Alongside the wars against the coronavirus and the Trump virus in 2020, another war has been raging in American political culture: accountability vs. impunity. It is too early to declare a victor, but accountability has made some progress this past year.
There is nothing new about the effort to hold people accountable for crimes against others, nor about the impunity that some criminals have felt to commit their crimes over and over. The lives of Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby were defined by their feelings of impunity as they made assaults against women into a lifestyle. Like countless other men who have been exposed over the past few years as sexual criminals, their celebrity and power made holding them accountable nearly impossible. Crucial to their sense of impunity was the acquiescence of others, mostly also powerful men, to their crimes, maintaining silence, buying silence, enforcing silence. Since the MeToo movement broke that silence, accountability began to replace impunity for them. But those cases reveal also the limits of accountability: those countless co-conspirators who surrounded them with silence have escaped any consequences, preserving their impunity to protect themselves and others.
That pattern fits the mostly failed effort to hold the biggest criminal accountable, the impeachment of President Trump. His whole life defines impunity, from illegally avoiding the Vietnam War draft and getting someone smart to take his SAT’s in his youth, to a career founded on fraud and cheating stretching over decades. The Mueller report and the impeachment trial in Congress displayed to the world the treasonous purpose of Trump’s “perfect call”. But he survived because of the continuing impunity of those powerful men in Congress who supported him by denying facts, by attacking those who told the truth, and by putting partisanship over duty.
Men like Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. Lindsey Graham believed they could say the most outrageous things in front of the whole nation and not suffer any consequences. They were both reelected in November, so it appears they were correct. While defenders of rape are few, defenders of treason still hold sufficient power to hold back political accountability.
Black Lives Matter came about to demand an end to unjustified police violence against African Americans and more accountability for such incidents, in the belief that the latter would promote the former. Only a firm belief in his impunity from consequence could explain Derek Chauvin’s murder of a defenseless George Floyd while being filmed, or the countless other cases of cops assaulting blacks on camera, going back to Rodney King in 1991.
Accountability is not always a simple matter. A high school senior recently had to withdraw from a college acceptance when a brief video from 2016 in which she used a racial slur became public. Sometimes demands for accountability conflict with forgiveness.
Accountability depends on the revelation of truth, just as impunity depends on hiding it. But 2020 proved again that revelation is not enough. Impunity can also triumph by controlling belief. The impeachment process from beginning to end had no impact on Trump’s popular approval. From the release of the Mueller report in the spring of 2019 through the House hearings leading to impeachment to the Senate trial ending in February 2020, Trump’s popular approval rating actually rose slightly. Since Trump began his all-out attack on the American constitutional system after his defeat at the polls, his approval rating has inched down only a couple of points.
The differing power of sexual and political accusations is demonstrated in the contrasting fates of the FOX News stars Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. O’Reilly was fired by FOX in 2017 after the New York Times reported that he and FOX had paid $13 million to five women who had reported his sexual harassment, and then two others came forward with similar charges. The year before, FOX News’s founding CEO Roger Ailes had resigned in disgrace, as dozens of women reported sexual harassment. Sean Hannity tells political lies on a daily basis, but retains his prime FOX slot.
Although it appears that Trump violated Georgia election laws, and possibly federal laws, in his amazing telephone request that the vote in Georgia be “recalculated” so he could win, his claims to be a genius might be the only thing that suffers. At this moment at the very end of Trump’s tenure in office, there appears to be no accountability in sight for his attempt to overthrow the newly elected administration and the whole electoral process behind Biden’s victory. The majority of House Republicans and the growing number of Republican Senators who have jumped on that circus bandwagon believe they will suffer no accountability for violating their constitutional oaths.
Perhaps today’s vote in Georgia will tell us more about the contest between accountability and impunity.
I wish for an end to the impunity of racists, liars, and politicians. I would like to see Sen. James Inhofe take some responsibility for decades of denying global warming by admitting he was wrong. I would like my own Congressman, Darin LaHood, and all the other Republicans who have pretended that the November 3 election was rigged, to say publicly that they were wrong all along. I would like the liars at FOX News to admit once or twice that what they said yesterday was not true. I would like the American voting public to hold politicians and media personalities accountable for what they do and say.
I would also like Kris Kringle to be definitively proven to be Santa Claus. That will probably happen first.
January 5, 2021
editor's note: this post was written prior to the announcement of the Georgia Senate elections and the mob attack on the Capitol on January 6. It goes without saying that accountability for the day's events will be an ongoing subject of discussion.