How many times have you heard it said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged“? It’s certainly true that there’s some value in withholding unnecessary criticism, especially when you have a two-by-eight sticking out of your eye socket. No one, let me assure you, is perfect. Therefore, no one is in an absolute position to pass judgment on others.
But at a certain point, you have to take a stand on what’s right and what’s wrong, and therein lies the game. What seems black and white to one person is taupe to another. In a pluralistic society—one that does not have an agreed-upon moral source of authority—the answer is often to shrug one’s shoulders and move on.
That’s one thing when it comes to who’s sleeping with who, but it’s another when the subject is the government, and how it ought to be run. Because here we do have an agreed-upon authority, even if it is one that requires constant reinterpretation: the Constitution. In that document, the Founders laid out the basic principles of running the show on a federal level, and succeeding generations have adjusted in order to suit emerging realities. More to the point, those generations have codified the principles into an extensive set of rules, regulations, laws, and norms.
I’m inclined to agree, then, with the case Paul Waldman makes that Democrats shouldn’t be so quick to let Trump, Barr, and the rest of that bunch off the hook because what they did was wrong:
Subpoenaing John Bolton and other members of the administration who could explain in high-profile hearings just how Trump twisted American foreign policy for his own personal interests? Bo-ring. Examinations of the ways Trump is funneling tax dollars to himself and his family? Eh, not interested. Probes into which corporations are wielding influence in the administration and what they’re getting out of the deal? Nah. Finally getting Trump’s tax returns so we can see what sort of financial misbehavior he may be working so hard to conceal? Maybe someday, but not now.
Instead, we hear that Dem leadership is eager to move on to projecting a positive agenda: “Health care, health care, health care!” says Nancy Pelosi.
Like Waldman, I think it would be strategically beneficial for Democrats to tie the Trump administration in knots by continuing high-profile investigations, much as Republicans did with Benghazi, except with substance. Also like Waldman, I think Dems should engage a “division of labor.” The electorate is more able to absorb a dual-track message than some politicians believe: the Trump-led GOP is deeply corrupt, and they want to gut Social Security, the ACA, and whatever other pieces of the safety net they can get their hands on. This is not difficult.
Finally, like Amanda Marcotte, I believe that a long-held goal of at least parts of the conservative movement has been to create cynicism in the media and among voters, which ultimately enables lawlessness with impunity and destroys hope, which in turn depresses turnout, which keeps the GOP in office. Good times, my friends. The way to counteract that cynicism is to assert again and again that there is a right, there is a wrong, there is a normal, and what we’re seeing in the current political climate ain’t it.
So while I would ordinarily eschew the pleasures of a bit of public judgmentalism (oh, who am I kidding, ordinarily I’d just be a hypocrite about it like everybody else), in a situation like this, I would encourage Democrats to indulge the temptation. When not even the President’s defenders in the Senate can say with a straight face that he did nothing wrong, being a bit judgmental isn’t exactly crawling out on a limb. They can safely beat that drum again and again, especially since he continues to provide them with fresh evidence of their assertions.
In fact, I’d encourage Dems to go beyond mere judgment to embracing shame. There’s some social theory behind this: shame, some philosophers argue, can be productive in provoking the uncomfortable recognition that one has not lived up to one’s stated values. Shame can also be empowering, in the sense that deploying it as a strategic tool doesn’t appeal to the goodness of an oppressor’s heart, but to their culpability and obligation. Think of how Dr. King embarrassed cautious white liberals in “Letter from the Birmingham Jail,” and you get the idea. It sounds weird, but it is in fact possible to embarrass your way into social change.
Now, it is true that a hallmark of Republicans in the Trump era is an utter shamelessness. As their party appears to move ever closer to one centered around nothing more than remaining in power, movement conservatives simply don’t share some of the same values that liberals would try to use to shame them, like sharing power, not politicizing government bureaucracies, or not asking foreign governments to interfere in American elections. There really are some people who think that Democrats aren’t legitimate political opponents, and that they’re justified in doing everything they can to keep them out of power.
But even if the effort is unsuccessful, the attempt is worthwhile. It would change the conversation in a productive way, for one thing. The more time Trump has to spend defending his indefensible record, the less time he has for other, even more fetid activities. And who knows? It might even convince some Americans that they can’t abide continued support for corruption and creeping authoritarianism.
Better yet, it might convince a few that somebody, anybody, is interested in fighting for what’s right. Disinformation campaigns such as the one we see shaping up to re-elect Trump, classically depend on fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Being hyper-critical and unforgiving might be a minor sin, but backed with hard evidence, it would make it clearer than a cloudless day in Utah just who has political legitimacy and who has been bending, if not breaking, the law for their own benefit. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” might have to become “Judge, lest ye be subjected to another four years of this.”