The Democrats' Access Hollywood moment
If Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) were to resign tomorrow, following last week's revelation of old photos in which he appears to be wearing blackface, he would be replaced by his lieutenant, Justin Fairfax, who was recently accused of sexual assault; or, in the event that Fairfax also steps down, by the state's attorney general, Mark Herring, who just admitted to his own past enthusiasm for racist folk art. If all three go, who knows? I assume the Commonwealth will just be put on ice for a while.
Is the Jenga tower going to fall, though? Despite calls for his resignation from nearly every major figure in the Democratic Party, Northam is pressing on. So too, with the help of Brett Kavanaugh's lawyers, is Fairfax, whose response to the allegations was, if reports are to be believed, to mumble about "that bitch." Herring clearly thought he could get a leg up on the competition by leaking his own past appearance in minstrel-show attire. Clever. Nothing suggests that the Old Dominion triumvirate are going anywhere.
Why should they? If recent scandals have shown us anything, it is that a determined politician can deny, ignore, and contextualize his way out of anything. If these responses are, in strictly logical terms, mutually exclusive, so much the better. The more explanations you toss out, the more people you are likely to convince. The nerds worried about consistency here will take care of themselves: Either they will be drowned out by the voices of the easily reassured or go insane pondering the crimes against the law of non-contradiction going unpunished all around us.
The ur-text here is President Trump's response to the infamous Access Hollywood tapes. At the time of their release, virtually everyone in the Republican Party outside the Trump campaign, from Paul Ryan on down, abandoned him. His response was to say that he didn't give a toss. The comments were from forever ago, and he didn't actually mean what he said or even say what he said — though what he did in fact say was harmless "locker-room talk." You choose.
We all know what happened next. Trump won in November and pussy grabbing went from being the reason that no decent human could support his candidacy to a tired liberal meme overnight. The same thing almost happened with Roy Moore in the 2017 special election in Alabama. Despite the overwhelming evidence that Moore had solicited and perhaps even engaged in sexual acts with teenagers, and the consensus among his would-be GOP colleagues that he should withdraw from the race, Moore remained the Republican Senate candidate. Why? Because he guessed, rightly, that he had nothing to lose. If his opponent had failed, he would be the sitting junior senator today.
The American people are now, in a very real sense, post-scandal. A political hack who is willing to lie and equivocate and B.S. until the rest of us are too bored or tired or numb to care any longer can remain in office indefinitely unless he is impeached or fails to win re-election. What he won't get is any credit for quitting. No one thinks more highly of Al Franken — remember the alleged comedian who used to be a senator? — because he gave a cringe-inducing speech before resigning last year. Trump mocked him publicly. I suspect many others, including and perhaps especially Democrats, repeated the president's assessment in private.
Trump was the first politician clever enough to realize the virtually unlimited potential upside — i.e., becoming the most powerful man in the world — and comparatively limited stakes involved in betting on the public's lack of interest in his personal conduct. He has had a great deal of help from journalists, who have decided that everything from retweeting a wrestling GIF to allowing immigration authorities to put motherless children in cages is equally worthy of our approbation. The task of sorting through what matters and what doesn't, to say nothing of what is even true, becomes too exhausting. Everything is a scandal; nothing is a scandal. Fave. Retweet. Yawn. Drink. Sleep.
The president will not be the last politician to benefit from American indifference to scandal. If you can keep your head when all about you are covering theirs in greasepaint and blaming it on you, you can be governor of one of the wealthiest states in the Union, my son!