In my previous essay, I argued—with some help from Adam Smith’s moral psychology—that political life typically includes an excessive eagerness to admire and celebrate the powerful, to overstate the moral merit of those who rule, and to understate their moral faults. This, I think, helps us understand the over-commemoration of political and military leaders who used their power for such evil ends as the protection and spread of slavery. It helps us to explain the widespread—albeit, at the current moment, weakening—insistence that statues and memorials honor those who used their power dishonorably must remain in place.
It also helps us to think about those who are alive and using their power badly today.
President Trump has committed himself to a culture war in defense of the statues and symbols celebrating white supremacy; at this writing he seems to believe it will be an effective tool for his reelection campaign. He doesn’t avow it as a defense of the Confederacy and slave-owning. Rather, he appeals to a relationship between American greatness and the continued celebration of famous and powerful figures of the past. Criticizing and passing judgment on them, he suggests, is a way of showing hatred for America.
Prominent Trump critic George Conway recently wrote:
“We should only honor former presidents who uphold and sustain our nation’s enduring democratic values. There should be no schools, bridges or statues devoted to Trump. His name should live in infamy.”
The thing to be startled by is that there will be schools, bridges, and statues. The idea that the powerful should be celebrated for their power and not judged on the basis of how they used it is not only a convenient one for Trump to hold. It appeals to genuine public sentiment that could well protect him and his circle as he has sought to protect those who fought for slavery.
Social sanctions, or none at all
Bill Barr’s Department of Justice withdrew charges against Michael Flynn to which the former National Security Advisor had already pleaded guilty. It forced out Geoffrey Berman as acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, where he has been investigating Rudy Giuliani. And it abruptly revised downward the sentencing recommendations for Trump campaign associate Roger Stone. These extraordinary actions drove home an important truth that was subsequently confirmed by Trump’s commutation of Stone’s sentence. Almost no one associated with the Trump campaign or Trump administration will ever face any official accounting for their misconduct, abuses of power, obstruction of justice, or ordinary crimes, to say nothing of sheer incompetence and misgovernment.
The House vote to impeach Trump wasn’t followed by conviction and removal; the House has shown little appetite to impeach Barr. Even formal consequences for ignoring Congressional subpoenas or for illegally withholding Trump’s tax returns from the House Ways and Means committee seem unlikely; so does an official accounting for human rights abuses at the southern border, or against protestors. The careers of inspectors general, and other career public servants who sought to expose wrongdoing, have been ended; the wrongdoing itself persists with impunity. Once Trump is freed, one way or another, from caring about reelection in November, he’ll likely pardon his friends, allies, and family members. Jeff Sessions has seen his public career ruined, and Michael Cohen will carry his criminal record, but these are consequences of their having once displeased Trump, not of their having done his bidding in so many other cases. If convicted, Steve Bannon may find himself in the same position: facing consequences not for what he did in service to the Trump administration but for having left it on bad terms.
Social sanctions are an important fallback when official impunity has been granted. Those who abuse their power over others, and those who help them do so, ought to face some consequences—if only to give pause to those tempted to do likewise. Unfortunately, lasting and significant disrepute seems improbable for Trump administration officials. This is mostly for the Smithian reasons that drive us to burnish the reputations of the famous and powerful—the same reasons that make it hard to really remember Lord Acton’s lesson that great men are almost always bad men.
We too easily let ourselves believe that those who hold prominent public office must have been worthy of it, which is a high bar. Seeing such a person fall into disgrace can perversely stir sympathy in many who are unmoved by the harm done to unknown and powerless people by public misdeeds. Henry Kissinger remains an honored public figure; those protesting his war crimes are subject to official opprobrium that he himself never is, at least not in the United States. That Sarah Huckabee Sanders was once asked to leave a restaurant, that Steve Bannon was once disinvited from a prestigious and lucrative appearance as a celebrity intellectual— these indignities were widely commented on as signs of grave injustice and intolerance.
A year ago, the Niskanen Center committed itself to a disassociation with Kirstjen Nielsen and any organization that employs her, for her role in the family separation policy at the border. As far as I know, no other organization did likewise, and no other ex-official has been named persona non grata anywhere. Three and a half years (so far) of disgraceful public acts will leave almost no one in disgrace; shameful maladministration will, for the most part, not lead to anyone actually being shamed. Many are old enough, rich enough, or both, to simply retire; the younger Trumps and Kushners are rich enough to cushion any slight social discomfort they may feel among Manhattan elites. Other Trump administration figures young enough to aspire to respectable political careers might find little favor with voters. They can nevertheless expect a soft landing at conservative think tanks and congressional offices, and will probably eventually enjoy appointed office under another Republican administration.
