This post has been updated.
Ralph Northam is soon to be the former governor of Virginia. And that is how it should be.
His governorship ended, as a practical matter, on Friday night, when he acknowledged he was in a just-surfaced 1984 photograph from his medical school yearbook of one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood.
The Democratic governor attempted to apologize in written and video statements Friday, and then, bizarrely, attempted Saturday to retract his admission and his assumption of responsibility. At an afternoon news conference, he implausibly claimed he wasn’t in the offending photo (which contained what he called “blackfacing”) because “I so vividly don’t remember this” and didn’t know where it came from, even though other students chose the photos for their pages.
Yet he proceeded to acknowledge that he wore dark shoe polish on his face another time that same year while impersonating Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk in a dance contest — which he won! He allowed, in a rare moment of sense, that others “will find this difficult to believe.”
But his flailing serves only to compound his disgrace, because he has been denounced and disowned by his fellow Democrats; his only path forward as governor is as pariah and laughingstock.
The outpouring against Northam by his fellow Democrats has been overwhelming: members of the Virginia congressional delegation and Democratic caucuses in the state legislature, the former governor, the incoming head of the Democratic Governors Association, the mayor of Richmond, presidential candidates, Virginia’s legislative black caucus, the NAACP and a who’s who of activists on the left. The calls resumed after Saturday’s Michael Jackson debacle.
Northam must think this terribly unfair. He has lived admirably: Army doctor treating those wounded in the Persian Gulf War, pediatrician who volunteered at a children’s hospice. But some things should disqualify people from public service — a Nazi salute, sexual assault, preying on children and, yes, dressing as a Klansman or in blackface — and it doesn’t matter if it happened 35 years ago.
The Democrats’ swift and severe reaction is reassuring. They have said allegations of past misconduct made Alabama’s failed Senate candidate Roy Moore, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and, above all, President Trump unfit to serve, but they are holding their own to account as well. This isn’t about politics but about right and wrong.
Republicans, fitfully, appear to be coming to terms with this, too, even as they continue to avert their gaze from Trump’s behavior. Last week, Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel, recently appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), resigned when a 2005 photo of him in blackface surfaced. The previous week, House Republicans, after years of tolerating the racist antics of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), stripped King of his committee assignments and supported a resolution condemning white supremacy (though they dodged a full censure of King).
The #MeToo movement has felled nine members of Congress and scores of others in politics and journalism, Megyn Kelly was forced out at NBC after she defended blackface, and efforts to purge Confederate icons (an idea Northam supported and his 2017 opponent, Ed Gillespie, opposed) have proliferated.
Some might think this all a witch hunt, to use the president’s term of art, but it is, at least in part, a salutary backlash against what Trump represents. Appalled by his racism, his vulgarity and his appalling treatment of women, we are reacting by holding public officials (and hopefully ourselves) to a higher standard. We are cleansing ourselves for the sins of Trump.
Northam’s reaction to the blackface photo is similar to Trump’s after the “Access Hollywood” tape: He at first acknowledged and apologized, then later suggested it wasn’t him. But while Trump seems uniquely immune to shame and disgrace, the rest of our politicians remain vulnerable to opprobrium. That is a good thing.
Americans are not letting Trump define downward acceptable behavior: Republicans’ tribal loyalty lets him get away with disgusting behavior, but we are not letting it become normalized. Northam, in his Trumpian response, showed this. He managed to leave intact the notion that he was a 1980s racist while adding the impression that he’s a 2019 prevaricator.
Certainly, Democrats aren’t perfect in holding their colleagues to account. Party figures have been slow to criticize Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) for using the anti-Semitic dual-loyalty slander to say those who supported a bill countering anti-Israel boycotts “forgot what country they represent.”
But their reaction to Northam shows that Democrats won’t excuse in fellow partisans behavior (even 35 years distant) they condemn in Trump acolytes such as Corey A. Stewart (a pal of white supremacists, who had Trump’s backing in his unsuccessful GOP Senate bid in Virginia) and DeSantis (who won despite telling voters not to “monkey this up” by electing his African American opponent). Hopefully, Republicans, in small gestures such as their belated denunciation of King, are beginning to think about purging the greater poison Trump has injected into their party.
We are better than Trump makes us appear to be.