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Impunity and Its Antidote

I have now subjected you to a full month of reruns, but I don’t feel too guilty. In that time, the news has been nothing short of astonishing, yet I’m not tempted to weigh in on any of it, at least not yet. Being outside the country, with no TV and limited internet, I find I have little to add to the blizzard of punditry from which I’ve been semi-isolated. With that in mind, let’s revisit my post from January 12, 2021, less than a week after the riots of January 6, when we were still struggling to digest those horrific events. In it, I argued for accountability, a word that is very much front and center today.

I got some pushback on my post from last Tuesday. It was the day before the Capitol insurrection (or whatever history plans on calling it). In that post, I urged career civil servants to come forward and report any felonies that Trump appointees might commit as they slither out the door.

The pushback came from a Canadian friend who was rightly concerned that this is a slippery slope. That history is littered with regime changes that have triggered vicious persecution against whichever faction has just lost power. That this cycle of retribution is endemic even to elected democracies, and often signals the end of them. That there’s a thin line between whistleblowing and informing, which he feared I might be crossing. All of which is true and demonstrable. But I think we’re now dealing with something more.

What most of us want to see, I think, isn’t so much retribution as it is accountability. We want to see people held responsible for their actions.

There is a large and growing appetite for accountability in this country — and it was brought into sharp focus last week. Or stated another way, there is widespread revulsion at the culture of impunity that has defined the past four years.

Impunity is what happens when accountability goes absent. It’s not necessarily about doing something illegal — though that happens often enough — it’s more about doing something clearly wrong, and assuming there won’t be consequences.

Impunity is what Sidney Powell was sure she had when she spewed out totally fictitious allegations against Dominion, the maker of voting machines that were used in — need I reiterate — the smoothest election in living memory. Dominion has since spent half a million dollars protecting its employees from the threats of the people deluded enough to believe her.

Impunity is Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley assuming they’ll pay no price, either legally or politically, for what is arguably a criminal act — refusing to acknowledge the electoral vote count and advocating for its nullification. You can put Jim Jordan, Devin Nunes, and dozens of other House Republicans in that same slop bucket.

And of course, impunity is what Rudy Giuliani thinks he was born with.

Impunity defines the Trump presidency. It starts at the top, with Trump himself. It drips relentlessly downward to everyone connected with him, in all three branches of government.

And now it has dripped all the way down to that small segment of his base who decided it would be a cool idea to take it to the next level.

A bumper crop of video images were captured last week, but the one that most jumped out at me was neither violent nor blatantly political. It was more what we might call the banality of impunity.

You’ve all seen the shot. Just plain folks, filing through the Capitol rotunda, between the velvet ropes, acting exactly like sightseers. Staring at the famous ceiling. Snapping photos for the grandkids. Awed by their hallowed surroundings. If you didn’t know better, it might have been a promo video for Washington tourism.

These are the people who came to Washington because it sounded like a hoot. They’d been programmed — by Fox or Rush or wherever they get their misinformation — to think they could overturn the election just by showing up at the Capitol in a MAGA hat. And there they were, trespassing on federal property, blithely assuming the administration’s sense of impunity extends to them. A felony caught on camera.

Impunity has its limits, and I’d like to think we’ve reached them. Many of the people who trashed the Capitol that day are being made aware of that fact in real time. The internet, as screwed up as it’s made our political landscape, can occasionally be a vehicle for good. Or, in this case, for accountability.

We’re witnessing a whole new online subculture forming around identifying people stupid enough to have shot and shared these videos — or just appeared on them. Some have already been arrested. Even more have lost their jobs. Some — and this is especially delicious — are now on the no-fly list. And that idiot state representative from West Virginia had to resign from the office he’d just won in November.

There’s more to come. Because impunity seems to also mean being oblivious to consequences. Like those nice sightseeing grandparents, who might yet be arrested.

Dominion, the voting machine company, is suing Sidney Powell for defamation, asking for over a billion dollars in damages. Apparently, the case is strong.

Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are facing possible expulsion from the Senate — which I doubt will happen — and possible disbarment, which just might. Either way, significant corporate donors are cutting off their funding, with more probably to follow. They’re betting that Trump’s base will turn to them in four years, but right now that looks both unlikely and undesirable.

And Giuliani has at most eight more days to wheedle a pardon out of Trump, which is not the most comfortable position to be in. Keep in mind that a pardon, even if it comes, will carry zero weight against state charges in New York.

As for the rest of this administration — those with possible criminal culpability — I stand by my call for whistleblowing, for calling the bastards out.

Is there an element of retribution here? Yes. Would I like to see the job market turn on these people forever? Yes. Would I love to see an assembly line of indictments, trials, and incarcerations. Damn right. But my own schadenfreude is not the point.

The point is that accountability is the antidote to impunity. We’ve had far too much of the latter, and not nearly enough of the former.

Maybe, just maybe, that’s about to change.


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