Is decency returning to our politics?

Trump’s conviction may herald a swing back to morality

Image source: The New Yorker

In mid-1954 the chief counsel of the U.S. Army, Joseph N. Welch, asked two questions that triggered the end of the paranoid, conspiracist-dominated era of McCarthyism. With those queries, both Washington and America generally began a slow road back to respect for law, due process and simple reasonableness. “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch asked Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Now, with the conviction of Donald J. Trump as a felon in his tawdry case involving a porn star, a Playboy model, dishonest lawyers and accountants and infidelity, one might ask: “Is America again beginning a return to decency?” Is it possible that, in time perhaps, we will get back to a point where longstanding American virtues can prevail in our civic lives, where our leaders can be moral and fundamentally decent? Does the return begin with the careful judgments applied first by a state grand jury that indicted Trump and then by 12 trial jurors, one of whom spoke favorably of him before the trial? She, along with the others, apparently was persuaded about his perfidy by the mountain of evidence she saw.

Roy Cohn and Trump, 1983, source: Vanity Fair

With its attack on the Washington establishment for a fabricated infiltration by Communists, McCarthyism preceded Trump’s assaults on the “deep state.” It  is not accidental that the period saw the rise of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel – the same oft-disciplined Roy Cohn who taught Trump how to play the legal and PR games that helped him survive financial disasters and rise to the presidency. As a writer for Politico put it, “Trump was Cohn’s most insatiable student and beneficiary.” His techniques included refusing to apologize and never backing down, but instead sticking by lies even as they are debunked, counting on a gullible public to buy them.

Indeed, whether out of calculation, willful blindness or narcissistic self-delusion, Trump continued such deceit in a press conference Friday. He insisted, for instance, that the case was orchestrated by President Biden, though, in fact, it was a state case, not one involving the federal Department of Justice or the president, as a CNN fact-checker noted. Trump argued that the judge barred his lawyers from calling an elections expert, when, in fact, the judge would have permitted the man to testify, though he limited the scope of questioning to issues in the case, so the defense withdrew him. And Trump claimed that the prosecutors were bringing his case, while not dealing with crime that is occurring at levels never before seen in New York (something statistics show is false, with the early 1990s a far more deadly time in the city).

Of course, Trump is given to wild overstatement (a charitable term for it), as he again showcased. He said that his witnesses were “literally crucified” by Judge Juan Merchan, a man he said who “looks like an angel but he’s really a devil.” No crucifixions, literal or otherwise, were reported.

As Trump again derided the trial as “rigged,” he drew the first public rebuke on the case from Biden. The president asserted that the “American principle that no one is above the law was reaffirmed.” Speaking from the White House, Biden said: “It’s reckless, it’s dangerous, it’s irresponsible, for anyone to say this was ‘rigged,’ just because they don’t like the verdict.”

“Our justice system has endured for nearly 250 years, and it literally is the cornerstone of America,” Biden added, as reported by The New York Times. “Our justice system. The justice system should be respected. And we should never allow anyone to tear it down. It’s as simple as that. That’s America. That’s who we are, and that’s who we’ll always be, God willing.”

America’s justice and political systems haven’t always been respectable, of course. They have been subject to cycles, moving in Hegelian lurches from nuttiness to comparative sanity. The move in the 1950s from the darkness of McCarthyism to a sunnier Eisenhower/Kennedy era marked one such turn, for example. That shift required courageous people who stood up to fear mongering and dishonesty.

Someday we may look back on the New York prosecutors and the jurors as similarly gutsy people, folks who separated the facts from the BS. Depending on how the election goes, we may see those dozen men and women as ordinary citizens who turned the wheel of history.

We have a long way to go first, of course. The sort of rot that McCarthy brought into parts of the GOP in the 1950s has resurfaced to dominate the Republican party today. An opportunistically paranoid view of reality, as so eloquently described by Richard Hofstadter, now reigns in the party that Trump seems to own. It never really went away there, of course (recall Barry Goldwater, the John Birch Society and Richard Nixon), but it was suppressed by such leaders as Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush – men of basic decency and morals, even if one disagreed with them.

As it has driven out reasonable people, today’s party of Trump has come to lack respect for morality and shun decency. His lapdogs, such as VP-hopefuls South Carolina Sen. Tim ScottOhio Sen. J.D. Vance and New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, along with House Speaker Mike Johnson and No. 2 House Republican Steve Scalise, wasted no time in rising to Trump’s defense. Such prominent figures in the self-described party of law-and-order dissed the judicial system, managing to be simultaneously hypocritical and cynical – a far cry from the Republican leaders who persuaded Nixon to quit in 1974.

