Culture Wars/Current Controversies

We’re living in post-shame America

Wednesday, May 10, 2023
The Daily
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Tom Nichols

Staff writer

A verdict against a sexual abuser and the indictment of a con-man fabulist are causes for optimism. But the fundamental indecency of the new American right marches on.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

A Tempered Celebration

Donald Trump
Former President Donald Trump at his golf course in Turnberry, Scotland (Robert Perry / Getty)

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People who have polluted the waters of American politics have had a bad few weeks. Another gang of seditionists was found guilty of plotting against the United States. Donald Trump was found liable for the sexual abuse and defamation of E. Jean Carroll. And one of the weirdest phonies ever to bumble his way into a congressional seat, George Santos, has been booked by the Justice Department for a long list of alleged offenses. (He has pleaded not guilty to all of them.)

Unfortunately, I’m here to rain on your parade, because the struggle to restore basic decency in politics is still mostly a rearguard action.

But first, let’s drink in the good news that there is still some accountability for wrongdoing. The Justice Department secured yet more convictions for seditious conspiracy, this time against three leaders of the Proud Boys and their former chairman, Enrique Tarrio, who now joins the previously convicted Oath Keepers founder, Stewart Rhodes, as another walking example of the banality of evil. The government asked that Rhodes get 25 years in federal prison. For a man already in his late 50s, that sentence (if levied) basically amounts to “from now on.” (Attorneys for Rhodes, Tarrio, and the three Proud Boys leaders have indicated that they plan to appeal the verdicts.)

Back in January, George Santos’s arrival in the People’s House dented my already shaky faith in the People. Santos, however, has finally been ensnared by his own prevarications. As my colleague David Graham wrote today, Santos might have been better off losing and remaining just another unknown flake who took a run at elected office, but like so many people in the age of Trump, his thirstiness brought him both fame and legal attention. Santos remains a free man, but only because three unnamed people have put up half a million dollars of bail money while he awaits trial for 13 federal charges.

And justice, of a sort, snared Trump himself when he was found liable for sexually abusing and defaming E. Jean Carroll. Trump’s defenders, including his lawyer (who says that Trump plans to appeal the verdict), are emphasizing that the jury declined to affirm the claim of rape, but they are carefully not mentioning that this decision may have been colored by some confusion about how to apply the term rape. Trump’s own deposition probably helped sink him, and it provided a reminder that our 45th president is a surly, smug child who never admits to a moment of regret or responsibility.

One might hope that Trump’s loss in New York would lead him to slink away in shame, but we now live in post-shame America. Instead, Trump will sit for a town hall on CNN tonight, where he will field questions as if he is a normal person running for office instead of a sexual abuser who incited sedition and violence against the government he is once again seeking to control.

Trump, of course, has the self-awareness of a traffic cone, and he is seemingly incapable of remorse. But CNN’s decision to move ahead with the event, as if nothing has happened, is disappointing. A more defensible position would have been to scrap the town-hall format and tell Trump that he is still invited to sit, one-on-one, with a CNN reporter. To present him to voters as just another candidate, however, is the very definition of normalizing his behavior.

I understand why CNN, as a journalistic outlet, would give a town hall to every candidate. Trump is the leading contender for the GOP presidential nomination, and he is by definition newsworthy. (I will be watching, and I will likely write about it, so I am in something of a glass house here myself.) But Trump has just been found liable for a hideous act. This feels, to me, nearly as distasteful as if a network were interviewing O. J. Simpson on his views about the future of professional sports right after his loss in civil court to the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.

Trump and Santos are clowns, and sadly, we’ve gotten used to them. But their antics have also taken our attention away from the indecent behavior of other public figures. One might think, for example, that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy would be breathing a sigh of relief that Santos is reaching the end of his cringe-inducing political fan dance. One would be wrong. McCarthy, instead, is mumbling his way through fuzzy and shapeless expressions of concern.

Finally, let us temper any celebration of justice with the realization that Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama is holding up nearly 200 promotions of senior U.S. military officers because … well, for a lot of reasons, apparently. Tuberville’s hold began weeks ago, when he objected to the Defense Department’s policy of paying for the travel of service members seeking an abortion. (Tuberville apparently thinks that if you’re a member of the military, and you drew the short straw of a deployment to a state whose laws on reproductive health care have been sent back to 1972, the U.S. government should not enable your interstate travel.)

