The “adults in the room,” we were told in 2016, would protect us from President Trump’s ugliest instincts. Men like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Chief of Staff John Kelly entered the administration with unblemished reputations for integrity. One by one, however, they were discredited and defeated. They were silent as Trump trampled on political traditions, ethical norms and U.S. laws, and they stayed silent as the president they served insulted and discarded them.

Even now, as Trump makes clear his utter contempt for the Constitution and as evidence of his lawbreaking mounts, the “adults” are keeping mum. Mattis says former senior officials owe their erstwhile Trump administration colleagues “a duty of silence,” and the only objection Kelly has made since leaving the White House is that the president shouldn’t have replaced him with a “yes man,” as that might lead to Trump’s impeachment.

Meanwhile, an unexpected and somewhat ridiculous cast of onetime insiders is trying to check the White House. Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime personal “fixer,” gave scathing congressional testimony about Trump’s hush-money payments and shady Russian business deals. Anthony Scaramucci, Trump’s former White House communications director (fired from the administration after days for a foul-mouthed tirade), now refers to Trump’s administration as an “Orwellian nightmare” and has called publicly for the “off the rails” president to be impeached and removed.

Reality television villain Omarosa Manigault Newman, whose former White House job was never clearly defined, now tweets out a steady stream of criticism and praises the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint sparked the impeachment inquiry proceedings. Former GOP congressman and radio host Joe Walsh — once so devoted to Trump that he tweeted in 2016, “if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket” — is now challenging the president for the Republican nomination and calling him a “traitor” who poses a “clear and present danger” to the country.

Cohen, Scaramucci, Manigault and Walsh make unlikely heroes. They’re scoundrels: disreputable, cartoonish figures, each of whom has long been mired in scandal and controversy.

But this is the painful paradox of life in Trump’s America. The adults in the room — those we counted on to keep Trump on the straight and narrow, or at least to bear public witness to his unethical behavior — are the people least likely to save us. Their strong internalized norms about duty, loyalty and honor leave them paralyzed and silent in the face of a leader who consistently flouts those norms. Meanwhile, the scoundrels — those who most resemble Trump in their shamelessness, desire for attention and willingness to bend the rules in their favor — are the ones coming forward to warn America about the threat Trump poses.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Humans are social animals, and in ordinary times, those willing to sublimate their own needs and preferences to the needs of their social group are those we praise and admire. But decades of social psychology research suggests that in times of moral crisis, the very traits we normally value can discourage dissent. Mattis, McMaster and Kelly are all military men, used to respecting authority and suppressing their personal views for the sake of group cohesion. This works well in normal times, but not so well when they find themselves in a group that’s going haywire, led by a president who’s wholly without scruples. Meanwhile, the scoundrels may have certain built-in advantages in times of political turmoil. Reckless, ruthless and unrestrained, the Cohens and Scaramuccis of the world are accustomed to social opprobrium and live their lives unfettered by ordinary social norms of appropriateness and self-abnegation. And unlike the dutiful company men, the scoundrels have little to lose. If everyone already thinks you’re no good, why not be the one to gleefully point out that the emperor has no clothes?

Most Republicans in Congress reportedly have little love for Trump, but few GOP leaders will have the courage to criticize the president, much less to vote for his impeachment and removal, unless “respected” figures give them cover. If Mattis, McMaster, Kelly and other similar establishment members publicly condemn Trump, their criticism might open the floodgates and embolden other Republicans. But they’re too loyal to rigid codes of professional honor to denounce the president — even as he mocks them publicly and tramples upon the very institutions to which they have devoted their careers.

In recent weeks, several civil servants and military officers have provided important evidence buttressing the case for Trump’s impeachment. We should be grateful for their House testimony, but let’s not forget that few of them (as far as we know, only the anonymous whistleblower and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman) stepped forward voluntarily. On the contrary, it took congressional subpoenas to get most to speak openly about a president who offers them no reciprocal loyalty.

Only the disgraces are willing to say what the adults in the room all believe to be true: Donald Trump is a corrupt and reckless thug. Perhaps it’s time for the mandarins to listen to the disreputable miscreants. After all, it takes one to know one.

Twitter: @brooks_rosa