I have not thought about James Traficant for a very long time. And I am OK with that. He was an embarrassment to my party and not aligned with my views on a host of policy matters. But as recently noted the antics of the Ohio Democrat sadly link with those of the current populist, Donald Trump, who aroused white nationalists.
In the U.S., the most interesting recent example was the Ohio congressman James Traficant, who served nine terms, from 1985 to 2002. The heart of Traficant’s district was Youngstown, once known as Steeltown, U.S.A. His supporters had a lot in common with the white working-class voters who helped elect Trump, and Traficant himself was in many ways a Trump precursor. He was a populist and a fierce opponent of free trade; he even used the slogan “America First.” He was a media hound, whose outlandish behavior and stream-of-consciousness rants made him a TV favorite. He was vulgar: he talked about kicking people in the crotch and called the I.R.S. “political prostitutes” (later apologizing to “hookers” for the insult).
Traficant was also crooked. Before running for Congress, while working as a sheriff, he was indicted on racketeering charges for taking bribes from the Mob. Traficant mounted his own defense in court and beat the rap, despite a signed confession and tapes on which he talked openly about taking money. In 2002, while still in Congress, he was convicted of bribery, racketeering, and tax evasion. Nevertheless, he won reëlection term after term, by margins of as much as sixty per cent. (It took expulsion by Congress to end his career.) Voters understood that Traficant was not a saint, but they saw him as one of their own. They believed he was looking out for their interests, and they liked his refusal to conform to the standards of the Washington élite. All those things mattered far more than whether he was getting a little money on the side.