“I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed,” Jonathan Swift observed. That was three centuries ago, so our current, degraded condition has deep historical roots. Yet it feels, more and more, that we are experiencing the end of shame.
Our sad national trajectory has been on display recently with two oddly connected stories: Alabama Republican Senate nominee Roy Moore and the tax bill. They share a common thread in President Trump, but their significance goes beyond the president. Trump surely helped fuel the end of shame, but just as surely we were already on that degraded path.
No one who has watched Moore expected that reports of how he allegedly preyed on young girls would provoke shame from the egocentric, already discredited judge. Moore has long proved — with his flagrant disregard for constitutional values, his homophobia and racism — that he is impervious to such feelings.
The open question involved Moore’s true-believing supporters and political allies of convenience: At long last, had they any decency? For some, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and most of his colleagues, the answer has been a welcome yes. Others, most prominently Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) and, inevitably, Trump, have failed what should have been an easy test. To conclude that electing an accused child molester to the Senate is preferable to seating a Democrat is the epitome of shamelessness.
We know this from the president’s own team. “There’s no Senate seat more important than the issue of child pedophilia,” said White House legislative affairs director Marc Short, in the that-was-then world of mid-November. “There is a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” said Ivanka Trump, adding, “I have no reason to doubt the victims’ accounts.”
Neither did Ivey, who made her priorities clear, with no evident distress. “I have no reason to disbelieve them,” she said of the women accusing Moore. And yet: “Most important, we need to have a Republican in the United States Senate to vote on things like Supreme Court justices.” Pardon the gender bias, but there is a special place in hell for female politicians who make this ugly calculation.
With plenty of room for Trump & Co. The White House line on Moore has descended from “if/then” to “let the voters of Alabama decide” to “we need the seat.” Adviser Kellyanne Conway, who had once touted the no-Senate-seat-more-important line, found something even more important than defeating an accused child molester: “I’m telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax bill through.”
And the president, for whom shamelessness has proven a potent tactic, pronounced himself persuaded by Moore’s similarly blatant approach: “He totally denies it.” But the more instructive moment came with Trump’s very first public words on the Moore reports: “I can tell you one thing for sure. We don’t need a liberal person in there, a Democrat.” Morality is a luxury with a 52-vote Senate majority. Shame is a millstone, or would be if Trump were capable of it.
Which brings us to the tax bill, and Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney. The shameful part of the tax bill — shameful in the sense that it heralds the end of shame, not that it is morally deficient, although that too — is not that the former South Carolina congressman once styled himself a deficit hawk and now is pushing a measure projected to add at least $1.5 trillion to the debt over 10 years.
The shameful part is not that the bill is so studded with gimmicks that the real cost is more like $2.2 trillion. It’s not that the Mulvaneys of the world have managed to convince themselves of supply-side gobbledygook in which tax cuts pay for themselves.
What is truly stunning is Mulvaney’s brazen willingness to admit that the price tag is phony — specifically the notion that individual tax cuts will expire. Mulvaney, making the rounds of the Sunday shows, felt no need to dissemble. “One of the ways to game the system is to make things expire . . . a lot of this is a gimmick,” he told NBC. And, on CNN, “It’s simply trying to essentially manipulate the numbers and game the system.” In other words, we’re lying to you to ram this through, and we’re not even going to bother to hide it.
If hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue, what does it say, exactly, when our most senior public officials feel no such compunction? What does it mean if we lose Swift’s capacity to wonder at the absence of shame?