“If you make a mistake, another mistake, there is a very severe possibility that you’re both going to get shot,” says a cop to the man and the woman lying face down on the floor of a hotel hallway. It’s a video, with the camera sitting on the shoulder of another cop who has an AR-15 rifle trained on the man, making the scene look like a first-person shooter game.
The woman follows the hyper-specific orders—“You are to push yourself up to a kneeling position…. Crawl toward me”—and gets handcuffed. A moment later the man, wearing a T-shirt and nylon shorts, no shoes, is crawling on the carpet as the cop demands. He’s sobbing and seems drunk. “Please do not shoot me,” he asks. As he crawls, he’s trying to keep his left foot crossed over his right foot, exactly as the cop told him to.
Then he makes another mistake, and the police, true to their word, immediately gun him down.
The video was evidence in the murder trial of former Mesa, Arizona police officer Philip Brailsford, who shot Daniel Shaver five times in the back. Brailsford was acquitted earlier this month.
The shooting itself isn’t a partisan issue. But the moral logic behind the cops’ actions—one mistake, just one, and you’re dead—is a key part of the right’s attempt to make the Trump administration and its allies totally unaccountable to the law, or morality—or even the truth. In recent weeks, minor errors by ABC News, CNN, the FBI, and the Washington Post’s David Weigel have all invited disproportionate condemnation from Trump. Weigel should be fired; the FBI’s “reputation is in Tatters”; CNN committed fraud; ABC News should be sued.
I’ve argued before that the right wants to muddy up moral distinctions when it’s their actions that are under scrutiny. They say, in effect, “nobody’s perfect” in order to minimize their sins and even to excuse treasonous actions. What we see now is that Trump and his apologists conveniently turn into moral absolutists when the people investigating them slip up. If the people trying to keep our political leaders honest make a mistake, the right excoriates them. Every misstep is a hanging crime.
The tactic of exaggerating small mistakes works—at least for Trump’s base—because the media, the FBI, and Democratic politicians appear to actually have a conscience. They take their own mistakes seriously, in an effort to maintain professional and moral standards. This is not to say they’re flawless—let’s not get carried away. But they do aim for moral self-scrutiny and try to reckon with their mistakes.
These ethical sensibilities are a liability in Trump’s view. “But, and by the way, did you see all the corrections the media has been making?” Trump asked the crowd at his speech in Pensacola earlier this month. “They’re saying sorry, we made—they have been doing that all year…. They have been apologizing left and right.”
To admit a mistake and then apologize for it—a crucial component to being a moral person—is a failing in the right’s Bizarro moral universe. It’s why Trump, who once apologized for saying he could “grab [women] by the pussy” on the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape, now denies the voice on the tape is his. If you never apologize, then you must be blameless.
Even so, sexual misconduct is the one area where the right is willing to say that one mistake should not be the end of someone’s career. While media and Democrats are expelling sexual harassers in their ranks, Republicans have not held Trump (or defeated Republican Roy Moore, for that matter) at all responsible for the sexual misdeeds they’re credibly accused of. This is hypocrisy of course, but maybe the right deserves partial credit for being hypocritical every single time. At least they’re consistent on that.
Brailsford had etched the words “You’re Fucked” onto the AR-15 he used to kill Daniel Shaver, who made one mistake. This fact was not admitted as evidence in the trial. The judge decided it would be prejudicial.
Those words are the right’s message for anyone who’s less than perfect, yet dares hold them to account.