The difficulty of disgrace
Dynamics beyond those identified by Smith further protect the reputations of the living and recently powerful. For example, the ordinary impulse to flattery, the insincerity (or a-sincerity) of which distinguishes it from Smithian excessive but genuine admiration, will always be with us. There will always be people whose ambition is greater than their pride and they will always curry favor with anyone closer to power than they are. Private flattery merely degrades the flatterer, but public flattery, which is never in short supply, reinforces the Smithian dynamic. Even when flatterers are insincere, and know that their praise is undeserved, the audience might not.
Other trends are peculiar to our time and place: the current shape of celebrity culture; hyperpolarization, including the emergence of polarized media cultures; and the desire of elite institutions to stand above and outside politics.
With a little bit of willingness to bear up under ridicule, Sean Spicer took advantage of the first of these: being a famous and familiar face is apparently enough to become a guest on late-night talk shows and a performer on Dancing With The Stars. He won’t be the last. Our economy of fame runs on a bottomless appetite for the appearance and reappearance of people we remember, whatever we might remember them for.
There are limits. Eventually, Harvey Weinstein reached genuine disgrace. However, panic about “cancel culture” notwithstanding, that is exceedingly rare for the famous and powerful. After years of #MeToo activism in Hollywood, the revelation of sexual misconduct any less egregious than Weinstein’s is more likely to send a celebrity into a few months of time for reflection followed by several half-sympathetic articles about their loneliness, raising questions about whether the supposed “punishment” of isolation in their mansion should last forever. Curious interest in the celebrity’s return to stage and screen is rarely far behind.
Fame-seeking former Trump officials will have to suffer people saying mean things about them on Twitter; lawyer to the stars Alan Dershowitz will miss some parties on Martha’s Vineyard. But, like most other American celebrities, they’re likely to find that fame perpetuates itself, and if they play at having a sense of humor about themselves and about Trump, they’ll be welcomed with open arms and a shared knowing smirk.
Post-Trump career paths that take advantage of the media’s polarization will probably be more typical for those who don’t want to wink at their time in the administration. Many former officials will turn—or return—to careers or paid side gigs as commentators at Fox News. Some will turn to more extreme venues such as OANN or the Dinesh D’Souza-style market for freelance viewer-supported demagoguery. The shared media culture of the days of Walter Cronkite is long gone; there are now paid media niches available to match the polarization and fragmentation of American politics. Why slink offstage in disgrace when there’s a living to be made continuing to denounce Trump’s enemies?
In light of all that, consider the institutions that thrive on prestige and proximity to power: not only think tanks and lobbying firms but also corporate boards, elite media such as the New York Times, elite universities, and the celebrity-intellectual circuit of ideas festivals and televised debates. It’s tempting and easy for such institutions to conflate openness to different ideas and ideological perspectives with bestowing prestige, honors, and money on the powerful, regardless of what political agenda they served with their power.
In the case of the university, this is the difference between maintaining academic freedom for students or faculty members who advance a range of ideological positions and awarding honorary degrees or prestigious platforms, such as commencement addresses or endowed lectures, to persons whose claim to fame just consists of their time in politics and public office. Students and faculty members must be free to argue in favor of (for example) closed borders and the end of rights of asylum and refuge. They should also be free, in their various clubs and departments, to invite speakers to a campus to advocate those ideas. But should the architects of the family separation policy— not only Nielsen but also John Kelly, Chad Wolf, and the ideologists in the background Steve Bannon and Steven Miller— be honored for their careers? Should they receive visiting university fellowships for distinguished public servants or asked to speak to graduating seniors on the noble calling of politics? Nothing in academic freedom or intellectual freedom or freedom of speech calls for such an outcome.
Again, there’s no avoiding substantive judgments, however much universities do and should resist simply taking partisan sides. Deciding whom to honor is different from deciding what speech to permit. Without an active commitment to refuse to honor the dishonorable, universities will likely do so, allowing themselves to be seduced by the illusion of merit attached to power and celebrity, and then dressing up the decision as intellectual openness.
Universities are only one example. Elite institutions often uphold a commitment to intellectual openness and ideological diversity while seeking to maintain (or improve) their place in the economy of prestige and honor. But it’s important to keep these aims distinct. A person’s odious past doesn’t discredit their ideas. Still, the fact that someone’s ideas are permissible in debate does not mean that their odious past must be glossed over or actively celebrated. Whenever someone who has served in the Trump administration is denied lucrative and prestigious employment, or a plum speaking engagement, they will surely cry “free speech” and “cancel culture” and “so much for the tolerant left,” but this is a confusion of categories.
There are settings in which people must be greeted and heard as respected equals. Had Jeff Sessions been returned to the Senate he would have been entitled to full courtesy on the floor of the chamber. Those settings and their norms are important. Political theorist Teresa Bejan examines them under the rubric of isegoria, or equal speech in formal institutional settings, by contrast with the frank parrhesia, which allows mockery and insults aimed at the powerful. But the norms of isegoria are not only institutionally formal; they are institutionally local and specific. A senator who had to address and listen to Sessions as a respected equal on the floor of the Senate would not face the same requirement in other settings.
