Post-Shame America

The courts can't save us from ourselves.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump stands onstage listening to applause as he arrives to announce that he will once again run for U.S. president in the 2024 U.S. presidential election during an event at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S. November 15, 2022. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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.

FILED UNDER: Society, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    I’ve come to the point where I think he should simply be shunned by the press.

    I’m not sure I agree with that…but he has to be treated as the danger that he is.
    CNN bears a great deal of responsibility for giving us Trump in the first place. They gave him millions in free air-time during the 2016 campaign. Far more than anyone else. Perhaps because he was such a novelty.
    But today they should know better.
    To give him an hour and a half to spew his venomous mendacity is unforgivable. Immediately after Trump’s Town Hall/Campaign Rally the CNN Panel of talking heads tore into him. And as I watched I kept thinking, “You knew what he was going to do, everyone knew what he was going to do, so why did you give him the opportunity?” Kaitlyn Collins just got steam-rolled.
    On top of it all, based solely on his performance last night, E. Jean Carroll should sue him for defamation all over again.

  2. Jax says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: I was wondering about that this morning, too…..just how many times CAN a person sue someone for defamation?! I guess we’re about to find out!

  3. Mikey says:

    I’m reminded of what Masha Gessen wrote in Autocracy: Rules for Survival (it’s rule #3):

    Institutions will not save you.

    Of course, the United States has much stronger institutions than Germany did in the 1930s, or Russia does today. Both Clinton and Obama in their speeches stressed the importance and strength of these institutions. The problem, however, is that many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them—including the ones enshrined in law—depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfill their purpose and uphold the Constitution.

    The national press is likely to be among the first institutional victims of Trumpism. There is no law that requires the presidential administration to hold daily briefings, none that guarantees media access to the White House. Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access. There is no good solution (even if there is a right answer), for journalism is difficult and sometimes impossible without access to information.

  4. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t think this is as dire as you think it is, and I wonder if that is because you come from a heavily Republican milieu. There is not a universal loss of shame in the US. Rather, it happens that one of the major parties has lost all shame and will not hold its members to any account on anything, and therefore they attract the worst people and repel the best. It’s not that there are any more people without shame, it’s just that those people are more clustered and better organized than they usually are. Yes, that clustering is taking place within the Republican Party, but 50 years ago when the they started down this path it could have as easily been the Democrats that sold their souls chasing elections. Given the importance of the Dixiecrats to the Democratic hold on national power it is easy to envision a history in which it was they who sold out minority Americans to safeguard those Southern votes and I think it would have played out exactly the same way: as the party became more and more extreme it would have attracted worse and worse people, which drives away the good ones. It takes a long time to change affiliations, more of a generational change, but it does eventually happen.

    One thing that clouds the issue is that only a minority of people in a party are reasonably aware of what is going on. To most people, politics is sport, and the party is their team. And like in sports, most “fans” can tell you the which is their team and perhaps name a player or two, but they are not engaged beyond that. They don’t go to games, only rarely watch them on TV, and are only aware of wins or losses if they happen to hear about it on the drive into work or if it is a major event. So it is with political parties. 70-80% of the base view it through the lens of the party being their team, but they don’t really know what is going on and don’t really care. We get distressed when we think, “How can my friend support Trump? Don’t they know he’s a terrible person?” Quite often I think the answer is, “Not really”. They are vaguely aware that there are a lot of charges against him, but that’s just politics and they don’t really pay that much attention.

    If we are lucky, the Republican Party will whither away enough to become a non-entity. We don’t need multiple parties in order to represent all sides of important debates. Cities that are all Democratic or all Republican develop factions that represent business interests, or zoning purists, small government cranks, education promoters or environmentalists. Look at Eric Adams in NYC. Yes, he’s a Democrat but he very much ran and now governs on conservative issues. Bottom line we don’t need the Republican Party to get healthy, we just need it to go away.

  5. Chris says:

    When the press was mostly populated with journalists who had experienced the Great Depression and WWII, there was nary a profiteer or power broker who was welcome to overtly influence their news rooms. Those folk’s had serious experience with the downward spiral of humanity into mass chaos, war, and suffering. Simply put, the news icons of American journalism that walked the planet from the 1930s through the 1970s had a sense of duty that extended beyond themselves. Today’s monied maniacs and politicians sow false narratives and distrust of everything that stands in their immediate way to greater profits and ill-perceived glories. As we witness the current disintegration of the Fourth Estate, may God help the United States of America.

  6. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    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 fact is we know how to treat Trump. It’s called a Truth Sandwich. This has been discussed here, before.

