A year after Donald Trump’s surprise victory in the presidential election, a lot of nightmare scenarios predicted by his critics have not come true.
We are not, at least for now, slouching toward dictatorship or authoritarianism. There’s a vast distance between a Twitter loudmouth and an authoritarian strongman. But one dramatic consequence of his presidency has been a political culture of all scandal all the time.
To be sure, political scandal at the highest level is nothing new. In my adult life, I have witnessed the Iran-Contra drama during the Reagan administration, the Whitewater controversy and the Monica Lewinsky fiasco during Bill Clinton’s tenure, and assorted accusations hurled at George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
The Trump administration, though, has taken scandal to a new level. For one thing, Trump already was embroiled in scandals when he was elected — from multiple accusations of defrauding his business customers to multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault to claims of collusion with an unfriendly regime in Russia. Less than five months after the inauguration, a special counsel was appointed to investigate the Trump-Russia scandal — implicating, at the very least, some high-profile former advisers to the president, and perhaps the president himself. Indictments were made public less than a year after the election anniversary.
Where all this will lead is anyone’s guess. But we already live in a country where things that would be major scandals under any other administration in recent memory — the president’s continued refusal to disclose his tax returns, ongoing questions about conflicts of interest, revelations about the extremist ties of the former White House chief strategist — get lost in the never-ending news cycle.
Something else is unique: Top-level political scandals plague both the party in power and the opposition. Has there been any other administration in which the president and his supporters responded to accusations of malfeasance with countercharges directed at his predecessor and, especially, his election rival? In a telling moment last month, Sean Hannity, one of Trump’s most fanatical boosters at Fox News, referred to “President Clinton” while fulminating about the indictments related to the Trump-Russia investigation and asserting that Hillary Clinton was getting a pass on her alleged corruption as secretary of state in the approval of uranium sales to Russia in 2010. Trump partisans crow about the Clinton scandals as if there were a Clinton administration to damage.
Besides the uranium story, there are claims that Clinton herself colluded with the Russians in funding the salacious dossier on Trump (based partly on information from Russian sources) and that the Democratic primaries were rigged in her favor and against her main rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders. This charge has been given new life by former Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile, whose Clinton-unfriendly new memoir has been flogged both by the pro-Sanders left and the pro-Trump right.
While there is plentiful evidence that Clinton is no paragon of principle, it seems highly likely than none of the new claims amount to criminality. At worst, they amount to unsavory politics (and influence-peddling) as usual. But that’s almost beside the point: The essence of political scandals, especially in our hyperpolarized times, is that partisans get to believe “the facts” they want to believe. This is true not only of pro-Trump Clinton haters, but of Trump haters who vastly overstate the evidence of Trump’s collusion with the Kremlin.
The culture of scandal is ugly. It promotes fake news and discourages discussion of issues. And it’s here to stay.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.