Tuberville now has a new beef with the Pentagon: The senator from Alabama is upset that the U.S. military would like to prevent white supremacists from joining its ranks. In an interview with a Birmingham public-radio station, Tuberville was asked if he believes that white nationalists should be allowed to serve in the military. Referring to the Biden administration, Tuberville answered, “They call them that. I call them Americans.”

He went on to explain, for some reason, how the January 6 insurrectionists were mostly good people:

There were probably a hundred of them that came in, broke windows and broke doors that should have been locked up. That’s not how we do it in America. But there were hundreds of thousands that didn’t come in, outside, that were true Americans that believe in this country. But right after that, we, our military and Secretary Austin, put out an order to stand down and all military across the country, saying we’re going to run out the white nationalists, people that don’t believe how we believe. And that’s not how we do it in this country.

As it happens, I was a Defense Department employee when Austin issued that order, and I participated in that stand-down. It was a pretty anodyne event, and I was actually disappointed at the time that it wasn’t more forceful and more focused on the growing problem of extremism in the ranks. But even this watery response was too much for Tuberville’s fragile sensibilities. (Tuberville, however, did have a reaction to the Carroll trial in New York. He said the verdict “makes me want to vote for [Trump] twice.”)

The cause of justice has advanced over the past few weeks. But the cause of decency is still under bombardment from people who have lost any sense of shame, while more reasonable people remain apparently unable to exercise the kind of moral judgment and leadership that should exile extremists, frauds, and abusers from the public square—and especially from offices of public trust.


Today’s News

  1. Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment charging Representative George Santos with 13 counts, including money laundering, wire fraud, making false statements to the House of Representatives, and stealing public funds. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
  2. Advisers to the FDA voted that the benefits of an over-the-counter birth-control pill would outweigh the risks. The federal agency is expected to decide this summer whether to approve such a pill.
  3. The Labor Department reported that although rates remain high, inflation continued cooling in April, marking the slowest pace of price increases in two years.


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Evening Read

Collage of two photos of Elizabeth Holmes (Photo-illustration by The Atlantic. Sources: Taylor Hill / Getty; Philip Pacheco / Stringer / Getty.)

Elizabeth Holmes Isn’t Fooling Anyone

Elizabeth Holmes isn’t fooling anyone. Well, almost anyone.

The convicted fraudster and founder of the defunct medical start-up Theranos, is waiting to begin an 11-year sentence in federal prison. She received this punishment for misleading investors about her lab-in-a-box technology, which she claimed could run hundreds of tests on a few drops of blood. In reality, when Theranos’s Edison device wasn’t exploding, it was delivering unreliable results to frightened patients. Holmes’s fall from grace—she was once the youngest self-made woman billionaire—has been described over and over again. But there’s still a little more blood left in this stone.

On Sunday, The New York Times ran a profile of Holmes—which included the first interview she’s given since 2016. The author, Amy Chozick, suggests that she was charmed by Holmes, the devoted family woman. Chozick writes that Holmes is “gentle and charismatic,” and “didn’t seem like a hero or a villain. She seemed, like most people, somewhere in between.” This flattering or at least ambivalent tone was not well received.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Two photos, one current and one historical, of floods
(JOHN THYS / AFP / Getty; Museum of the City of New York / Getty)

Read. The Earth Transformed: An Untold History, a sweeping new book from Peter Frankopan on how the climate has changed human society—and how we have changed the climate.

Listen. Steely Dan’s 1974 hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” The perfectionist duo is capturing the hearts of a new generation of listeners.

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Have you ever heard of Connie Converse? Until yesterday, I hadn’t, but after reading this story in The New York Times, I’m rather fascinated by her. She was one of the earliest singer-songwriters to buck the treacle of 1940s pop: Born in New Hampshire, she dropped out of Mount Holyoke College and became a kind of knockabout folk singer in New York a decade before Bob Dylan showed up. Her music career never took off, and she moved to Michigan, where her brother was a political-science professor. (Oddly enough, I was aware of her brother and his important work, because I have a Ph.D. in political science.)

And then, at 50 years old, she packed up her stuff in her car, said goodbye to her friends, and vanished.

I’m a sucker for this kind of “vanished artist” story, but not, in general, for her kind of music. Still, I looked up her only surviving compilation of recordings here on Spotify. I didn’t expect to find it mesmerizing, and now I think I get why the few people who knew of her thought she was better than Dylan.

— Tom

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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