    A truth sandwich is a technique in journalism to cover stories involving misinformation without unintentionally furthering the spread of false or misleading clams. It entails presenting the truth about a subject before covering misinformation, then ending a story by again presenting truth. Margaret Sullivan summarized it as “reality, spin, reality — all in one tasty, democracy-nourishing meal”

    You CANNOT give Trump a reality show, which is what CNN did last night. You have to have him on “tape”…tell what really happened, play Trump’s lies, and then repeat the truth, again. And then repeat it, again. And again.
    Far from ignoring him, his bigotry and hate need to be hi-lighted.
    And the man and his sycophants have to be ridiculed for the clowns that they are.
    A three-pronged approach to showing the world what this ass-hat truly is.

  7. daryl and his brother darryl says:
  8. Moosebreath says:


    “There is not a universal loss of shame in the US. Rather, it happens that one of the major parties has lost all shame and will not hold its members to any account on anything, and therefore they attract the worst people and repel the best. It’s not that there are any more people without shame, it’s just that those people are more clustered and better organized than they usually are.”

    This seems exactly correct. And blaming the press for this is moving in the wrong direction. What needs to happen is for the Republicans who still have a sense of shame to refuse to vote for those who do not, even at the cost of losing some elections.

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    @Chris:..may God help the United States of America.

    I predict that there will be no supernatural intervention on this matter. Imperfect, fallible United States Citizens will have to remedy this situation on their own.

  10. just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: Actually, we probably do need multiple parties to represent all of the various interests of our citizens, but because our national politics are largely zero-sum based, having multiple parties will only further fragment an already tenuous structure. Those of us outside the mainstream simply need to accept that we are as disenfranchised as we would be if we couldn’t vote (as opposed to choosing none of the above through non-participation).

  11. just nutha says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: “You need to have him…again. …And again.”
    No, I don’t; I already know that he’s a liar. As to why you need this again and again, I don’t know, but if it helps you, I hope you find somebody who will do it.

  12. Andy says:

    People are addicted to the Trump circus, most especially his enemies. The chances that the media will “shun” him are zero, and I’m sure this blog will also continue to post about Trump.

    The practical thing people could do is tune out and, especially, do what’s necessary to vote in the GoP primary in whatever state they live in.

  13. Scott F. says:

    I don’t believe shame is dead in America. I just think it’s being misapplied.

    Of course, Trump will never feel shame. Neither will his sycophants. But I believe his enablers are shameable and we too easily let them off the hook.

    As Nichols notes, the target for shaming are other public figures like McCarthy, Rubio, and Graham. No evasion or mumbling through can be allowed. The shaming has to be relentless. Some of these public figures still have some sliver of need to have a respectable legacy. Every reporter, pundit, opposition politician, and decent citizen needs to make it clear that public respect and association with Trump

  14. just nutha says:

    @Mister Bluster: Wait…
    You’re not a dispensationalist who believes that the US is the current placeholder of God’s promises for humanity–replacing Israel in that role shortly after the Mayflower landed?

    Wow! That really caught me by surprise.

  15. JKB says:

    A lamentation that the old mean-girl accuse and drive your victim to silence no longer works. Well, that’s kind of what happens when you take middle school girl war tactics wide as social media has. There is no benefit from remaining silent. Prosecutors routinely defame to spoil the jury pool when they go after someone, more so when their case is a house of cards. But they depend on the accused not pushing back in public.

    In any case, Trump can’t “be quiet” as long as you are going after him. His only way to win is to fight in the street. And he loves making good TV.

  16. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    More meaningless word salad, with drivel dressing.

  17. daryl and his brother darryl says:

    @just nutha:
    I’m explaining how the press should handle him. Nothing more.

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @just nutha: I get what you are saying, but it is only true if you accept that the most important thing is that you have a party that represents your specific interests in and of itself, rather than that there is a mechanism for getting those interests realized (which may or may not involve parties). Take Baltimore or Chicago. Effectively there is only one party, but there is no shortage of paths for people to get action on their interests. It may or may not be easy, and may not be possible if their interests are unpopular enough, but quite frankly I think all too many people rely way too much on parties to represent them in what they are trying to accomplish. The problem with doing that is it inevitably makes your interests part of an inter-party rivalry. I think most people, groups or organization that want to get something accomplished would be better off trying to keep it as non-partisan as possible.

  19. JKB says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl:

    If you want to get insight into Trump, the entertainer, just listen to this short of Whitney Cummings talking about when she roasted him. Trump: “That was great television”

    Short of having the FBI go full Gestapo to shutdown CNN, NY Times, etc. you aren’t keeping Trump out of the news, much less social media.

  20. just nutha says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: I don’t think it reaches the coherence standard for word salad. It more like word gruel this time.

