State of Disunion

It’s the End of Accountability As We Know It

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As the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump continues, revealing the lengths to which the president has gone to protect himself from the consequences of spectacularly bad behavior, Americans must begin to face a single, unadorned truth: He is, in many ways, no different from any other powerful white American male—able to fatally shoot a person on Fifth Avenue, and get away with murder.

Donald J. Trump did not appear on the scene, a fully formed automaton under Vladimir Putin’s direction when he descended that golden escalator to announce his presidential bid. Trump had lived and breathed and preyed on women and vulnerable contractors for fully 70 years before being elected to the White House. He’d never been held accountable for his degenerate behavior, business failures, or blatant racism—if for nothing else, Trump can be forgiven for thinking that the 2016 election meant that he never would.

In this regard, Trump is not the outlier many wishfully believe him to be, in either American politics or culture. Consider former President George W. Bush, arguably a war criminal, responsible for the post-9/11 deaths of a quarter of a million people in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and currently hawking paintings and paling around with Ellen DeGeneres. Consider Harvey Weinstein, revealed two years ago to be a monstrous sexual predator, but out on the town just last month where he was shocked—SHOCKED—to find that a handful of women thought he should be more ashamed. Consider Les Moonves, former CEO of CBS, credibly accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, and actually fired for his behavior—yet now suing for his $120 million severance package anyway.

We see it over and over again: White men can do terrible things, be terrible people, and make terrible mistakes, and not only face no consequences but expect to continue to command respect and a hefty salary. Consider Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former mayor and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former TV anchor Matt Lauer, comedians Louis C.K. and Bill Maher, on and on and on—an entire society and political system predicated on ignoring, covering up, or actively lying about sexual assault, flagrant corruption, virulent bigotry, and sheer ineptitude. Consider the Republican Party.

What all this means for the American people is unfolding on the news every day. Our democracy is in danger, the lives of truth-tellers upended and materially threatened, immeasurable time and treasure pouring into a massive, show-stopping effort to get one guy to, finally, face consequences. Imagine what might have been if Trump had been held to account at any other time in his life? Imagine what might have been if any of the powerful white men who have failed and failed again were asked to be responsible for the consequences of those failures?

And it really is white men, almost exclusively, who are able to get away with being truly, deeply terrible in America. Like Weinstein, Bill Cosby was smart enough to laser-focus his evil on women with little power (you can, after all, get away with that for a pretty long time, no matter who you are), but Cosby’s in prison now. Roman Polanski on the other hand? Still producing movies.

Most people aren’t out-and-out monsters, though; hashtag Not All White Men. Most of us face natural limits to our talents, and can be counted on to occasionally make dodgy choices, break a few rules, or misestimate badly—but more often than not, men of color and women can’t get away with even workaday imperfections, at least not when in a context dominated by (you guessed it) white men.

In 2014, a Black New Yorker, Eric Garner, flouted a city statute against selling loose cigarettes, and for his rule-breaking was choked to death by the police; that same year a white New Yorker, Eric Trump, flouted state laws and federal tax rules in his foundation’s financial dealings, and, well, he is living and breathing and appearing to be faring just fine. In 2016, Philando Castile was shot to death within 40 seconds of being pulled over for a traffic violation; a few months earlier, white supremacist Dylann Roof slaughtered nine Black parishioners in a Charleston church, after which he was arrested unharmed. Last month, California freshman Rep. Katie Hill was forced to resign from Congress when it was revealed that she had engaged in an improper, consensual relationship with a staffer; freshman President Trump has yet to pay any price for sexually assaulting scores of women over the course of a lifetime, while Justice Brett Kavanaugh, credibly accused of sexual assault, sits on the Supreme Court

Christy Glass, Professor of Sociology at Utah State University, studies this kind of dichotomy of consequences, and describes a “one mistake” rule for men of color and women: “They don’t get second chances.”

Moreover, says Karen Cerulo, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers and co-author (with Janet Ruane) of the 2014 study Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive, powerful men are often actively rewarded for denying responsibility, “whereas if you admit that you’ve made a mistake, there may be consequences.”

So we find ourselves muddling forward in a society in which the most powerful among us are actively encouraged to obfuscate their errors, while the rest of us may neither make nor acknowledge any error at all.

“Think of the harm,” Glass says, “to the individual and for all of us. For our organizations, for our economy, for our politics.”

The harm, as we can see everywhere around us, is sweeping and monumental, reaching into every area of our lives. The careers of countless women derailed or destroyed by men who won’t admit that sexual assault isn’t “flirting”; the lives of countless Black and brown Americans cut short by systemic institutional racism; and an entire country—two countries, come to that—held hostage to a venal incompetent who failed up and into the Oval Office.

Democracy is an experiment that depends not on the infallibility of some, but on the capacity of all to work toward a more perfect union; there’s an inherent assumption of imperfection, of striving toward improvement. Such progress is only possible, though, when the electorate is able to see and acknowledge that mistakes have been made, and we were the ones who made them.

Of course, white men are not the only Americans invested in getting away with screwing up. Not by a long shot.  Simply put, each and every one of us screws up, and genuine accountability is often a struggle. We would all be served by living in a culture that encourages and facilitates the acknowledgment of and accountability for those screw-ups.

“What would it look like if we socially rewarded some kind of genuine grappling with error,” Glass asks, “if we rethought what mistakes mean and instead saw them as critical stepping stones to success?”

If we learn nothing else from this dark moment in American history, perhaps we can learn this: Refusing to grapple genuinely with error can lead, all too easily, to a corrupt buffoon holding the most powerful job on Earth. What will the lesson be, if Trump manages to evade accountability yet again?

We owe it to ourselves and frankly everyone else in the world to establish new social, cultural, and political norms that can prevent that outcome from ever repeating itself in the future.

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