I don’t know why it would have been this story that set me off during this week in which so many other things happened that were so much worse. But then, that’s how our brains work in times like these: The scale of outrages is so monumental and relentless that it overwhelms us; but one little detail emerges, fights its way through the fog, and is somehow clarifying.
For me, it was the fact that Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch gave a speech at Donald Trump’s Washington hotel. This happened Thursday. You may not have heard about it, because as usual, 14 other terrible things were going on that were of arguably greater moment. He spoke before a conservative group calling itself the Fund for American Studies, which says it teaches civics to young people. Gorsuch apparently extolled our First Amendment freedoms.
I could see this as a scene from an early Kundera novel, maybe, as told through the eyes of one of the waiters, who in the context of 1970s Czechoslovakia might have been a former rising star within the party who then committed some transgression and was now forced to live the minor but surgical humiliation of serving chicken breasts to his former comrades as they applauded some official lie or another. The layers of moral corruption at work here are certainly worthy of fiction.
First of all, what on earth was Gorsuch—no, wait. First of all, why am I even typing the words “Associate Justice Neil Gorsuch”? He is on the Supreme Court only through an act of outright thievery. He knows it, and everyone knows it. Blocking Barack Obama’s nominee for eight months was a wholly undemocratic act, and yet, there was no democratic way to stop it. Layer one.
Second of all, what on earth was Gorsuch thinking? Apparently he didn’t choose the venue, the group did. Obviously, these people know very well that in paying rental and catering fees to this hotel, they’re enriching the president. Oh, Trump said that he turned the management of the hotel over to his sons and will take no profit, but at the same time he spurned the advice of ethics officials and retained his ownership interest, which means he’ll profit eventually.
This is yet another one of those de-scandaled scandals that we’ve practically forgotten about but that would already have been drawn up as an article of impeachment if Hillary Clinton had done it. And gee, funny coincidence, the hotel’s profits are way up this year. This is the kind of thing that gives Trump’s Washington itsoily, Third World feel. Mobutu probably owned hotels in Kinshasa, back in the day, where groups that didn’t want to get crosswise of the regime just happened to hold their luncheons.
You may say it’s a small thing, one speech. Well, I don’t. A Supreme Court justice should be above all this. A Supreme Court justice helping to stuff the pockets of a president who flouts ethics brings dishonor to the Court. That Gorsuch can’t see that or doesn’t care about it is staggering. Layer two.
Layer three consists of the dark ironies that inhere in a celebration of the First Amendment by a justice appointed by a president who is already one of the most flagrant enemies of the First Amendment ever to sit in the Oval Office. To a group preoccupied with the teaching of civics! Yes, civics—a word we so closely associate with Donald Trump.
The whole episode, seen in its full context, is surreal. But put alongside other events of the past week, it doesn’t even rank. The president continued his tirade against black football players. Meanwhile, he let 3.4 million brown (and black) American citizens in Puerto Rico twist in the wind for more than a week, shame-tweeting the island about prior fiscal problems, before he finally made a move to assist them.
We learned that six officials of the Trump White House have used private emails. After running a campaign in which Trump regularly incited crowds to chant “Lock her up!” over Clinton’s private emails! Imagine what kind of moral compass you have to have to do that, after that campaign. On top of that it nearly goes without saying that Jared Kushner failed to disclose his account to a Senate committee. On top of that, remember—please; we can’t forget these things—it’s a scandal that the son-in-law-in-chief even has a White House job.
Alabama Republicans nominated a man who doesn’t believe in the Constitution to be their senator. This was counted a loss for Trump, and I suppose it was, but if you don’t understand the many frightening ways in which Roy Moore’s win was a landmark victory for Trumpism, you’d better start paying more attention.
I’m sure there was more. Oh, of course. This tax package. The most surreal of them all. On many levels, but let’s just stick for now to the fact that Trump himself will benefit from it. Massively, if passed as is. And those charming sons, if the estate tax is eliminated.
All this is not just conservative or even ultra-conservative policy. We’ve seen that. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush pursued that. This is something else. It’s the creation of a new political culture with two chief characteristics.
First, an aggressive and cynical indifference to democratic institutions and norms. That is, if the institutions and norms will help Trump and the Republicans achieve their aims, then they will embrace them, praise them, seize the opportunity to sound like normal politicians and good Americans. But if those norms get in the way, they’ll trash them in a heartbeat.
Second, a total lack of what we might call democratic self-knowledge and self-regulation. A president who had any such sense would have made it crystal clear that he would in no way profit from anything while president. He’d never push a tax plan that would save him millions. And a Supreme Court justice would never do what Gorsuch did Thursday.
But now all these things are normal. Hence, the Trump era isn’t just a shift in ideology. It’s a shift in our democratic culture and values; bluntly, a savaging of them. It’s an onslaught. The purpose of an onslaught is to make us forget. Our most important job, as democrats (not Democrats, but democrats), is to remember. Remember every last thing they do. The moment we agree to forget is the moment they get away with it.