America's corrosive lack of accountability

When elites increasingly seem immune from the law, is it any wonder that they're so hated?

Sitting pretty.
(Image credit: Jon Berkeley / Alamy Stock Photo)

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Donald Trump's short political career is his near-total impunity from the usual rules of politics. He gets away with it — be it unavoidable conflicts of interest, an endless parade of vile statements, or constantly lying about everything.

Hillary Clinton's campaign was largely centered around casting Trump as some deviant outlier from traditional political and ethical norms. And indeed, Trump is quite unpopular. But with the exception of the Access Hollywood tape, none of it really stuck — and even that wasn't enough to keep Trump from winning.

There are no doubt many reasons for Trump's non-stick persona, not least of which is his preternatural ability to manipulate the media and grab attention. But another one is a general culture of impunity that has taken root in the American elite over the last two decades. Trump is taking things much further than ever before, but he builds on years and years of instinctive elite wagon-circling around virtually any misdeed.

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Take the problem of nonsense in the news, for example. Fake news and conspiracy theories became a sort of epistemic emergency in 2016. People in Macedonia and elsewhere discovered it was fantastically profitable to just straight-up fabricate stuff like "Pope endorses Trump" to get Facebook clicks from conservative rubes. Meanwhile, in the darker corners of the internet, committed conspiracy nuts have been running hog-wild, leading to things like some woman threatening a Sandy Hook mother (theorized to be part of the false flag operation), and a shooting in a D.C. pizza joint (which was theorized to be helping Hillary Clinton run an underground pedophile ring).

Yet as Nathan Robinson argues, the media must share some blame for this state of affairs. To pick a few out of many examples, nearly all the top American publications earnestly helped the Bush administration sell the invasion of Iraq, laundering its cooked intelligence on the front page of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and in many, many other places. The invasion was obviously idiotic even granting the fraudulent intelligence, but the vast majority of the pundit class went along with it. In 2004 Bush again connived with Times editors to quash a story about his warrantless wiretapping scheme; reporter James Risen had to threaten to put it in a book to get the story published — after Bush was re-elected.

Barely anyone paid a professional price for any of this. Instead, like the time when Fareed Zakaria was caught repeatedly plagiarizing in print and on his CNN show, everyone basically forgot it as quickly as possible. Mistakes were made, nobody could have predicted them, and everyone failed upward.

The mainstream media's self-image as a respectable, serious steward of fact is not remotely consonant with their behavior over the past decade and a half. Even today stentorian tut-tutting about fake news is published alongside a grossly irresponsible and paper-thin story accusing several honest left-leaning sites of being Russian stooges.

Or consider the CIA's "enhanced interrogation" program. This was, according to the president of the United States and the nation's top law enforcement officer, a program of torture. Torture is illegal under U.S. law, punishable by up to 20 years in prison — and is a capital crime with no statute of limitations if it causes a death, which happened multiple times. Yet the idea that someone at the CIA should face a criminal investigation, let alone prosecution, was an impossible thought.

The media, the president, and nearly all of the rest of the political class have internalized the idea that the CIA (and the rest of the security/intelligence apparatus, most likely) is literally above the law. Prosecuting anyone there for a very straightforward crime — one of the worst in the criminal code — is, for the American elite, simply a thought which cannot be allowed to surface. That's why in the process of confirming that the CIA did indeed commit acts of torture, President Obama also delivered a pious lecture about not being too "sanctimonious" about the "patriots" who had a "tough job."

Probably worst of all in terms of enabling Trump's corrosive behavior is the failure to prosecute anyone over the financial crisis and the ensuing epidemic of foreclosures. Sadly, not many people care that much about illegal torture in secret prisons around the globe, but something like 9.3 million people lost their homes during the foreclosure crisis. The knock-on economic damage to communities that had significant concentrations of such homes was catastrophic.

This is another instance in which the lawbreaking was so obvious that it could not possibly be denied. Many, many mortgage-backed securities almost certainly violated some sort of financial law, or more than one. More obvious still, after the crisis banks had whole teams of people systematically committing document and securities fraud to fake up the paperwork necessary to foreclose on people, because they had lost nearly all of it during the mortgage boom, or never had it in the first place. But once again, the elite balked at the tremendous disruption to the financial system — and the damage to the fevered egos on Wall Street — implied by mass prosecution of bankers. A series of wrist-slap fines were the best they could muster.

Taken together, all this created a fertile seedbed for someone like Trump. To a sizable fraction of the population, the American elite appears as a featherbedding, wagon-circling pack of incompetents who care first and foremost about protecting their own ranks and only slightly, if at all, about representing and protecting the American people. Some of that perception is unfair or hysterical. But very far from all of it is.

Is it any wonder that the president-elect's signature characteristic is a sneering contempt for the "failed and corrupt political establishment"?

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