By David K. Shipler
Fifty years ago this week, Americans who had believed their leaders’ optimistic lies were stunned by the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s lightning assault on scores of South Vietnamese towns and cities. An enemy squad even managed to enter the US Embassy compound in Saigon, giving Hanoi and its Vietcong surrogates a propaganda victory—but not the military victory they had sought. Their forces took heavy casualties as the Americans and South Vietnamese pounded them back.
Furthermore, the expectations of the North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, were not fulfilled. As he later revealed, he had predicted that the South Vietnamese army would collapse, the civilian population would rise up in rebellion, and the United States would scale back sharply.
Yet the American public was not struck by the collision between Hanoi’s goals and the results on the ground. Rather, what pushed much of the country to the threshold of disillusionment and outrage was the collision between American officials’ rosy assessments and the North’s capacity to mount countrywide attacks. Just weeks before the Tet Offensive, the US commander, General William Westmoreland, declared boldly, “We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view.” Then the disastrous reality came into view—the prospect of a grinding stalemate at best. It was a psychological turning point in the war.
That threshold of outrage has risen in recent decades; it now takes a higher dose of deception and corruption to generate sufficient disgust to produce change. President Trump’s chronic lying—he uttered some 2,000 blatant falsehoods and misleading claims during his first year in office—cost him nothing during his campaign. Nor did his boast on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” His obvious racism—commending some “fine people” who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and preferring immigration from Norway instead of “shithole” countries in Africa—has not crushed his support among Republicans in Congress or his core of voters.
Double standards are endemic in politics. The political career of John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential candidate, was ended abruptly by news that he had fathered a child with a mistress while his wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer. His behavior crossed a line of decency.
So did Trump’s, but he barely got a hard look from his supporters (even his self-righteous devotees who call themselves Christians) when The Wall Street Journal reported that soon after his son Barron was born, Trump had indulged in a sexual encounter with a porn star, whom he then paid $130,000 right before the election to keep quiet.
Why? Do his male Republican colleagues and supporters envy him? Do they secretly wish that they could grab pussy and cavort with porn stars—and have enough money that such a payoff would barely dent their assets? Do his supporters and political backers harbor the racist outlooks to which he gives voice? Do they quietly want to be able to make up “facts” with such impunity? Do they care more about making money deals than preserving the country’s security against cyber intrusions into the electoral process by Russia? Do they wish they could also feed at the corrupt trough of self-dealing, using their governmental power for self-enrichment, as Trump and his Cabinet have done?
If the answers are all “yes,” which I suspect, then Trump probably doesn’t have to worry about blackmail by the Russians. If it’s true, as the dossier by British intelligence Christopher Steele reports, that Trump’s “conduct in Moscow has included perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB [the Russian intelligence service],” then even a video of his purported escapade with prostitutes in Moscow’s Ritz Carlton Hotel wouldn’t faze most of his voters or congressional Republicans.
This is the result of a catastrophic moral collapse, begun before Trump (e.g., Bill Clinton’s blow jobs in the Oval Office) but accelerated by his candidacy and election. The country has grown so numb to disgrace, so immune to hypocrisy and fabrication by government, that the people can no longer hold their officials to account. The pendulum has swung from an naive outcry to a jaded shrug, from the indignation over being lied to before the Tet Offensive to the nonchalance about being governed by the ideology of selfish malfeasance.
Back in 2008, the writer Mark Danner called this condition the “frozen scandal.” Once upon a time, he said, we could nurture the myth that exposure led to correction. “Vietnam and its domestic denouement, Watergate—the climax of a different time of scandal that ended a war and brought down a president. . . . First, revelation: intrepid journalists exposing the gaudy, interlocking crimes of the Nixon administration. Then, investigation: not just by the press, for that was but precursor, the necessary condition—but by Congress and the courts. . . . And finally expiation: the handing down of sentences, the politicians in shackles led off to jail, the orgy of public repentance. The exorcism of shame, the purging of the political system, and the return to a state, however imperfect, of societal grace.”
The myth that purification naturally follows scandal, Danner noted, assumes that knowledge is ultimate power and that only the public’s ignorance can allow wrongdoing to fester. Trump might agree, given his campaign to unmoor Americans from reality by denouncing, as “fake news,” every report unfavorable to him. Undermining faith in the most responsible press is a prerequisite for discounting the investigative digging by journalists committed to accuracy in their profession.
The counterpoint in the funereal drumbeat of dying outrage is the #MeToo movement, whose uprising of abused women has finally, after eons of silence, stirred the nation’s conscience and taken down some—only some—predatory men of power. Trump has not been one of them. The movement will hopefully continue until it reaches into the lower-income ranks of unknown supervisors who prey on ill-paid women too vulnerable to risk complaining. And it will hopefully mature into a cause that also embraces forms of due process to calibrate the punishments and discern the malicious harassers from the merely clueless or innocent.
American polarization divides us now along many lines: political, racial, class, religious, geographical. It also divides us into those who care about decency and honesty in government from those who do not.