Setting some standards
I think we might set these two criteria as a bare minimum:
- Those who took direct part in the most shameful aspects of the Trump presidency, including not only the abusive family separation policy but the attacks on DACA, legal immigration, and refugee resettlement; the obstruction of the Mueller investigation and of Congressional oversight; the solicitation of Ukrainian election interference and the attempt to cover that up; the personal enrichment of the Trump family and the attempts to insulate that from investigation or oversight; the politicization of the military and of law enforcement; the violent suppression of protest and dissent; and the bending of public health policy to presidential whim during a pandemic—as well as the ideologues who have developed the whole system (Bannon, Miller) and those who lied to the public day after day (Spicer, Sanders, Kayleigh McEnany);
- These persons should not have their time in office counted in their favor by any institution making any decision about conferring status and prestige. If they are to be publicly honored it must be in spite of, not because of, their various contributions to Trump’s cause. Their work on Trump’s behalf should not be counted as what makes them interesting or provocative or famous and therefore worth attending to.
Ideas festivals, honorary degree committees, future presidential administrations awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom, think tanks, public policy schools, op-ed page editors that gravitate toward the aura of power, and Hollywood venues that gravitate toward fame: all of them must consciously decide to resist their basic tendencies here lest they start decorating the political appointees in the White House, the Departments of Justice, Defense, and Homeland Security for their misdeeds. Kelly has already shown that a little bit of winking or indirect criticism of Trump is enough to get some of these institutions to forget his involvement in the family separation policy. (At this writing, he seems to be so committed to such indirection that he is either an anonymous source or has authorized other anonymous sources for the story that Trump disrespected Kelly’s son’s military service at his gravesite; Kelly refuses to either confirm or deny the story.) Honoring Kelly, like honoring Nielsen, Wolf, or Miller, amounts to disregarding and dishonoring the victims of a policy that constituted a serious abuse of human rights.
Even that minimum described above probably won’t be met, but in my view it’s well below what’s needed. Actual stigma and disgrace are called for. And it’s called for among those who numbed us to the abuses named above, not only among those who directly committed them. Almost no political appointee has resigned from the administration over a clear policy disagreement or ethical scruple. Gary Cohn and James Mattis stand pretty much alone. Almost no one besides Miles Taylor has publicly broken with the administration after leaving, in anything other than smirking or self-serving ways. John Bolton, for his part, saved his stories for a lucrative book instead of voluntarily disclosing them to a House committee when they were relevant to impeachment hearings.
Those who were not themselves part of the systems of public lying, of denial of human rights at the border, of gassing protestors, of mishandling of the Covid-19 epidemic, of corruption and the cover-up of corruption, nonetheless stayed, or waited until they were fired, or left and largely kept quiet. They did not endorse any Republican challenger to Trump in the Republican primaries; they have not endorsed Biden. In so doing, they normalized a deeply compromised, corrupt, and inept government, helping it to build its defenses: the power to use the Republican electoral base to keep Republican Senators in line, the development of a culture of official impunity that allowed the purge of inspectors general and the marginalization of career Department of Justice attorneys, the successful insulation of Trump from an effective challenge in the Republican primaries. It is perfectly imaginable that their implicit reassurance and normalization through silence will help him be reelected.
In a pluralistic society, different institutions will draw these lines in different places. Different private persons will find different hands they can’t tolerate shaking. Some readers may have by now formed their own list of “what abouts?” What about the architects of the Iraq War and those who have maintained Guantanamo Bay? What about those who built mass incarceration? I welcome those questions. Throughout both parts of this essay, I have argued that we systematically morally over-credit, over-admire, and over-honor the powerful, and routinely discount how dishonorable their use of power really was. We’re a long way from shaming too many politicians and public officials. Go ahead and add to the list. My call in this essay is to start the list, at a moment when there’s a real risk of moral-political amnesia.
Sometime soon—in four and a half years if not six months—there will be an explosion of reputation-burnishing stories, of attempts to transform proximity to power into celebrity and celebrity into honor. We will see more attempts, like Peggy Noonan’s, to insist that the people who surrounded and enabled Trump shouldn’t bear the consequences of his disgrace, that they are entitled to walk with their heads held high, their prospects undimmed and status unharmed. Someone is going to want a lot of credit for having been an anonymous inside critic. Most of these attempts at rehabilitation and elevation will be all too successful. Too many of us will feel badly for some former official to whom someone wasn’t nice. That’s probably inevitable, but it’s still wrong.
Power isn’t virtue. Abuses of power shouldn’t be honored when the powerful are living any more than statues should be built to honor evil after they are dead.
Jacob T. Levy is Tomlinson Professor of Political Theory and Director of the Yan P. Lin Centre for the Study of Freedom and Global Orders in the Ancient and Modern Worlds at McGill University; author of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom and scholarly articles including, most recently,” Contra Politanism” and “Political Libertarianism;” and a Niskanen Center Senior Fellow.
Photo credit: The White House / Public domain