The redemption economy is gearing up for the Trump orbit but we can't let any of them rewrite their villainous histories.
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President Donald Trump’s former campaign managers (the ones who aren’t in prison, anyway), his cabinet secretaries, heads of governmental agencies, the people who for four years did so much as bring the man a Diet Coke, are all about to be out of jobs.
They ought to be unemployed forever.
Normally, when one administration passes the torch to another, there’s a stampede toward policy think tanks, law schools, various institutes and ideas festivals. But in this case? They should be shut out of the post-administration economy. Don’t offer them speaking gigs. No keynote addresses. No corporate conferences sponsored by national brands. No media “commentator” positions. Not for any of them.
It’s time to stop the redemption train once and for all and leave it to rust on the tracks. Anyone who touches Brad Parscale’s book proposal with so much as the tip of their umbrella should be launched into the sun.
The disgraced Parscale is hunting for a multi-million-dollar book deal. Anonymous sources are tripping over themselves to secure favor with journalists only too happy to let themselves be lied to. Anthony Scaramucci worked in the Trump White House for 10 entire days and parlayed that into cushy speaking and consulting gigs from people apparently immune to irony. Rod Rosenstein and Hope Hicks both left the administration and quickly got jobs at an international law firm and in corporate PR for Fox, respectively.
Media figures who enabled or elided Trump’s abuses are not immune from convenient changes of heart. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman announced on Thursday that she’ll be writing a book about Trump’s presidency, having soothed his ego and transcribed his vicious attacks to the detriment of her readers for years. Van Jones broke down in tears on CNN talking about how much Biden’s win meant to him, when just two weeks before the election he was praising Donald Trump for his work on the Black community’s behalf. Rick Santorum, after years of rationalizing Trump’s miserable behavior, pivoted fast as Pennsylvania’s election returns came in, calling the soon-to-be-former president’s assailing of the contest results “disappointing and shocking.”
Trump’s female family seems ripe for glossy magazine covers; the usual first lady/first daughter recipes-and-remodeling features need their Melanias and Ivankas, after all. Never mind that Melania Trump amplified and supported her husband’s conspiracy theory that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States, long before he was a candidate for president. Tiffany Trump, the president’s younger daughter, has already parlayed her presidential fame into influencer dollars, and someone recently registered the web domains “ivankaforcongress” and “donaldjrforcongress.”
Even feminist outlets like The 19th booked Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniels, who presided over Trump’s nominating convention for its live virtual events series, interviewing her like any other newsmaker or dignitary. Trump himself may already be on his way to paying some ghostwriter to rationalize his misdeeds.
Nominally liberal MSNBC is packed with commentators who made their bones smearing Democrats and running racist, xenophobic, hateful campaigns, who now want to disavow the Republican Party they built. Steve Schmidt ran the war room that smeared 2004 candidate John Kerry’s war service and learned everything he knew from destroying John McCain in 2000 with a whisper campaign that McCain had secretly fathered a Black child. Rick Wilson’s proudest achievement before founding the media-friendly Lincoln Project was comparing Democratic Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, to Osama bin Laden.
Charlie Sykes was the talk-radio voice of Scott Walker’s anti-union crusade in Wisconsin that might have tipped the state to Trump in 2016. He’s currently quoted far and wide about hate radio’s destructive influence on the national discourse.
Matthew Sheffield, who created the anti-journalism website Newsbusters, took to Twitter on Friday before Trump was even officially defeated to proclaim his dismay with what conservative media had “become” and pitch himself as a voice for remedying it.
I ruined your lives—now buy my book on how to fix it! It’s a degree of chutzpah O.J. Simpson could love, and it would almost be darkly amusing except for all the people that poisonous anti-journalism ideology has killed in the past 20 years. Newsbusters, despite its co-founder’s disavowal, was wall-to-wall media hate on Monday.
The entire phenomenon of the redemption tour is the outgrowth of a culture that prioritizes forgiveness over atonement, which confuses the act of making amends with actually doing so. Our media are suffused with “feel good” stories of crime victims forgiving their attackers, holding up the selflessness and generosity of those bestowing pardon. Forgiveness is often portrayed as an act of faith, of religious charity. The saving grace of undeserved absolution.
Twelve years ago, at the end of the Bush administration, there was a similar rush to the job market and the bestseller lists. Douglas Feith, one of the Iraq War’s chief architects (I use that word in the Tinker Toys sense) lined up a cushy gig at Georgetown. That august institution apparently didn’t mind his key role in orchestrating (again, we’re talking the Beaver County Junior College Chorale here) the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of Americans for a war over weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.
Bush’s attorney general, John Ashcroft, who argued in writing that the judiciary had no right to oversee the prosecution of the War on Terror, set up his own lobbying firm and was hired by the government of Qatar. His successor, Alberto Gonzales, is dean of the Belmont University College of Law.
Perhaps the most undeserved landing strip was given to John Yoo, now a professor at University of California, Berkeley’s school of law. Yoo spent his formative years working for some of the greatest assholes in the legal community, clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas and racking up awards from right-wing societies and institutes.
Yoo’s greatest achievement, however, was drafting documents for the second Bush Administration in the months immediately following 9/11. Those documents provided legal reasoning why torture methods—long abhorred by the lawful governments of the world—could and should be used against those the U.S. deemed terrorists. Waterboarding. “Stress” positions like tying someone up and leaving them that way for hours. Sleep deprivation. Fun stuff like that.
During a 2005 debate with Notre Dame’s Doug Cassel, Yoo explained that the president had the right to crush a child’s testicles if that kid pissed him off. No, really:
CASSEL: If the president deems that he’s got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person’s child, there is no law that can stop him?
YOO: No treaty.
CASSEL: Also no law by Congress. That is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo.
YOO: I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do that.
It is not unreasonable to think that people who gave that guy a job teaching young people about the law would help whitewash the men and women who put immigrant children in cages. After all, many lower-level Bush acolytes, like Bill Barr and Brett Kavanaugh, found comfortable homes in the Trump regime.
Silly overwrought liberals like myself warned back then that looking forward, not back, would have devastating consequences. Letting George W. Bush and Dick Cheney become respected elder statesmen after instituting a reign of torture, warrantless surveillance, disregard of congressional or judicial oversight, only allowed the next administration to do worse. No one voluntarily surrenders power, after all. Obama retained and exercised many of the powers Bush abrogated to the executive branch, including engaging in vast immigration enforcement and virtually unchallenged drone warfare.
Trump was the natural outgrowth of that refusal to reckon with the consequences of the immediate past. When we promote redemption without atonement, when we as a culture confer forgiveness before the party in the wrong even admits their wrongdoing, we perpetuate the notion that power can do anything and get away with it.
Our national thought leadership economy, with its book deals and speakers’ bureaus, attaches value to serious people sitting opposite one another on corporate-sponsored stages debating differing views. That’s permissible when the topic is, say, marginal tax rates or college admissions standards.
Trump and his creatures, however, are different. The desire to hear and respect different sides of a debate should not extend to views soundly defeated by Dwight David Eisenhower in 1945.
The “debate” over fascism is over, and no West Wing tell-all can possibly rationalize igniting it again.
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