“Voters quickly forget what a man says.”
— Richard Nixon
Politicians are always keenly aware that their tenure in office often hinges on the mood of the electorate. But politicians have always understood that a scandal would end their career, or at the very least, put it on life support. Government officials knew this was how the game was played. A scandal means they fall on their sword and resign. They embarrass the party, their state, the nation? Time for them to move on. Depending on the nature of the mistake, maybe he or she can score a second act after a few years of penance.
There are plenty of examples in the modern era of American politics. Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) resigned after an unethical book deal (which also cost him $300,000 in penalties). I mean, Fox News still lets him make an appearance on their shows, but he’s unelectable.
Anyone old enough to remember Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR)? The Washington Post ran an article detailing accusations from 10 different women claiming the senator sexually harassed or sexually abused them. The Senate Ethics Committee recommended an expulsion, and Packwood bowed out on his own.
Karl Rove, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush, resigned after allegations of exerting improper influence over multiple situations.
Do I need to mention Anthony Weiner (D-NY)? The former Congressman was a rising star in the Democratic Party, until media outlets reported that he texted nude pictures of himself to various women. He quit his position in the House, and almost had a shot in a mayoral election in New York City … until he did the same thing again (please google “Carlos Danger.”)
Mark Foley (R-FL), a former House member, resigned in 2006 after allegations surfaced that he was sending sexuality explicit messages to pages.
Larry Craig (R-ID), a senator charged with soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public restroom. Though he maintained his innocence, he resigned in 2007.
Chris Lee, (R-NY), resigned after soliciting a woman on Craigslist and e-mailing shirtless photos of himself.
There are dozens of examples of politicians behaving badly. But they understood that when confronted with evidence, they needed to do everyone a favor and walk away. Despite the seemingly endless nature of scandals and foolish decisions of politicians, there are rules even among the sharks.
The landscape of politics changed in 2016, for a number of reasons. However, it seems clear that the new playbook for politics suggests a different path forward. Caught in a scandal? Admit it, deny it, gaslight accusers, but do not resign. Ride out the storm of disapproval. Take the beating the press will hand out. Hide in the office. But a refusal to resign means a longer stay in power and the hope that voters will forget.
How are we seeing this play out?
Former President Donald Trump set this tone (though we will see he isn’t the only factor in causing this shift). Practically any number of gaffes during his 2016 Election campaign would have crushed candidates before him. Democrats unleashed a video of Trump and television host Billy Bush prior to a taping Access Hollywood, where Trump described how he repeatedly attempted to seduce married woman, and mused about his celebrity status, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ‘em by the p***y. You can do anything.” Under the old rules, that would have been damning enough. However, Trump dismissed it as ‘locker room talk,’ not to be taken seriously.
In 2018, news outlets reported that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement about her sexual affair with Trump in 2006. While Trump distanced himself from the payment, he did not deny the affair.
During his 2016 campaign, Trump also mocked the physical handicap of New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski.
Trump, as president, attempted to leverage Ukrainian officials to conduct an investigation into the Biden family to discredit current President Joe Biden. This earned Trump his first impeachment. His second impeachment stemmed from actions on the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, where he urged on his supporters, who wrongfully claimed that Trump truly won the election.
Any historian or political scientist could write volumes about the insane antics of Trump, but that’s not the point. Trump’s actions set a terrible precedent because despite evidence of his terrible nature, he refused to step away from politics. Regardless of what journalists uncovered, or the slew of allegations of sexual assault from dozens of women, Trump defied the unwritten rules of politics.
Trump crossed the Rubicon with his refusal to relent in the face of evidence of his transgressions. Other politicians (from both parties) now understand they have no obligation to play by the old rules, either. These politicians hope that once the initial news cycle with their scandal fades away, so will the memories of the voters.
Remember Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York? I wrote about his underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in senior centers and the concerning allegations of sexual harassment. He’s riding the rough waves and refusing to yield to the calls for his resignation, even from his own party. The New York General Assembly passed laws weakening the power of the governor, but Cuomo remains undeterred. If the people want him out, they’ll have to vote him out. Cuomo has already announced plans to run again in 2022.
Travel westward and catch up with current Governor Greg Gianforte of Montana. You might remember him for body slamming Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian. Gianforte didn’t stop his campaign for House of Representatives, but did receive a misdemeanor conviction for assault and had to pay $4,400 in restitution to Jacobs. Gianforte served two terms in the House before transitioning to his current role as governor.
Speaking of governors behaving badly, Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA), faced a controversy in 2019 when a medical school yearbook photo surfaced with Northam wearing blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam apologized for the photo, but then later claimed he was neither man in the photograph and had no recollection of it. Regardless, he resisted the intense pressure for him to resign.
