Shame and Legacy

In a comment about Donald Trump’s most recent abuse of power, Vanity Fair contributing editor Kurt Eichenwald uses an interesting turn of phrase to describe political legacies: “Cowards are not the people schools are named for.”

Speaking on the Ezra Klein Show podcast this week, former Obama speechwriter John Favreau diagnosed the current American political malaise as being essentially about shame… or the lack of it. He and Klein noted that many of the guard-rails to good, democratic behaviour in politics, especially American politics, depends upon the idea of personal shame. People, even (perhaps especially) politicians, care about what other people think of them, and this moderates their behaviour. Politicians like Barack Obama cared deeply when they were criticised, even if that criticism came from their political opponents. This drives conciliation and compromise with the ‘other side’ and can also foster respect, understanding and bipartisanship. This is what a polity requires to maintain a functional democracy.But, in the analysis of Favreau and Klein, Donald Trump is breaking American politics, perhaps permanently, by showing that if you have no sense of shame, there is very little penalty to lies, incompetence and abuses of power.

I think this is true. But I suspect—or rather, I hope—that Trump’s lack of shame will in the end sabotage his own legacy, rather than the political system itself.

The news this week has been dominated by the publication of Michael Wolff’s incendiary book Fire and Fury, which has been heavily previewed and commented on in the media. By Wolff’s account, everyone around him thinks that the President of the United States has the intellect and temperament of a child. “Everyone in Trumpworld Knows He Is An Idiot” says New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg. People in his circle behave otherwise because it suits their own ‘brand’ to be seen to be nobly reining in a temperamental president and dampening his excesses. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress avoid stating the obvious because an ineffectual president allows them to implement their legislative agenda. Michael Wolff seems to be trying to cast himself as the little boy in Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes, vocalising something everyone else is thinking. Whether that truth percolates through to enough of those who voted for Mr Trump remains to be seen.

Either way, there will come a time in the next 7 years when Donald Trump’s political usefulness will wane. He may be impeached, he may lose an election, he may serve two terms, or he may die. And when he is no longer president, the shame of the moment will give way to the shame of history.

I think in years to come, Trump will become something of a salutary tale. When he is no longer politically useful to others, his reputation will be entirely as A Bad President and his name will be spoken in the same breath as Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan and Richard Nixon. It is likely that he will secure a permanent position as the worst president ever.

This probable future ignominy is not enough to prevent Donald Trump’s flagrantly unconstitutional behaviour as it happens. Indeed, indifference to future opinion of others is the very definition of shamelessness. But the judgment of history, a sullied legacy, does at least serve pour encourager des autres. Shame might not be enough to deter this president, but it might serve to discourage future presidents from taking a Trump-like approach to governing.

Update

I see others are deploying the ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ analogy too.

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