We talk a lot about President Trump’s corruption these days, but with Democrats set to take over the House of Representatives on Thursday afternoon, it’s worth breaking up that corruption into several of its component parts.
There’s Trump’s corruption of our institutions, which includes efforts to diminish public faith in our democracy and authoritarian attacks on the rule of law to skirt accountability. There’s Trump’s personal corruption and self-dealing, and his co-opting of GOP members of Congress as shields against oversight and accountability. There’s Trump’s corruption of our discourse with nonstop disinformation, which includes his daily, routinized lying but also the basing of consequential policy decisions on phony rationales saturated in bottomless dishonesty and bad faith.
When Nancy Pelosi takes over the gavel as speaker this afternoon, she will deliver a speech that telegraphs how Democrats intend to respond to all of these things. Here are a few things I hope Democrats will emphasize in coming months:
Bolster faith in government and the integrity of elections through genuine swamp-drainage. On Thursday, House Democrats will vote on a package of anti-corruption reforms — the first major move of the new Congress. In her speech, Pelosi will describe the goal of this as restoring “confidence that government works for the public interest.”
This measure includes efforts to make voting easier via automatic voter registration; to fortify voting rights, instill nonpartisan redistricting commissions and limit purges of voter rolls; and stricter limits on lobbying. Trump vowed to drain the swamp, but rather than attack legitimate reasons for diminished public faith in government — its capture by wealthy interests and its unresponsiveness to the people — he tried to undermine public confidence in a corrupt and cynical fashion by relentlessly promoting the fake voter-fraud myth, thus giving a presidential endorsement to Republican voter-suppression tactics.
Political scientist Lee Drutman notes that the new Democratic package of reforms is “the most transformative pro-democracy package in decades.” While it will not become law with Trump and the GOP Senate, Democrats should — and likely will — treat this as the foundation for a much longer game, in two ways.
First, as Jedediah Purdy points out, progressives and Democrats appear to be undergoing a fundamental shift in attitudes toward democracy itself. They now recognize that GOP counter-majoritarian tactics and structural advantages have become among their most deeply ingrained obstacles, and that they must be countered through sustained, vigorous reform and through sheer force of mobilization, a recognition we saw play out in the soaring turnout of 2018. Waging the war for democracy itself — on both the state and federal level — is now foundational to any long-term hopes of progress. (I tell this story in my new book.)
Second, establishing Democrats as the party of stronger, better democracy is also foundational to any future progressive economic agenda. As the Roosevelt Institute’s Felicia Wong recently noted, if Democrats are hoping to push for very ambitious governmental reforms of the economy, it will be a nonstarter unless they credibly represent a “government that actually works better for the public good.”
Reject the fake distinction between oversight and governance. Another important reform in the new package that Democrats will vote on is a requirement that presidential candidates release 10 years of tax returns. This hints at another big imperative for Democrats.
The right-wing media has already hit upon a phony talking point that you will hear relentlessly as Democrats take over. Today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page sobs that the main Democratic goal will be “destroying Donald Trump,” via “investigating, not legislating.”
But this is a fake distinction -- between oversight on the one hand and governing on the other -- for the deliberate purpose of discouraging oversight on Trump. In reality, good oversight is a crucial component of good governance. Thus, Democrats will pursue Trump’s tax returns, yes, but as part of a broader effort to ensure that this norm of transparency — which Trump shredded — is restored and enforced going forward for all future candidates in both parties.
As it is, getting Trump’s tax returns is itself good governance. There are legitimate questions as to whether Trump’s tax and other policies are benefiting him, and voters absolutely have every right to full transparency in evaluating the motives behind those policies. In an interview with NBC News, Pelosi signaled that she’ll be taking Trump’s personal corruption and the special counsel’s coming revelations very seriously. That’s good. Making this broader than Trump would be even better.
Unfortunately, some Democrats already appear spooked by the fake “legislate, don’t investigate” argument, and you can be sure dopey pundits will traffic in it as well. Democrats should ignore this, and instead pursue good-faith, fact-based oversight (no Benghazi-style circuses) with real seriousness of purpose. Of course, they should legislate, but under divided government, little will become law. And the desire for a real check on Trump is unquestionably a leading reason voters sent Democrats to Washington. Ideally, that will help restore public faith in the prospect of good governing, as well.
Place facts and empiricism at the center of governing. I’ve already detailed how Democrats can do this on immigration. But in a pleasant surprise, Pelosi’s speech will repeatedly refer to another area where this will be crucial: climate change.
Pelosi will describe this as “the existential threat of our time” and call on Congress to “put an end to the inaction and denial of science that threaten the planet and the future.” This is an area in which the potential consequences of Trump’s lies and bad faith cannot be overstated: Multiple agencies in Trump’s own administration have determined that global warming poses truly dire and terrifying threats to our future, yet Trump blithely dismissed this by saying: “I don’t believe it.”
But his own administration’s scientists do believe it, and aggressive oversight by Democrats can bring this to the fore. The goal should not be to get into a debate over Trump’s climate denialism, but rather to flesh out what the administration’s insiders truly believe about Trump’s deregulatory policies — which are truly breathtaking in their scope, reach, impact and fealty to industry — and the long-term menace they represent.
Trump’s corruption has stained pretty much every aspect of our politics and governance, so there’s a great deal to do, and there’s a real risk of overinflating expectations. But these actions could go some way toward making things better, or at least signaling what better governance might look like in a post-Trump America.