By Published: Oct. 6, 2022

Essay collection edited by CU Boulder anthropologists explores expanded notions of corruption in the Trump era

Corruption in the political arena has commonly, if narrowly, been understood as exploitation of political, social or economic power for illicit financial gain, including bribery, extortion, influence peddling, graft and embezzlement.

“Contemporary tales of corruption in the United States have most often centered on how the wealthy exploit corporate power and tax regimes or how powerful politicians use their offices to retain power and secure private monetary rewards,” write University of Colorado Boulder scholars Donna M. Goldstein and Kristen Drybread, editors of a new anthology, Corruption and Illiberal Politics in the Trump Era (Routledge).

But Goldstein, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Drybread, a long-time lecturer in anthropology, present an array of 15 essays that expand notions of corruption to include a wide array of political abuses of power, from illiberalism to the obliteration of norms, stacking courts, repression of opponents, police brutality, persistent racial inequities and a “corrosion of character” that prizes “avarice, individualism and short-term gain above collective well-being, and the future.”

“We’re trying to apply a taboo word, in many ways a strange word for some academics,” says Goldstein. “People in our volume redefine and expand the definition and try to overturn various background ideas about what corruption is.”

Corruption and Illiberal Politics in the Trump Era cover

At the top of the page: Donald J. Trump is the focus of a new anthology edited by two anthropology professors (Trump White House Archive/Flickr). AboveCorruption and Illiberal Politics in the Trump Era is out now.

Corruption is endemic to the United States, the editors argue.

“Elite avarice and country-club cronyism are nothing new. Today’s Wall Street profiteers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Big Pharma families and millionaire politicians arguably have much in common with Reconstruction-era robber barons whose inconceivable fortunes were matched only by their disregard for the law and their greed,” Goldstein and Drybread write.

At the same time, the volume wrestles with questions of whether corruption has accelerated or morphed into something more virulent in the “Trump era”—the 2016 campaign, administration and post-2020-election behavior of former President Donald J. Trump—and whether he is sui generis in American politics.

But while taking seriously arguments that the “Trump era has not created anything new in the world of corruption,” Drybread and Goldstein lean toward the argument that “something is different here.”

“I think we never really have had a president with so many ongoing businesses and conflicts of interests before,” Drybread says.

The 15 essays, written in language accessible to lay readers, address five broad areas: “the Misappropriation of Societal Values,” “Deliberate Cruelty,” “Explaining Trump Abroad,” “The Language, Semiotics, and Grammars of Trump Power” and “Trump Era Lack of Concern for Well-Being.”

That frame includes anthropologists’ efforts to examine corruption “in geographical areas that global powers and agencies have traditionally critiqued as corrupt,” particularly in Latin America and Africa, accusations that have “invited imperial and colonial intrusions.” Despite its propensity to lecture or excoriate other nations on matters of corruption, the United States is, as Goldstein says, “not something special.”

“We are bringing corruption home, talking about it here to undo the gaze on other countries … (and) this idea of looking down our nose and declaring that they can’t govern themselves,” Goldstein says.

Drybread and Goldstein say they are pleased that the essays and even their introduction offer a spectrum of views on the idea of corruption.

“This differs from other Trump books,” Drybread says. “We look at the complexity of corruption from a multiplicity of interpretations. The perspectives are in conversation with one another, and don’t necessarily agree. Readers will come out with multiple new viewpoints.”

In his essay, “On Calling Donald Trump ‘Corrupt’,” cultural anthropologist Aaron Ansell argues that Trump’s supporters view politics as a “Manichean holy war” and cautions against playing into that narrative and even questions the use of the word around which the collection is built.

“Donald Trump is no Robin Hood, but he styles himself one. And if we call him corrupt, we unwittingly retell the story he tells about himself: the story of how his corruption is the revolutionary antidote to our corruption,” he writes. “We reinforce his supporters’ sense that there is an inverted hyperreality to the world, visible only to the spiritual eye of the evangelical or the apophenic ear of the QAnon-er.”

Other essays plumb the depths of everything from Trump’s transgressive nature to the cult of celebrity, masculinity, the power of online communities, misinformation, the COVID-19 pandemic, misogyny and beyond.

Magdalena E. Stawkowski (PhDAnth’14), assistant professor of anthropology at the University of South Carolina, has worked extensively in Kazakhstan. Her essay explores similarities in the ways Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin use what she labels “manipulative statecraft.”

“Both leaders have followed the strongman’s playbook: they have demonized large segments of society, conducted disinformation campaigns to forward their own agendas, and under color of law, used police and the courts to punish the opposition,” she writes.

We are bringing corruption home, talking about it here to undo the gaze on other countries … (and) this idea of looking down our nose and declaring that they can’t govern themselves​.

Drybread examines Trump’s friendship with the late convicted sex criminal and billionaire Jeffrey Epstein as an example of the former president’s “ability to convert moral and legal transgressions into political capital.”

“It is important to remember that corruption is more than just illicit financial or political gain. It is the corrosion of moral principles and ethical standards and their replacement by cruder motives,” she writes. “As Jeffrey Epstein’s case patently demonstrates, this practice entails inflicting pain on people whose lives are not valued, and whose suffering is evidence of charismatic authority wielded.” 

Daniel Jordan Smith, professor of international studies and anthropology at Brown University, examines why Trump is held in high repute by many members of the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria, a nation he reportedly described as a “shithole.”

“Igbos’ shared sense that politics as usual leads to elite corruption with impunity—and the idea that even though everyone knows what’s going on nothing is ever done to change the situation—makes Trump’s disdain for accepted truths popular,” writes Smith, who has done extensive work in Nigeria.

But he also notes that the Igbos and middle-class American men who support Trump are “relatively advantaged groups anxious because they see their status slipping away.”

“Perhaps it should not be surprising that Trump’s messages, primarily derived from and designed to assuage his narcissistic insecurity, are especially popular among relatively advantaged groups anxious about their collective social standing,” he concludes.

The entire collection, the editors argue, explores “the nexus of corruption, late capitalism and illiberal politics in the Trump era.”

“We look at what is different here when we think of politics, money and sex scandals, and what is similar, through the comparative frame our discipline offers,” Goldstein says.