The Cable

Anti-Corruption Populists Tend to be More Corrupt, Report Says

And Trump may be no exception.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23:  (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to sign three Executive Orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, January 23, 2017.  These concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a US Government hiring freeze for all departments but the military, and "Mexico City" which bans federal funding of abortions overseas. (Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 23: (AFP OUT) U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to sign three Executive Orders in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Monday, January 23, 2017. These concerned the withdrawal of the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a US Government hiring freeze for all departments but the military, and "Mexico City" which bans federal funding of abortions overseas. (Photo by Ron Sachs - Pool/Getty Images)

Is your country experiencing overwhelming social inequality? Do you and your fellow citizens think it’s because of government corruption? Congratulations! You’re likely to elect a populist leader.

That, at least, is what most nations do, according to Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

The report annually ranks countries around the world based on their perceived levels of corruption (to be low on the list is to be high on corruption). High on this year’s list, released Wednesday are Denmark and New Zealand, while Somalia and South Sudan are listed as the world’s most corrupt nations.

The 2016 report pays special attention to the global rise of populism in the West. It argues that populism is caused by social inequality, which is then exploited by politicians. Taking aim at U.S. President Donald Trump by name, Transparency International notes that, while populist leaders and movements are on the rise in part in response to corruption, they will likely only exacerbate widespread corruption as it continues to seep into democratic institutions.

The Trump Organization on Tuesday said it hoped to expand hotels nationwide, now that the eponymous hotelier is in office. Also, now that he is president, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club in Florida reportedly doubled its membership fees to $200,000. 

And so while Trump, who ran an entire campaign referring to his opponent as “crooked,” is right to suggest that there is a link between corrupt institutions and social inequality, the answer is precisely not to elect a populist leader.

“The track record of populist leaders in tackling this problem is dismal,” writes Finn Heinrich, research director of Transparency International. “They use the corruption-inequality message to drum up support but have no intention of tackling the problem seriously.”

This pattern applies globally. Both Turkey and Hungary have slipped in the corruption index since they elected populist strongmen, while Venezuela has remained at the bottom despite the elections years ago of populist leaders Hugo Chavez and now Nicolás Maduro.

Politicians who run on anti-corruption platforms often foment corruption upon winning — and Trump may not be an exception.

“In the case of Donald Trump, the first signs of such a betrayal of his promises are already there,” Heinrich wrote. “The talk is of rolling back key anti-corruption legislation and ignoring potential conflicts of interests that will exacerbate — not control — corruption.”

Some analysts believe Americans are historically less tolerant of bribery, especially while the media remains independent, making it less likely to tolerate the sort of rampant corruption prevalent elsewhere.

“The great test will be the administration’s commitment to transparency,” Alexandra Wrage, president of the anti-bribery non-profit TRACE International, told Foreign Policy. “To date, with respect to [Trump’s] tax returns and business interests, the signs haven’t been promising. Americans will tolerate a great deal from their politicians, but have generally drawn the line at clear conflicts of interest or perceived self-dealing,” Wrage added, pointing to U.S. politicians who have served prison time for bribery.  

Ultimately, Wrage remains optimistic about a global decline in corruption and rise in transparency, though, she concedes, “the longer term is less promising now than it was a year ago,” she said.  

And that goes beyond corruption. America’s credentials as a democratic republic appeared to be slipping even before Trump’s rise. The Economist Intelligence Unit just downgraded the United States from a “full democracy” to a “flawed” one. Trump’s election isn’t a cause, the EIU said, but rather a reflection of growing distrust of government institutions and officials.

Photo credit: RON SACHS/Getty Images

Ruby Mellen is a fellow at Foreign Policy. @RubyMellen

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