The courts can't save us from ourselves.
Retired Naval War College professor and current Atlantic columnist Tom Nichols argues “We’re Living in Post-Shame America.”
People who have polluted the waters of American politics have had a bad few weeks. Another gang of seditionists was found guilty of plotting against the United States. Donald Trump was found liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of E. Jean Carroll. And one of the weirdest phonies ever to bumble his way into a congressional seat, George Santos, has been booked by the Justice Department for a long list of alleged offenses. (He has pleaded not guilty to all of them.)
Unfortunately, I’m here to rain on your parade, because the struggle to restore basic decency in politics is still mostly a rearguard action.
But first, let’s drink in the good news that there is still some accountability for wrongdoing. The Justice Department secured yet more convictions for seditious conspiracy, this time against three leaders of the Proud Boys and their former chairman, Enrique Tarrio, who now joins the previously convicted Oath Keepers founder, Stewart Rhodes, as another walking example of the banality of evil. The government asked that Rhodes get 25 years in federal prison. For a man already in his late 50s, that sentence (if levied) basically amounts to “from now on.” (Attorneys for Rhodes, Tarrio, and the three Proud Boys leaders have indicated that they plan to appeal the verdicts.)
Back in January, George Santos’s arrival in the People’s House dented my already shaky faith in the People. Santos, however, has finally been ensnared by his own prevarications. As my colleague David Graham wrote today, Santos might have been better off losing and remaining just another unknown flake who took a run at elected office, but like so many people in the age of Trump, his thirstiness brought him both fame and legal attention. Santos remains a free man, but only because three unnamed people have put up half a million dollars of bail money while he awaits trial for 13 federal charges.
And justice, of a sort, snared Trump himself when he was found liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll. Trump’s defenders, including his lawyer (who says that Trump plans to appeal the verdict), are emphasizing that the jury declined to affirm the claim of rape, but they are carefully not mentioning that this decision may have been colored by some confusion about how to apply the term rape. Trump’s own deposition probably helped sink him, and it provided a reminder that our 45th president is a surly, smug child who never admits to a moment of regret or responsibility.
The column-in-chief expands quite thoughtfully on my off-the-cuff observation when Trump was found liable: “I doubt it’ll significantly impact Trump’s standing with Republicans. At this point, I don’t know what possibly could.”
One might hope that Trump’s loss in New York would lead him to slink away in shame, but we now live in post-shame America. Instead, Trump will sit for a town hall on CNN tonight [The column was posted last evening-jhj], where he will field questions as if he is a normal person running for office instead of a sexual abuser who incited sedition and violence against the government he is once again seeking to control.
Trump, of course, has the self-awareness of a traffic cone, and he is seemingly incapable of remorse. But CNN’s decision to move ahead with the event, as if nothing has happened, is disappointing. A more defensible position would have been to scrap the town-hall format and tell Trump that he is still invited to sit, one-on-one, with a CNN reporter. To present him to voters as just another candidate, however, is the very definition of normalizing his behavior.
I understand why CNN, as a journalistic outlet, would give a town hall to every candidate. Trump is the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, and he is by definition newsworthy. (I will be watching, and I will likely write about it, so I am in something of a glass house here myself.) But Trump has just been found liable for a hideous act. This feels, to me, nearly as distasteful as if a network were interviewing O. J. Simpson on his views about the future of professional sports right after his loss in civil court to the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
While I’ve struggled for years with the issue of how the press should handle Trump—balancing the fact that he’s a leading candidate for the Presidency/actually the President with the fact that he’s not normal and shouldn’t be “normalized”—I’ve come to the point where I think he should simply be shunned by the press. Not only is he credibly proven to be a seditionist and a serial sexual assaulter but he routinely lies to the press. Why give him airtime? (The obvious rejoinder: it’s profitable.)
Nichols, a plankholder in the #NeverTrump movement, goes further, though.
Trump and Santos are clowns, and sadly, we’ve gotten used to them. But their antics have also taken our attention away from the indecent behavior of other public figures. One might think, for example, that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would be breathing a sigh of relief that Santos is reaching the end of his cringe-inducing political fan dance. One would be wrong. McCarthy, instead, is mumbling his way through fuzzy and shapeless expressions of concern.
The cause of justice has advanced over the past few weeks. But the cause of decency is still under bombardment from people who have lost any sense of shame, while more reasonable people remain apparently unable to exercise the kind of moral judgment and leadership that should exile extremists, frauds, and abusers from the public square—and especially from offices of public trust.
As has been so often the case in recent years, I have no idea how we come back from the edge of the cliff on this.