Shame, that old political equalizer, had a good long run. But shame is dead, killed off by a political culture of anything goes, particularly if my side is doing it.
Shame died, as well, because we have embraced a culture of lying in public matters. There is no shame without truth.
The notion that certain acts, certain universally condemned behaviors, would so shame, so embarrass a public official, rocking and even ruining a career, is now such an old-fashioned concept as to be irrelevant.
Just in the last couple of weeks, shame was knifed in a dozen different ways. One of my favorites was pointed out by the conservative writer Tim Miller who offered a succinct assessment of the “debate team” preparing Donald Trump for his one-on-one match ups with Joe Biden.
Trump’s team consists of former governor Chris Christie; Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law; Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and political advisor Jason Miller. “A motley crew,” as Miller correctly noted. “The first put the second guys dad in jail and made the 3rd guy the fall man for their joint corruption. The 4th guy was kept out of the White House over a hooker scandal.”
Make America Shame Again.
Or how about the president’s much ballyhooed “executive orders” that came in the wake of a breakdown in congressional efforts to extend unemployment benefits, forestall evictions and allocate more money to fighting COVID-19. The executive orders, which really were just memos to the file, Trump said, “will take care of, pretty much, this entire situation,” notwithstanding the president has no authority to do much of what he was claiming to do.
The sheer audacity of the claim, false on its face and laughably shameful was endorsed by nearly every Republican, including Idaho congressman Mike Simpson. Simpson is a particularly troubling case in the annals of the demise of shame.
He’s an appropriator in the House, one of the top members on the committee that actually determines how your tax dollars are spent, a guy who once jealously guarded his role in a co-equal branch of government.
Simpson, rather than push back against what Nebraska Republican Ben Sasse immediately called “unconstitutional slop,” praised Trump on Twitter “for taking action to help those who need it most. People are struggling to make ends meet.” Simpson threw in a gratuitous swipe at Nancy Pelosi for good measure, accusing the speaker of the House of not coming “to the table seriously.”
All politicians are given to the partisan excesses of mischaracterizing the opposition, but Simpson’s claim would warrant serious shaming if shaming of any kind were still in vogue. Simpson effectively praised Trump’s unworkable collection of memos, while slamming a Democrat who passed legislation weeks ago to address the very issues Simpson praised the president for failing to address. The Republican Senate, of course, has refused to take up the House passed legislation.
Shame died a thousand ways.
One-time Idaho senator Larry Craig was so shamed by his 2007 arrest in a men’s room in the Minneapolis airport for playing footsy with a guy who turned out to be a cop that Craig said he would resign his position, and then he didn’t.
Bill Clinton shamed the presidency, but Clinton weaseled and waffled and refused to acknowledge the definition of shame. Richard Nixon disgraced the presidency, too, but had the good grace to actually resign amid his shame. Funny, Nixon is looking better and better.
In Montana, the state Republican Party recently, blatantly and shamelessly, connived to circulate petitions to get Green Party candidates on the ballot for one crass reason: they hope Green Party candidates will siphon off votes from Democrats. A Montana judge ruled the caper illegal saying, “The actions of the Montana GOP and its agents demonstrate that its misrepresentations and failures to disclose in violation of Montana campaign finance law were intentionally designed to create an advantage for the Montana GOP at the expense of unwitting signers.”
The idea of being so completely and publicly shamed was once reason enough for such sleazy political hijinks to be avoided. But shame, sadly, is dead. Meanwhile, the Montana Republican Party is appealing.
Trump supporting Republican operatives in Wisconsin have been helping Kanye West’s attempt to get on the ballot there as a presidential candidate. They apparently think the addled rapper will draw Black voters from Joe Biden. The cynicism of such a move is trumped only by its blatant disregard of any level of honor or decency. When winning is all you care about the shame of being disreputable is merely an inconvenience.
An Idaho state senator made national headlines this week when he advocated a measure to prohibit the state’s public health districts from closing schools. “Listening to experts to set policy is an elitist approach and I’m very fearful of an elitist approach,” Republican Steven Thayn said. “I’m also fearful that it leads to totalitarianism, especially when you say, ‘Well. We’re doing it for the public good.’”
Once such spectacular stupidity – Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott Mcintosh called it “one of the dumbest yet most telling statements ever made by an Idaho politician” – would have led to calls for Thayn’s resignation, or he might have been shamed by the laughter associated with any mention of his name. But without shame such mental giants just roll on.
Shame made a brief, but undoubtedly fleeting comeback, in the case of Jerry Falwell, Jr., the once and almost certain future president of Liberty University. Falwell, a huge Trump supporter among the white evangelicals who embrace the president, bounded into the news recently with his pants unzipped, holding a drink, with his arm around a woman not his wife. Falwell first tried to explain away conduct that had he been a student could have gotten him expelled from his own school. Falwell took an extended leave of absence.
It wasn’t Falwell’s first flirtation with unseemliness. As the conservative writer David French pointed out: “It’s easy to get inoculated against outrageous public conduct in the age of Trump, but even by the new standards, Falwell’s public conduct was simply extraordinary for a Christian leader.”
But don’t count Falwell out just yet. Shame is dead. It had a good run.