Larry Hogan, source: AP

To his credit, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who is running for the Senate, seemed like a lone voice on the right. Ahead of the verdict, he urged the public to “respect the verdict and the legal process.” “At this dangerously divided moment in our history, all leaders — regardless of party — must not pour fuel on the fire with more toxic partisanship,” Hogan posted on X. “We must reaffirm what has made this nation great: the rule of law.”

But the Trumpy response came swiftly, echoing the sort of cancellation that Trump delivers to GOP officials who cross him. “You just ended your campaign,” said Chris LaCivita, a senior Trump advisor, on X. (As it happens, Hogan could turn the Senate red if he wins, so LaCivita may have helped undermine that GOP effort).

Unless something momentous happens, we will witness the spectacle of a convict becoming the presidential nominee of his party in mid-July, only days after his scheduled July 11 sentencing. Even felons can run for office and take the job if they win. Of course, in Cohn-inspired style Trump will appeal, something that will drag out the process well into the next presidential term. Trump, who knows how to play the legal system like a fiddle, could even win a reversal (if his apologists at The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere are right about the legal questions the case raises).

All along, Trump will do what he does best – stay in the news, oozing or muscling his way past President Biden in the headlines. He is a master of attention-getting stunts as shown by his vice-presidential sweepstakes, which has kept him in the public eye for months. He will stay in the limelight, overshadowing the real achievements Biden can point to from his time in office.

If issues come into the race, Trump will use them in his manipulative fashion to generate rage. In the din, it could be hard for Biden to remind voters, for instance, that Trump in February sank a promising bipartisan effort to fix the southern border, a bit of naked demagoguery designed to give the GOP an issue to run on. And Trump will hammer away at inflation, ignoring its decline and counting on voters’ ignorance that it’s the independent Federal Reserve that operates the levers on inflation through interest rates.

Source: MedPage Today

Certainly, as a product of a normal political culture, Biden would like to run on the issues. Indeed, while Trump courted the press as he played the victim in his pathetic legal melodrama, Biden was on the job as president, endorsing a plan to help resolve the Gaza war. Such diplomatic efforts seem far more newsworthy.

Until this conviction, in fact, Biden has been loath to speak about Trump’s many legal woes and it remains unclear just how hard the president will hit his rival over them, going forward. Will Biden make much of the twice-impeached Trump’s remarkable legal woes in their June 27 debate? Certainly, Biden is all too aware that the conviction is not a knockout punch for the GOP contender and that only voters can deliver that in November. Indeed, Trump and his minions already are trying to turn the conviction to their advantage with supporters, raising funds by playing the persecuted outsider-victim role that resounds with his die-hard backers.

Stormy Daniels, Trump, Karen McDougal; source: Getty Images, via syracuse.com

There’s no question that Trump has upended our electoral system and much of our culture, politically and otherwise. It wasn’t so long ago that voters would shun a potential candidate for being divorced (Reagan broke that barrier). Now many would tolerate a philanderer who cheats on his third wife while she is pregnant and pays hush money to suppress information about his infidelities. Also, despite widespread evidence to the contrary, Trump has managed to cast doubt on the integrity of elections (as he would certainly do again if he loses in the fall). Not incidentally, he has managed to drive suspicions about science and institutions.

But perhaps focusing on the conviction is taking a too-narrow view, as is dwelling on polls that show a close presidential contest. It’s possible that the national return to decency began in 2020, with Biden’s defeat of Trump, or in 2022, when the GOP lost the Senate and many Trump-backed candidates in competitive areas lost races up and down the political ladder. If there is, indeed, a return to decency in our political culture, history will have to fix the turning point. While, the climb back appears likely to remain uphill for a while, Trump’s new description as a felon surely helps.

A Spoiler Alert

Could a real third-party candidate mean a Trump victory?

Source: Videos Index

History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce – or so goes the saying attributed to Karl Marx. This year we may see a sorry mixture of both, if a credible third-party candidate arises to threaten to do what one arguably did 32 years ago, that is to unseat an unpopular incumbent president.

A friend, a committed Republican of the old-school sort, wrote me recently to say she has become an elected officer of the No Labels party in Maryland. “No Labels is likely to put forth a Unity presidential ticket that will work to deliver commonsense solutions to this country’s many problems,” she wrote. “It is my hope that we can all commit to working together for the greater good, while celebrating the differences that enrich us all.”

What is troubling is that if No Labels launches a serious contender and gains traction, he or she may do what H. Ross Perot did in 1992. The billionaire outsider’s third-party candidacy garnered just under 19% of the popular vote back then, the largest share of the vote for a third-party contender since an election in 1912. While Perot didn’t grab a single Electoral College vote, he served as the spoiler who helped to oust President George H.W. Bush and install William J. Clinton in the White House.