Perhaps the most disgusting politician using this new tactic is Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL). The bombastic congressman faces allegations that he had sex with a 17 year old girl. Gaetz is also connected to corrupt and disgraced Florida politician Joel Greenberg, who used his position in government to defraud taxpayers and run a sex trafficking ring. Greenberg recently cut a deal with prosecutors, likely to avoid a long prison sentence in exchange for testimony against his long time ‘friend’ Gaetz. The congressman admits to nothing and claims “the deep state” is plotting against him.
Big time politics comes to West Virginia
Political operators at the state level see these tactics and they quickly adopt them. In 2019, Glen Dale Police arrested and charged State Senator Mike Maroney (R-02) with conspiracy, house of ill fame and assignation and prostitution. The charges were later dropped, despite police finding Maroney’s phone number in a prostitute’s phone and thousands of messages exchanged. The prevailing thought is that Maroney’s lawyers were going to draw out his trial as long as possible, making the cost of his trial a drain on the finances of the town of Glen Dale and Marshall County. He currently retains his seat in the West Virginia State Senate.
In the Huntington area, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) is no stranger to controversial statements and actions that would ruin the careers of most politicians. In response to the local mosque in Huntington having a candlelight vigil, Mandt, unprompted, posted on Facebook, “Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats. It’s better to stay away than be associated with them.”
After a number of other disparaging remarks appeared about the gay and lesbian citizens in the state, Mandt caused another stir. Just prior to the 2020 Election, Mandt’s number appeared to be up when screenshots of a group chat showed him using inflammatory language directed at gay and lesbian citizens, and Muslims. In the wake of this revelation, Mandt resigned, but quickly reversed course and said his name was still on the ballot for the upcoming election and asked his supporters to re-elect him to the House of Delegates. And without hesitation, his supporters did just that.
Last week, Delegate Joe Jeffries (R-22) posted a vulgar and sexually explicit video on TikTok, which garnered a great deal of criticism. Jeffries made no apology for the video, commenting only, “I’m an elected official, but I’m still a real person.” Despite being removed from all committee assignments, Jeffries says he has no plans to resign.
Whether or not you approve or disapprove of these men and their actions on a private level is up to you, but the lesson they’ve drawn is clear. Regardless of their conduct as public officials, none of it means resigning from office.
Why is this happening?
Of course, it’s easy to lay all of this at the feet of former President Donald Trump. And he deserves a significant share of the blame, but Trump is only the catalyst for this. A few underlying causes have been simmering …
1. Decline in trust in the media. One of the key institutions in holding government accountable holds less sway than it once did. Sometimes, news outlets make mistakes, or the public becomes dissatisfied with the stories receiving coverage or how they’re covered. Also, the media reports information which upsets the natural order of our thinking. People don’t trust the media at times because it makes them aware of events they don’t want to believe.
The decline in the faith in media to report accurately leads destruction of a once trusted voice. Not even the most objective news outlets have enough credibility for may Americans. Too often, we do not want to see the overwhelming evidence right in front of us.
2. Tribalism and failure to condemn ‘our guy.’ It’s always pretty easy to pile on the people we don’t like or who don’t represent our views, but what happens when one of our political heroes is mired in scandal? The refusal of politicians at the highest levels of leadership in their parties and in our nation to condemn the exploits of their bad actors translates to others believing the behavior is tolerable. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are the worst offenders in this regard. (And before you say in your head, “But what about Pelosi and Biden?,” you should read their comments on Cuomo and Northam.)
3. Post-modernist thinking. If you aren’t familiar with the post-modernist movement from the 1990s and early 2000s, the key concept from their academic thinking was to call everything into question. There is no absolute truth and everything is relative. While post-modernist thinking has fallen out of favor (for a number of good reasons), its residue in American society is that everything in politics can be called into question, vis-á-vis, “fake news.” Someone makes the claim that Politician A committed certain crimes. Politicians will explain it away as simply untrue. A free-floating standard of truth allows politicians to conjure up any explanation for their actions which they can offer as plausible.
4. Politics of fear. When any politician finds themselves embroiled in a scandal, they appeal to the fear of the general population to save them. One tactic is to claim that even if the scandal is true, you can defuse the situation by advocating that a flawed member of your party is still better than even the best member of the opposing party. Another tactic utilizing fear involves establishing or endorsing conspiracy theories and positing that the evil forces behind the conspiracy.
Why do campaigns spend so much of their advertising budget on negative campaigns? They’re effective. They provoke fear through false or misleading statements which make voters worry that if they pick the wrong candidate, society will fall apart. President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ran the infamous “Daisy ad,” which implied a nation led by Republican Barry Goldwater would end up in a disastrous nuclear war. Not to be outdone, the 1988 campaign for President George H.W. Bush included the “Willie Horton ad,” which painted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime through a campaign ad aimed at suburban white citizens.
Part of this fear-mongering includes deflecting criticism about a scandal to other problems. Give the people a greater problem than your scandal to think about, and they will. “Yes, I make this awful statement, but I’m the only one protecting you from them. They’re really after you and I’m just in their way.”