Chris Bouton: The indictments on Monday of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates and the revelation of a plea deal for former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, marked the first charges stemming from the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election led by special counsel Robert Mueller. This growing political scandal naturally cries out for some contextualization, especially in terms of other major political scandals in American history. The ur-political scandal–against which all others are judged–is Watergate. Yet, we need to ask the question, how applicable is this Watergate comparison? Is it appropriate? Should we be making historical comparisons in the midst of what seem to be major historical events?
And if so, what kinds of comparisons should we be making?
Erin Bartram: I’ve become increasingly uneasy with the Watergate comparison of late
Just as I’ve become uneasy with the comparisons to “corrupt” administrations of the past – Harding, and especially Grant
Because I think those comparisons are now being used by pundits to consciously or unconsciously frame what’s happening now as within the bounds of normal, if awful, American political behavior
Chris: And many of the comparisons and efforts at contextualization are at the most basic level.
There’s corruption, therefore Watergate or Teapot Dome
With no effort to compare and contrast the depth and scope of these scandals.
Your comment also raises the issue of how do we contextualize something that has no historical prior?
Erin: That’s sort of where I’m bothered by these comparisons: I think people don’t want to confront that this is uncharted ground in the US, to a great extent.
And Americans believe their system to be so exceptional they won’t accept comparisons with other countries
Especially countries they consider “lesser”
Chris: And we often refer to the Mueller investigation as a form of shorthand, but that obscures what he’s tasked with investigating.
He’s tasked (amongst other things) with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether the Trump campaign sought contact or aid from the Russians in order to help elect Donald Trump as president.
The implications of that are much grander in scope than Teapot Dome or Watergate.
And thanks to the Papadopoulos plea we know that the Trump campaign did communicate with representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry about “thousands of emails” related to Hillary Clinton.
Erin: I saw one political commentator this morning say we should stop saying “potential collusion”
“Collusion” as a broad term is not a crime, so we don’t need to cover ourselves saying “alleged” anymore
Chris: The Papadopoulos plea makes one thing clear. The Mueller investigation has Papadopoulos’s emails detailing these contacts. That’s real proof.
Let’s turn back to something you pointed out a few minutes ago, the inability to confront this unique historical moment.
What do you see as the cause of that? Some form of American exceptionalism?
Erin: I mean, some warped kind
A belief that our system is the greatest in the world, and the most flexible, and therefore nothing could ever break it.
I had a student recently who took issue with my framing of the A of C and the Constitution as documents that reflected the concerns of their respective moments but were also deeply flawed.
In particular, that there was any merit to the A of C and any problems with the Constitution because, as his politics class had told him recently, one failed to hold the country together and the other succeeded.
I pointed out to him that when the A of C “failed,” people wrote a new constitution and there was a moderately peaceful transition. But when the Constitution failed, we had a Civil War.
Like most people, he doesn’t think of the Civil War as a failure of the Constitution, but I think we need to frame it that way more often.
Chris: I agree there. And that was what was infuriating about Kelly’s idiotic compromise comment early this week.
There were compromises on slavery written into the constitution, there were a host of compromises that followed (1820, 1850) etc. They all failed to solve the issue.
Erin: If you asked most Americans, they could name at least one thing explicitly called a compromise that led to the war
That he felt there should have been more compromise borne by black Americans was pretty disgusting.
Chris: Right and that, as you pointed out, is the really appalling part of his comments.
Compromises over what? Whether it should be permissible to own other people as property.
When some people say yes it’s okay and others say no it’s not. Then there’s not a lot of bridging the gap there.
And this is where I get fed up with the Democrats have abandoned the white working class and need to reach out to them more line of thinking.
Yes, the Democrats should promote policies that benefit the white working class. But they should not do it by selling out values like racial, gender, and sexual equality. Because that the logic that often undergirds those comments.
It reminds of me of Arlie Hochschild’s conversations with Tea Party members, if they don’t believe in equality, then what’s there to compromise on?
I think addressing America’s racial past realistically would help us be more realistic about the flawed nature of the system
Lots of people seem to think the situation we’re in will be “fixed” in the normal course of events. It’ll be a bad time, and we’ll be stuck with tons of horrific judges forever, but it’ll be okay.
When confronted with the fact that one party consistently wins more votes but remains the minority power, people just seem to think it’ll work itself out.
It won’t, and to be okay with that is to be okay with a failed system.
Chris: If there’s a benefit to the Trump era, then it’s laying bare the largely unchallenged assumptions about our republican form of government.
The question is will recognize those challenges or rationalize them away?
Erin: I fear that we are seeing historical comparisons stretched beyond the point of credibility in order to rationalize away what is happening
Chris: Right and I think it reveals the weaknesses in one of our biggest institutions: the media
Erin: There are some supremely stupid people in positions of power in the media. People who don’t know enough to know that Uzbekistan isn’t in the Middle East, or are incapable of thinking critically about that narrative before repeating it.