 “Dissatisfied voters of all stripes flocked to his call, creating one of the most powerful third-party movements in American history,” wrote Prof. Russell L. Riley of the UVA Miller Center. “Although Perot drew support from both Republicans and Democrats, he probably hurt Bush disproportionately more than Clinton, owing to his harsh attacks against the incumbent and the timing of both his departure and re-entry into the 1992 campaign.”

Joe Lieberman considers Haley, Source: AP

Could this happen again? Could President Biden be unhorsed by Donald J. Trump thanks to a third-party spoiler? Well, No Labels has gained access to the ballot in at least 13 states so far and is aiming for all 50. It doesn’t have a presidential candidate yet, but depending on how things go in the GOP primaries in coming months, it could land someone such as former South Carolina Gov. and presidential hopeful Nikki Haley to lead its ticket. Founding party chairman Joseph Lieberman said that she “would deserve serious consideration.”

While a campaign spokeswoman, responding to Lieberman’s mid-January comment, said Haley had no interest in No Labels, that was before her loss to Trump in New Hampshire. If she loses in her native South Carolina, as expected, on Feb. 24, her view could change, of course.

Haley has polled ahead of Biden in head-to-head matchups. In a recent Quinnipiac poll, for instance, the former governor tops the president by 47% to 42% in a two-person contest. By contrast, Biden tops Trump in a two-way race, 50% to 44%, making one wonder why a GOP in its right mind would stick with Trump instead of Haley. (Of course, the operative phrase in regard to the MAGA-dominated party is “in its right mind.”)

Source: The Hill

When one tosses in other independent candidates (Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein), the results get murkier, according to Quinnipiac. Haley drops to 29%, but Biden also drops, to 36%. Of course, it’s not clear how many votes Haley might siphon off of Biden (or Trump) if she ran with No Labels in a three-way race, but Democrats fear she would do more damage to their man. As the Wall Street Journal reported in analyzing a couple polls last fall, “When voters are given options beyond Biden and Trump, the president tends to bleed the most support …”

Let’s look back to 1992 for some guidance, though. The erratic Perot quit the race in July 1992, but re-entered in October. That gave him just enough time to take part in three debates, where he impressed some voters with his phrase “giant sucking sound,” describing a feared loss of jobs to Mexico if the NAFTA treaty went into effect. At the end of the debates, his chances seemed so good that we at BusinessWeek had to prepare three cover stories in advance of election day, so we’d be ready for anything.

Source: Miller Center

In the end, Clinton won, of course. But he took office with the support of substantially less than half the electorate, collecting just 43% of the vote to Bush’s 37.4% and Perot’s 18.9%. Clinton prevailed because he won in the states where it mattered, swamping Bush in the Electoral College vote – with 370 to Bush’s 168. The president carried only 18 conservative states, including Texas and Florida, both rich in Electoral College votes, but Perot gave them both a run for their money in a couple states, finishing second in Maine (which Clinton won) and Utah (which was Bush country).

Ironically, my friend now helping the No Labels group served in the Bush Administration that Clinton tossed out. She saw first-hand the scorching effect a third-party candidacy can have. As I described in a biography of the late Clayton Yeutter, who was a top adviser to Bush, despondency was widespread in the Bush ranks in mid-1992 and things didn’t get much better as Election Day neared. The president’s approval rating, according to Gallup, dipped to 29% that July and rebounded, but only to 34% soon before he lost the election.

As things stand today, Biden is in better shape than Bush was, but not by much (the Quinnipiac poll, notwithstanding). One can only imagine the depression afflicting his camp. Biden’s approval rating now stands at a disappointing 41%, according to Gallup, though it dropped to 37% last April, October and November. The numbers are reminiscent of those logged by one-term Jimmy Carter, who averaged a 37.4% approval rating in his third presidential year (Biden’s third-year average approval rating is just 39.8%).

Many things can happen between now and November, of course. No Labels, in fact, may not find a credible candidate, especially if Haley demurs or (as seems unlikely) wins enough primaries to be a viable GOP contender. Would Sen. Joe Manchin be a potent contender for the group? Also, Trump may finally be nailed on any number of criminal charges, which likely would erode his support outside of the MAGA diehards (and could force the GOP to seek an alternative). Trump could even be ruled off the ballot in some states, though his appointees to the Supreme Court would shock the world with such a decision.

One thing seems pretty certain, though: a successful third-party candidacy would be a pipe dream. While many Americans don’t like the idea of a Biden-Trump rerun, history suggests that a real third alternative would likely not get very far – but, troublingly, perhaps far enough to make for a repeat of 1992.