  21. Mister Bluster says:

    @just nutha:..dispensationalist

    Good grief! I had to look that up.
    I thought it had something to do with going to the dentist.

  22. just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: I’m thinking more in the terms of believing that governmental structure largely doesn’t support the interests I have at all. Though it does pay lip service to them as if that will make me believe that it only obstructionists that are preventing progress.

  23. Mister Bluster says:

    insight into Trump,..

    I did try and fuck her, Trump said. She was married. I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. … I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there and she was married…
    Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything…
    When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.

  24. DK says:

    Fortunately, there’s a range of options between shunning Trump and enabling him with a live platform in front of cheering, applauding Trump addicts who have placed him at the top of GQP primary polls, to the dismay of those who’d prefer to see Drama Queen Donnie locked up with the key thrown away. Verdict’s out on whether Chris Licht and his ilk are moral enough to pursue the other options.

    There’s no special insight into Trump needed. He’s just a garden variety pathological liar, and a bigoted, perverted, incompetent narcissist to boot. That’s why he lost in 2020, when voters who were duped in 2016 finally caught up to the non-stupids.

    Dementia Donald has always been a loudmouth, spoiled blowhard and con artist who can’t shut up — long before he was facing accountability for his thuggery.

  25. Jay L Gischer says:

    @JKB: Interestingly enough, I’m not a fan of shaming as the go-to solution for people who say things you don’t like, either. I kind of object to how you’re giving it a gender. Lots of men use this strategy, as you highlight. I’m sure there are prosecutors who do this, like you describe.

    AND, for Trump to not be a problem, you have to posit a giant, countrywide conspiracy to take him down. There are emotional stakes here I don’t understand. What is it you’re defending? What is it you want from Trump? What is it you want from politics? From culture? I mean, if you wanted Roe overturned, you got it. What else do you think you’re going to get?

    If there were one thing I could change about the world, it would be to have less “you’re terrible” and more “I’m unhappy”

    I’m unhappy that a guy can talk about how terrible a woman’s fake tits are and get applause.
    For instance.
    I’m unhappy with some of the rhetoric in this blog’s comments. I don’t push back because that’s likely to make me part of the problem. It’s an ugly world.

    It’s also a beautiful world, even though I’m not feeling it right now.

  26. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Once again, CNN got rolled. The line between entertainment and hard news, increasingly fuzzy, has now been obliterated.

  27. MarkedMan says:

    @just nutha: Getting your interests advanced is hard, and at the national level it’s incredibly hard. But voting for a party isn’t going to change that. Large parties are basically sports teams and are just going to have a few interests they work hard for. Small parties are basically special interest groups, but ones who have chosen a particular politically driven strategy. I think in most circumstances it is better for an interest group to stay out of politics, but occasionally it works out very well for them, if they can use their few votes to put someone else into power and exact concessions in exchange. But party or no, interest groups are the way to go. The way to get movement on interests you care about is to organize or join an interest group for that specific thing, develop a strategy for change, and then work with your group to implement that strategy. It may involve government, it may involve businesses, non-profits or direct outreach to the community.

  28. CSK says:

    @daryl and his brother darryl: @Jax:

    Carroll said today that she’s considring suing Trump again.

  29. Gustopher says:

    Trump won’t feel shame, but will Republican voters feel shame?

    Republicans really want to downplay the White Nationalist aspect of their base with a wink and a nod and a bit of obfuscation. They recognize that this is a weakness with the general electorate (and a strength with the primary electorate).

    America is a racist country, but it doesn’t like to think of itself as racist. It’s a spot of genuine shame.

    CNN missed an opportunity to showcase the worst parts of Trump’s base. Where was the Q enthusiast asking about global pedophile rings? Where was the guy with nazi tattoos asking about protecting gun rights? Put Trump in a spot where he has to embrace or disown them.

  30. BugManDan says:

    I understand why CNN, as a journalistic outlet, would give a town hall to every candidate.

    So when are the prime time town halls for Haley, Scott, etc?

  31. Just nutha says:

    @MarkedMan: I think I’ve discovered that I was talking past you rather than to you. My apologies.

  32. al Ameda says:

    Can we finally put to rest, hopefully forever, the expression, “Wisdom of The People”?

    To me, there is no such thing as an abiding ‘wisdom of the people.’ It comes and goes.
    Sometimes a majority of the People have wisdom, many times a majority does not.
    This is one of those times.

  33. DK says:

    @al Ameda:

    This is one of those times.

    Is it? If American voters got their way in 2016, Trump would never have been president in the first place. He’s on his way to losing the popular vote for the third presidential election in a row, a majority of voters have never endorsed Trumpism.

    How the electoral college goes is a different story, but that’s anti-majoritarian by design.