Why Trump’s Bribery Scandal Isn’t Hurting Him

It seems almost beyond doubt that Donald Trump directly paid off Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to stop investigating his Trump University scam with a $25,000 “donation.” No criminal charges will come of it absent a special prosecutor because the person who would be in charge of prosecuting the case would be…the Attorney General who took the “donation.”

That isn’t stopping independent attorneys from filing their own complaints, however, with criminal penalties added. That could get interesting, and is helping to keep the story in the public eye.

The larger question many are asking is why this isn’t doing more damage to Trump. Even as Clinton gets tarred with innuendos about the Clinton Foundation that turn out to be a little bit of smoke with no pay-to-play fire, Trump appears to have been caught making direct bribes but little comes of it.

The first instinct on the left is usually to blame the media for covering Clinton too harshly and letting Trump off too lightly, and there’s some truth to this. But it goes far deeper than that.

Trump reeks of aggressive corruption in all his ways. I don’t think even Trump voters would say they think his business practices were entirely legal or ethical. It’s not that voters don’t know this. It’s that a large percentage of them don’t care.

Also keep in mind the difference between being a businessman doing the bribing, and the politician being bribed. The former are seen as go-getters, and the latter are seen as toadies. Trump has already admitted to bribing politicians to do what he wants–he made it part of his primary campaign platform! The people inclined to vote for Trump aren’t going to be scared off because he gave some cash to a Florida AG to protect his businesses. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of them will see it as a positive.

This is very frustrating to many liberals, because they want presidential politics to be about facts and truth and not about emotions and archetypes. But the few persuadable voters out there by definition tend to be the most ignorant, and the least likely to fall in line with partisan coalition-based thinking. Their attitude is, “I don’t know much about politics, but which person do I think would be likeliest to make the sort of decisions I would if I cared about politics?” That’s where the “person I’d like to have a beer with” phenomenon comes from.

So what would each candidate do, in terms of decision making? Well, with Trump it’s obvious: Trump will do what’s best for Trump, and he’ll bribe, haggle, negotiate, bully, intimidate and coerce anyone he has to to get it. Trump’s big challenge is convincing voters that “what’s good for Trump” can be extrapolated to “what’s good for America” or at least the white middle/working class part of it. Attacking Trump effectively would involve separating what’s good for Trump from what’s good for the country. The bribery scandal glances off him like Teflon because protecting his business interests by manipulating politicians is right in line with what we all expect from Trump. No one cares except for those who were already going to vote against him.

Clinton’s problem is that her decision calculus is far more inscrutable. Those of us who obsess over politics know her wonkish passion for the sorts of issues that she will try to advance with a pragmatic, center-left approach. But most people don’t know that. Most people see Clinton as the sort of person who doesn’t seem to have an intense personal conviction about things, but rather the sort of person who brings in dozens of experts and rich, influential people and listens to them, then tries to chart the most responsible course based on all the input.

The problem with that is that 1) generally speaking, people think the experts have screwed things up really badly, and rich people get their way too often; and 2) there are a lot of people looking for someone not to manage the bureaucracy and listen to it effectively, but to cut the Gordian knot and plow through it.

Allegations of corruption hurt Clinton worse than they hurt Trump, because if your persona is to be the listener who gets along with the bureaucracy and hobnobs to get things done, being the sort of person whose loyalty can be bought turns you into a sinister agent. If you’re a disruptive braggart like Mark Cuban who doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, allegations of corruption don’t hurt you as much because you simply look more effective.

So Clinton and Trump each play to their archetype. If you’re a college-educated liberal who works as a manager in an organization, chances are you’ll be really attracted to Clinton. If you’ve faced discrimination you will appreciate her approach and be disgusted by Trump’s abrasiveness. But others will find Trump’s persona much more appealing.

Presidential candidates aren’t so much people asactors on a stage. They have personas and they play certain roles, within defined archetypes that everyone already knows and associates with them. In the 2000 presidential race, Gore was the nerd and Bush was the jock. To win, Gore needed to become the hip nerd and expose Bush as the selfish jock, but Gore’s team never got that memo because they never accepted the inevitable narrative in the first place. The key to victory is adjusting the script to fit your narrative and not the opponent’s.

It’s likely that complaining about insufficient coverage of Trump’s bribery scandal does nothing to change the script, because the script wouldn’t change even if the story received more coverage.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.