligned quite a bit with the strategy that Theda Skocpol has outlined as one of the main tasks ahead for the longer run:

So part of what has to be done is to put in place a much better strategy for spreading accountability messages, not just in New York and SF but across the country”… a much better noise machine to explain repeatedly in everyday language how the things… that Donald Trump is signing into law are hurting the people who placed their hopes in him”.[2]

I would then harbor some naive hope that this might actually be a way to nudge someone to follow through on at least some of his promises about cleaning up politics who a) right now does not seem to owe any big powerful supporter any big favor (yet) and b) who might be keen on quick wins that signal follow-through on key promises to the activist base (particularly when other things might be impossible or totally unacceptable to follow through on).

Two big questions remain however:

  • what are the three or five clear, impactful ambitions that should be put out there (term limits? much longer cooling-off periods for the revolving door, much more mandatory disclosure on corporate political activity (as derailed by the GOP short before the SEC could mandate it)? Other things? I am not an expert of money in politics in the US so others are much better positioned to draw up a shortlist.
  • who actually knows any Trump supporters and frequents the media spaces that would be worthwhile messaging to? I think this is actually the main challenge. But fighting one’s personal filter bubble seems to be the New Year Resolution of choice anyway and one could start tracing the footsteps of master tactician Ralph Nader who has already for quite some time argued and worked for connecting with some segments of the Tea Party on these issues.

Does this all sound too crazy? There already is considerable establishment push back on some of the very promises that Trump made on related issues, and his early decisions suggest that this window may not be very for very much longer. As of late November de-facto (if not registered) lobbyists are already successfully jockeying for influential jobs in his administration. And a a huge fundraising outreach to corporate America for sponsoring inauguration events is already helping weave those structures of reciprocal gratefulness and helpfulness that compromise decisive reforms against vested interests.

So high time to think about how this opening could be real and useful — before it is gone.

[1] Amy Davidson in The New Yorker, Politics and More Podcast, Nov 14, 2016

[2] Theda Skocpol, No Jargon Podcast, Episode 57, November 11, 2016

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Dieter Zinnbauer

governance, innovation, justice, tech and cities — copenhagen business school — views all mine