Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The End of Scandal Norms

I haven't been paying super close attention to the story that Russia has some damning info on Trump that it's holding over his head. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. This sort of raw intelligence is always -- at best -- hit or miss. But even if it is true that they've got it, I'm skeptical that it matters.

Let's say that this info is out there. Maybe it's Trump watching Russian prostitutes piss on the bed the Obamas slept in. Or maybe it's something else. Doesn't matter. And let's say it leaks. Here's the sequence of events:
  • Media reports on the news breathlessly, insists that Trump's administration can never survive a scandal of this magnitude.
  • Democrats seize on the news, demand hearings, resignations, hearings, and more hearings.
  • A few Republicans issue murmurs about "inappropriate behavior." More than a few denounce the leak as Russian interference (now it's a problem) and suddenly demand we focus on that.
  • Somebody -- probably in the National Review -- writes a "clever" column on how leftists are hypocritical because they oppose revenge porn. Mary Anne Franks gets more citations from conservative columnists than she ever dreamed nightmared.
  • Republican congressional leaders do nothing. Media starts asking "are they really going to do nothing?"
  • Republican congressional leaders continue to do nothing. Eventually the storm dies down.
  • Scene.
This has been the great, terrible discovery of Mitch McConnell and the 21st century GOP: nobody can force them to do anything.

I first noticed this with former Bush AG Alberto Gonzales, who nearly rode out a seemingly-infinite array of scandals. And when he finally did resign, it was impossible to figure out why. There was no legal obligation to do so. Normally, we chalk up that sort of behavior to "norms" -- but the norms had already been shredded. Gonzales already demonstrated that the sorts of "norms" which would "normally" compel a resignation could be ignored more or less indefinitely. For whatever reason, he just didn't ride the train to the end.

It was Mitch McConnell who decided to take that train all the way to the terminus. You can't make a filibuster-proof majority mandatory for every bill? Why not? You can't just refuse to even hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee for a year? Watch him! Other politicians caught on to the act. Remember Scott Desjarlais, the pro-life Republican from Tennessee who, as a doctor, had slept with several patients(!) and was caught on tape pressuring his mistress(!!) to have an abortion(!!!)? Everyone assumed he just had to resign. You know where he is now? Still in Congress.

Turns out, you don't have to do much of anything if you don't want to. There is an extraordinarily narrow range of levers through which one can be compelled to act in Washington: impeachments, being voted out of office, mandatory court orders ... it's not all that large, and it doesn't cover all that much. Much of what we take for granted our government will do is not legally compelled, but is based on politicians following established patterns of political culture. Among those patterns is that a major scandal will lead to an investigation and some measure of accountability. But nobody forces Congress to launch an investigation, and nobody forces administration officials to resign or even acknowledge scandals reported in the media.

If they ignore it long enough, the storm will eventually pass. And that is what will happen if Russia does have something on Trump and it does eventually leak. The media will convince itself that something has to happen. And then nothing will.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

But even if it is true that they've got it, I'm skeptical that it matters.

If the material is released, I think you're right that it won't force a resignation or change the political landscape. I'm more worried about what Trump will do (and has done) to try to convince the Russians not to release it, just because he doesn't want to be humiliated. I think it's only dangerous as long as it's a secret, in other words.