It’s particularly striking that President Trump is facing the prospect of impeachment over his contacts with Ukraine, a country that has struggled mightily with its own corruption problem.
Or maybe it’s not surprising at all. Trump is in trouble for, essentially, trying to coerce Ukraine into doing something corrupt on his behalf while he claims that Joe Biden was doing something corrupt by demanding the removal of a corrupt official who refused to investigate corruption.
If you find that sentence confusing, welcome to Trump’s reelection strategy. The most corrupt president in American history will run for reelection saying that his opponent is hopelessly corrupt. In fact, he’ll repeat the word “corrupt” so often it will begin to lose all meaning, in the hopes that voters just say, “I guess they’re all corrupt.” Which is just about the only way he’ll get reelected.
But the Democrats will be talking about corruption, too. How could they not?
It will be a very different argument depending on who winds up with the nomination, however. While the corruption conversation will inevitably concern the person of Donald Trump, a couple of the Democratic contenders have a much wider critique, in which the problem is not an individual but a system.
The clearest contrast is between the two candidates atop the polls, Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren. As anyone watching the campaign knows, Biden puts his focus on Trump as an individual, saying that once we get rid of him, we can return to normal. While he has some plans that are more liberal than those advocated by any Democratic nominee in the past few decades, on a fundamental level Biden sees the system as a healthy one that mostly requires personnel changes and some policy recalibration. The way to make sure the interests of ordinary people are advanced is to elect someone who cares about ordinary people and promises to work on their behalf, like him.
Warren, on the other hand, argues that as abhorrent as he is, Trump is at least as much symptom as cause, and the deeper problem is a system that allows people like him to use their wealth and power to amass more wealth and power, at the expense of those ordinary people. She was putting that kind of corruption at the center of her campaign before the Ukraine scandal emerged (not that there weren’t endless examples of Trump’s corruption before then).
Should Bernie Sanders be the nominee, he’ll make an argument similar to Warren’s. If any of the other candidates prevails, they’ll make claims similar to Biden’s, that Trump is the core of the problem.
It’s critical to understand that Trump will be making his own personal argument, about the Democratic nominee, whoever it is. He always projects on to his opponent the thing he is guilty of. “I know you are, but what am I?” is Trump’s go-to strategy. He used it against Hillary Clinton in 2016, and he’ll use it again.
The facts will be irrelevant. If we learn that Warren took a selfie with someone whose cousin’s ex-boyfriend’s neighbor’s boss once got a parking ticket, Trump will try to convince us that it’s the worst scandal in American history, and the “Lock her up!” chants will ring out once again.
But of course, he can’t make the same argument about the system that he made in 2016, when in addition to saying Clinton was the crooked one, he claimed that everything was rigged and he’d “drain the swamp.” Trump can’t simply renew that argument, not only because he has made the system far more corrupt than it was when he got to Washington but also for the simple reason that he’s in charge. “We need change” is not an argument an incumbent can make.
So all the fantastical lies he and other Republicans are now telling about Biden are in effect a dry run for 2020, whether or not Biden is the nominee. And to a great extent, it has been a success. It may not be persuading many people to change their votes, but those lies are being hammered home again and again on Fox News and are being accepted by the Republican faithful. As far as Trump is concerned, that’s all he needs to win.