Trump and the shameless society: Which came first?

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
President Trump, Doug Jones and Roy Moore (Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images)

Earlier this week, before the president once again commandeered the conversation with his “Put up this wall!” speech, the New York Times reported on another shady operation in the 2017 Senate campaign in Alabama.

It turns out that a Democratic consulting outfit, emulating the Russians who worked on behalf of Donald Trump in 2016, set up phony accounts on Facebook and Twitter to make it look like a bunch of Baptist prohibitionists were backing the Republican, Roy Moore. The idea behind “Dry Alabama,” as it was called, was to make some moderate Republicans think twice before electing a kook who might outlaw their martinis.

(For the record, Moore lost to his Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, by some 22,000 votes, whereas moderate Republicans in Alabama number about 50.)

The thing that struck me about this story, though, was the reaction from Matt Osborne, a consultant who helped devise the scheme. Outed by Times reporters Scott Shane and Alan Blinder for peddling outright lies, and facing a possible federal investigation, Osborne didn’t even fake regret.

“If you don’t do it, you’re fighting with one hand tied behind your back,” he said. “You have a moral imperative to do this — to do whatever it takes.”

Which seems to me a pretty good distillation of what we’re seeing everywhere lately, in Washington and on social media and even in our daily interactions. In Trump’s America, taking personal responsibility for anything you say or do is suddenly out of vogue, no matter which side you’re on or how petty the issue.

We’re living now in the shameless society, where accountability and apology are just white flags for the weak.

Maybe some of this is a backlash against the last administration, when critics mocked President Obama for apologizing constantly to the world on America’s behalf. Maybe we’re all just tired of saying “sorry” for things and getting jeered anyway.

Or maybe it has its roots in the financial calamity of 2008 and the ensuing years of sluggish recovery, when the bankers who exploded the American economy didn’t even bother asking our forgiveness, and seemed to suffer no consequences. Maybe the message there was that reflecting on your own misbehavior was for suckers.

But there’s no doubt that a lot of the cultural shift has to do with the Trump Effect. The president lies with such reflexive regularity that his doctors must consider it a vital sign, and yet I can’t recall a single instance of his admitting a misstatement. He taunts like a child, but never — and I mean never — does he demonstrate anything resembling shame.

All this we know about Trump — it’s his defining characteristic in public life, and one that actually keeps him afloat with his own constituency. If he woke up tomorrow only able to tell the truth, like Jim Carrey in that old flick “Liar Liar,” all of us in the media would stop jumping up and down screaming like an asteroid was headed for the planet, and Trump’s presidency would become vastly less gratifying for his raging supporters.

He derives his strength from our inexhaustible moral indignation, and he knows it.

What’s more surprising, really, is how little time it took for Trump’s shamelessness to become the standard for everyone else. It started, I guess, with his own Cabinet secretaries (a quarter of them “acting” now, which seems like an appropriate word), who gather for meetings in which they extol the virtues and selflessness of their Dear Leader as if they had no sense of pride or self-worth.

It doesn’t seem to trouble officials like Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, or Sarah Sanders, the press secretary, when they’re caught using specious statistics about terrorists crossing the border. Look all you want — you won’t detect a flicker of regret.

And so Democrats have decided that shame is a luxury they can’t afford, either. It’s totally fine for a new congresswoman to publicly call the president a “motherf***er” and declare herself “unapologetic” (even as she literally runs from reporters). And it’s perfectly legitimate for another freshman, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to peddle false facts in pursuit of policy, because, you know, she’s right on the big stuff.

Is it really so noble to be crass or misleading in the things you say and never think twice, as long as you’re standing up to someone who does worse? I can tell you that it didn’t used to be.

It’s funny to think that Joe Biden, who’s considering a final run for president in 2020, bowed out of his first presidential bid, back in 1987, because he lifted a riff from a British politician without properly attributing it. These days, a political celebrity with a tenth of Biden’s gravitas would just drop a few F-bombs, attack the press for bias and move along.

And as with everything else in politics, that absence of accountability filters down to the rest of us.

Last week, a guy in a shopping plaza parking lot swerved around me to steal a space, and we exchanged a few words. Waiting in line at the dry cleaner, he then let loose a string of insults, calling me “short” (true) and “ugly” (arguable). All while his son, who looked to be about 13, stood by, smiling uncomfortably.

Dig in. Lash out. Never apologize. Because getting the best of the argument is all that counts. This is what we’re teaching our kids now.

As a politician friend of mine (yes, I have a few) reminded me this week, Trump couldn’t have created this ethos all by himself. We created the moment, and he merely filled the void.

Maybe it’s our own growing coarseness and limitless self-regard — our propensity to shield every worldview in its own like-minded cocoon, whether it’s based in truth or outright lie — that the president so deftly channels, and not the other way around.

But it has to ebb somewhere, and politics is a place to start. Democrats should make clear that a guy like this Matt Osborne has no place in a respectable party. (Jones, the senator whose campaign was supposed to benefit from this chicanery, has done just that, saying he will file a complaint of his own with federal election officials. Good for him.)

And maybe challengers for the presidency next year — in both parties, should it come to that — can find a way to put personal accountability above the roaring approval of the online mob.

Because you’re not getting it right if you can’t admit when you’ve gotten it wrong. And you can’t boast of morality if you’ve no sense of shame.

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