Chris: This is a media whose flaws are glaringly apparent: the need to fill a 24 hour news cycle, the treating every news story in terms of winners/losers, and most importantly an unwillingness to think critically about what they’re being asked to cover
Reporters are not stenographers.
Yet much of the news media acts that way. “Well it’s not our job to interpret” Yes, it is. If I say the Earth is flat and you say it’s round. The headline is not “People disagree over the shape of the earth” It’s “Chris is wrong about the shape of the Earth”
Erin: The overarching narrative is that America is a constitutional democracy and that our system has the capacity to deal with anything
They can’t break out of much smaller narratives, so it’s not surprising they can’t break out of that one
Chris: And, as you’ve pointed out, that narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny
Erin: They called the firing of Comey the Saturday Night Massacre
And now they’re saying the firing of Mueller, and whoever else has to be fired to get to someone who’ll fire Mueller, will be the Saturday Night Massacre
Chris: At least Mueller would be closer to that reality than Comey
Erin: The shocking nature of the Comey firing has been normalized, because if it really had been the horrible thing they compared it to, surely Republicans would have stepped up
We’re seeing history used to suggest that in America, when things get really bad, the system – guided by good people – gets things back on the rails
Anyone in the system is, at heart, a good American
Even Robert E. Lee, taking up arms against his country to fight for the preservation of slavery, is a good American!
That’s how senators preface criticism of their peers and of nominees “My colleague is a patriot, but also wrong in almost every way”
What if he’s not a patriot, though? What if he doesn’t actually like American freedoms and would be happy to erode them? Because news flash: he isn’t, he doesn’t, and he is trying to do just that.
Chris: Is there anything about Jeff Sessions’ political career that screams support for American freedoms?
Chris: Or, the point we could make, is that people like Sessions do support a version of American freedoms, they just don’t apply to everyone.
Erin: But the narrative that ours is a great system of freedom helps bolster those claims, and paper over the fact that our system was based on and mandated political inequality for most of its history.
Chris: They apply to me and people like me, but not others.
Erin: I think it’s no mistake that Andrew Jackson hangs in the Oval Office.
I mean, this is the problem with the contagion of liberty
The idea itself, I mean
We eradicated smallpox, after all.
Chris: I mean go back to the Founders and well before that into Antiquity, notions of freedom rest on ideas of slavery. How can we know what freedom is without its counterpart to compare it to?
Same with ideas of equality.
I’m struck by how much our national narrative that we are the freest country in the world has enabled us to rationalize eroding freedoms as the status quo
Chris: There’s the great Samuel Johnson quote: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
One of the struggles of American history has been the establishment of these ideals of freedom and liberty and our constant and utter failure to live up to them
One thing that’s always struck me about American exceptionalism is just how contingent on geography it is.
Of course Americans think they have the greatest country in the world.
Erin: I asked my students to draw the shape of the US in 1787, and we talked about how they couldn’t do it without drawing the whole continent.
Chris: So do the Russians, English, French, South Africans, Egyptians etc.
Erin: Shoutout to Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British here
Chris: It’s like rooting for sports teams. I root for the Red Sox not because the Red Sox are inherently better than any other baseball team, but because I grew up 20 minutes from Boston.
Chris: There’s nothing inherently greater about Boston’s team than any other team, nothing innate in their character or anything else. I like them because it’s where I grew up. Other people grew up in different places and have different favorite teams.
How is this different from our national affiliations?
This is also explains why sports radio and political radio are so intolerably bad.
Erin: I think that is an indisputable point.
Rather than use history to convince ourselves that we can get through this, full stop, we should look at our national past to see how “getting through this” has often meant “sacrificing the political and human rights of some people.”
And how we actually didn’t get through everything okay. The nation had a civil war. The state put people in camps. White Americans tolerated widespread lynching. Women haven’t had the vote for most of our history.
Chris: Historical contextualization is really difficult and as I said earlier, I don’t think that our media, who are driving many of these narratives about the Mueller investigation, are particularly good at it.
Erin: Not at all.
I think the presence of people who “lived through Watergate” as uncritical experts is not helpful. The actual Watergate insiders I’ve seen have been really useful in qualifying differences between then and now.
Chris: The Mueller investigation is unprecedented. We have the campaign chairman of a major political party charged with laundering $75 million from a pro-Russian Ukrainian government.
No matter what else follows, you can’t whitewash that away.
Erin: Nope. And I think perhaps the most compelling comparison is Nixon in the 1968 election – interference that was so destructive to our ideas of political norms that it was hidden, basically.
Chris: And something that gets overshadowed by the Democratic Convention.
Erin: So are we basically asking the media to stop using history as a coping mechanism?
Chris: Or if they’re going to do it, they need to do a much better job at it.
Erin: These are the same people who say Sessions did the “honorable” thing by recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Bad people get punished in our system, so if someone hasn’t been punished, they can’t have done anything that bad.
There’s your real slippery slope!
Chris: Meanwhile his DOJ has argued that trans-Americans don’t deserve legal protection