As I sit in front of the television with a big bowl of bourbon-soaked popcorn on my lap settling in to follow the Manafort trial, naturally my thoughts drift back to a simpler, less demented time.
I’m old enough to remember when a scandal was still a scandal. I’m also old enough to remember black and white television and when a slice of pizza was only 25 cents. But don’t let my decrepitude fool you. I still have my marbles. I’m a good deal younger than our president and I, at least, have been publicly acknowledged to be sanity-adjacent.
One thing I’m clear on is that since the arrival on the public stage of Donald Trump, scandals just aren’t what they used to be. They have suffered a serious devaluation, almost as serious as the blows to America’s international standing under Trump. The two are not unrelated.
For example, back in 1987, there was a senator named Gary Hart. You may remember him too. He was the clear front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination and a talented, smart and telegenic candidate, a shoo-in if there ever was one. And then, there was a rumor of an extra-marital affair, a denial, a picture of him on a boat on the island of Bimini with his girlfriend Donna Rice on his lap, and he was done. He had to resign from the race.
A few years later, two of Bill Clinton’s nominees to be attorney general of the United States, exceptionally gifted and accomplished women named Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood, were bounced from contention when it turned out the former had not paid taxes for the nanny she employed and the latter had a maid that was undocumented.
The chairman of the Bush Administration Council on Environmental Quality, Philip Cooney, had to resign over an instance of altering climate reports, something that is today standard operating procedure in the Trump Administration. During the very nearly scandal-free Obama years, a dedicated public servant with whom I once worked in the government, Martha Johnson, had to resign her office as Administrator of the General Services Administration after it was revealed that the agency had overspent on a conference for 300 people.
The conference cost was approximately $800,000—roughly 25 percent of the cost of one Trump trip to one of his resorts, less than the cost of a handful of personal trips for disgraced Trump HHS Secretary Tom Price, or, approximately eight times the cost of one trip to Morocco by ousted Trump EPA Administration Scott Pruitt.
In the past, even lesser offenses proved politically fatal. Sen. Thomas Eagleton was forced to drop out as Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s running mate because he sought psychological treatment he had not reported. Once, a truly outstanding American, then Sen. Edmund Muskie, while responding in a snow storm to a dirty trick letter and an unfair newspaper attack on his wife appeared to be crying, to be too emotional. It ended his campaign.
Now, of course, we are in a different world. Pruitt was under investigation for 18 scandals by the time he was forced to resign. Ryan Zinke, the current secretary of the interior, is looking to better that record. He already has 12 federal investigations into his activities under way… and he still has his job. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross could soon be a contender in this game with multiple reported instances of lying to Congress, conflicts of interests and worse.
Trump has been accused of sexual abuse or misconduct by at least 19 different women. He also faces on-going investigations or suits into his campaign’s possible criminal conspiracy with the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 elections, obstruction of justice associated with that investigation, violations of the emoluments clause of the constitution, his foundation’s violation of New York State laws for its operations... and that is only the tip of the iceberg.
More than 30 people have been indicted, convicted or pleaded guilty to over 200 charges in the Mueller investigation. His former campaign chairman goes to trial this week on 32 counts of a federal indictment against him. And Trump still has record poll ratings within the Republican Party. (And none of this is counting the other scandals within the administration nor is it addressing the fact that the president wanted to keep many officials associated with serious scandals on the job, ignoring the scandals or potential ethics violations—including Mike Flynn, Rob Porter, Sebastian Gorka, Dr. Ronny Jackson, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Ben Carson.)
What happened? Why aren’t scandals what they used to be? How is it a president who clearly embraced the support of an enemy, defended it, benefitted from an attack by its military intelligence on the United States, has repeatedly lied about his ties and about the evidence of the attack, and made major shifts in U.S. policy to serve the goals of that attacker-benefactor, could actually go and publicly embrace the man behind those attacks and still be in office?
There are many reasons. First, as a society immersed in information and scandal, we were getting harder and harder to shock even before Trump arrived in office (as is illustrated by the fact that Trump’s “pussy tape” did not apparently disqualify him with his base.) Second, the oversight functions in the United States government, the checks against executive branch abuse are completely dormant. The Republican-led Congress has said that even egregious ethics and national security abuses just won’t trouble them. To the contrary, they’ll come up with their own cover-ups to try to protect them up—even creating new scandals of abuse of power, defamation, and obstruction along the way…and then serially ignoring them as well.
Perhaps most importantly we have under Trump an avalanche of scandals so great, so unmatched in US history that it is impossible to keep track of them all. In the past, I’ve called this “the fog of Trump.” His antidote to repeated violation of norms and standards, of laws and of the public trust, is actually, perversely, boldly, even more violations. If new charges supplant old charges and distract from the debate long enough, he can serve out his term even as he and his cronies cash in on the presidency and serve foreign masters.
In short, Trump, a man who has no apparent knowledge or understanding of economics, has managed to engineer a massive deflationary spiral when it comes to scandals. Or to put in terms of the president’s main pursuit, golf (he has played over 135 times since taking office at a cost of over $70 million), Trump, the innovator, has created the “corruption mulligan” which seemingly spots members of his team a few big time scandals before they even show up on their score sheet.
For Team Trump, it’s money in the bank. For the rest of us, it is a debasement of politics so profound that we now apparently can hardly be bothered to get outraged at Nazi sympathizers running for office, we sniff at instances of candidates accused of being drawn to Bigfoot porn, and we simply shrug at what might be treason.