“Drain the swamp!” the U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shouted at campaign rallies last year. The crowds roared; he won. “Our political system is corrupt!” the Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders thundered at his own rallies. His approval rating now stands at around 60 percent, dwarfing that of any other national-level elected official. Although many aspects of U.S. politics may be confusing, Americans are clearly more agitated about corruption than they have been in nearly a century, in ways that much of the political mainstream does not quite grasp. The topic has never been central to either major party’s platform, and top officials tend to conflate what is legal with what is uncorrupt, speaking a completely different language from that of their constituents.
Although the political establishment, including the justices of the Supreme Court, may cling to a legal notion of corruption, ordinary Americans’ more visceral understanding is in line with an anticorruption Zeitgeist that has swept the world in the past decade. In Brazil, huge, ongoing street protests over the course of two years have bolstered the federal police force and a crusading jurist, Sérgio Moro, as they have investigated and brought to justice high-ranking perpetrators in a web of corruption scandals. Their work has already led to the impeachment of one president, Dilma Rousseff, and her successor, Michel Temer, is also in the cross hairs. A similar movement has shaken Guatemala, where a UN-backed commission has helped prosecutors bring charges against dozens of officials, including Otto Pérez Molina—who was the country’s president until 2015, when he resigned and was arrested on corruption charges. Earlier this year, South Korean President Park Guen-hye met the same fate.