What relates a dish of sea-urchin ravioli draped with lobes of sea urchin to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy?
Let’s begin with the ravioli.
It’s one of the signature dishes at the swanky Four Seasons restaurant on Park Avenue in Manhattan. “Head-spinningly rich” according to The New York Times food critic Pete Wells.
Before Wells got to the food in his review of the restaurant, he spent seven paragraphs anguishing over the moral barrier involved in crossing its threshold.
The Four Seasons is presided over by Julian Niccolini, who with a partner has owned it for three decades. In 2015 Niccolini was arrested on a felony charge of sexual abuse. After pleading guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor assault, he was given a conditional discharge.
Before that there had been other charges against Niccolini of sexual harassment and discrimination.
“I know people who will never eat at the Four Seasons,” wrote Wells, “because they don’t want to give Mr. Niccolini their money.”
Nonetheless Wells, after this long throat-clearing, went ahead and stuffed himself with epicurean relish—for three meals.
As though morally cleansed he noted that he never once saw Niccolini.
Now, I don’t want to make a greater moral indictment of a respected food reviewer than he should carry. But his decision to break ranks with other food writers who, he admitted, have refused to cover The Four Seasons as long as it is owned by Niccolini, does alarm me.
Admittedly, in the big scheme of our current moral turpitude it might be judged a minor offense.
But that’s the point: small offenses like this eventually accumulate into a critical mass until they become the onset of a slide into something far worse, the ability of a people to disassociate from unpleasant reality.
Berlin Blind Eye Syndrome
One of the most consequential examples of this state of mind is what I call Berlin Blind Eye Syndrome.
In 1936 Adolf Hitler staged the Olympic events in Berlin as a showcase for the glories of Nazi Germany. Many distinguished people from all over the world attended. It was a propaganda triumph, sustained by a brilliantly shot documentary by Leni Riefenstahl, working for the evil genius Joseph Goebbels.
Afterwards many of those who gave the value of their stature to the event pleaded that in 1936 nobody really knew how bad the Nazi regime was.
Bollocks to that. Between April 1933 and the opening of the Olympics 10 anti-Semitic legal measures had been publicly promulgated by the Reichstag, the tenth declaring:
“Imbued with the realization that the purity of German blood is a prerequisite for the continued existence of the German people, and inspired by the inflexible will to protect the German Nation for all times to come, the Reichstag has unanimously passed the following law.”
The law prohibited marriages between Jews and “subjects of German blood”; banned sexual intercourse between Jews and those of “German blood”; prohibited the household employment by Jews of non-Jewish females under the age of 45, and forbade Jews from flying the national flag.
Violators were to be sent to concentration camps.
There is here, of course, the risk of false equivalence. We are not threatened by anything resembling the full Nazi terror machine—although we have seen hundreds of babies snatched from their mothers and assigned to places as spartan as concentration camps.
It takes a hard heart to dream up these actions, and it takes equally hard hearts to enforce them.
Less obvious is the suffering caused by overburdened bureaucracies. More than 760,000 immigration cases are waiting to be heard in American immigration courts.
This kind of stuff, every bit as discrediting as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, happens largely away from regular news coverage and, even after an initial venting of outrage, tends to fade into the ever-extending stream of background noise while the foreground is captured by newer outrages involving Trump.
That’s why it was astonishing to see, on Fox News, McCarthy urging Democrats not to investigate Trump because “America is too great of a nation to have such a small agenda. We’ve investigated this for a long period time. Both sides have come up with nothing.”
Nothing? This goes way beyond Blind Eye Syndrome.
It’s not just that the Republican Party still feels that it can swat away the tawdry trail of evidence coming out of New York, of payoffs to silence Trump’s mistresses (Senator Orrin Hatch: “I don’t care.”)
The real outrage is their studied indifference to the Russian operations in the U.S..
The scale of the Russian intervention in the election (and still continuing) is no more in doubt. Putin has conducted a sustained and successful attack on the U.S., using both cyber warfare and disinformation through social media.
Of course, much of this took place in the last year of the Obama administration. Early this year, former Vice President Joe Biden said that they had wanted to make a bipartisan statement in 2016 condemning Russian interference but it had been blocked by McConnell. Biden said that that moment made him realize that “the die had been cast… this was all about the political play.”
Even if Russia didn’t succeed in swinging the election to Trump (and we can’t be sure that it didn’t), blocking a protest at that critical moment on partisan grounds approaches 9/11 levels of dereliction, and you have to wonder if all of this had not been shrewdly anticipated in Putin’s playbook, the fruit of long and careful study of Republican tactics.
McCarthy and McConnell long ago moved from being Trump appeasers to Trump accomplices. If anything, as the evidence of collusion mounts by the day they are doubling down. Responding to Republican Senator Jeff Flake’s proposed bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller probe from Trump, McConnell said, “this is a solution in search of a problem” and dismissed the idea that Mueller’s independence was in danger.
Also reeking with the stink of moral decay is Trump’s continuing refusal to acknowledge that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was the psychopath behind the dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a position backed up by Secretary of State Pompeo.
Even when the two grotesques came together in a grisly scene at the G20 meeting in Argentina, Putin giving MBS a high five, Trump (and his Saudi-hugging sidekick Jared Kushner) remained on the side of the money rather than the moral disgust.
But let’s be clear. Trump, as appalling as he is, is not the real problem—he is the inevitable result of the problem. The Republican Party would endorse the selection of a horse as candidate if it promised victory and followed their agenda.
Over several decades the Republicans have partly created and expertly exploited a broken system that regularly gives them a majority in the Electoral College. The built-in weighting of the Senate so that least populated states are over represented and the most populated states are under represented better matched their rural base than it did that of the Democrats. This bias was then cemented with gerrymandering.
Every political system produces people who learn how to expertly exploit them.
When southern Democrats gave their party a dependable base it was the guile of Lyndon Johnson that made him the master of the system, reconciling northern progressives with southern conservatives. Now it is McConnell who, more than any other Republican, is the supreme technician of the system, quietly loading the courts with judges who pass his smell test.
If there is a model for the McConnell method, it is the apparatchiks of the Soviet machine. An apparatchik has been described as “a man not of grand plans, but of a hundred carefully executed details.” Largely out of sight he cultivates alliances, subtly coerces with the promise of favors or the threats of reprisal, moves each piece toward the goal and, crucially, anticipates and blocks any threats.
It’s a form of power that doesn’t advertise its power, and McConnell thrives at it. There is no ethical foundation. It is barren of moral underpinnings. Sooner or later a president would arrive who was as barren. Trump is that, with bells on.
Right now there is a weird distortion of the concept of a public moral compass. Once a crime is committed and you get caught you can trade the level of penalty for the level of your collaboration with prosecutors. General Mike Flynn tells all, and serves no jail time. Michael Cohen tells some, and gets three years.
You can’t teach children basic ethics that way. Trump and the Republicans have taken us into new terrain where we have to wait for the rule of law to decide rather than know ourselves not to commit the crime in the first place.
Choosing whether or not to join the crowd at the Four Seasons (with mains priced as much as $85 it’s a self-selecting group anyway) may seem at the fringes of moral dilemmas. But each step—each bite of the shaved white truffles—is a personal acceptance of association with ill repute. And in the end it all adds up to shaping the bigger view of what is reputable and what is not.