The screaming twenties have barely drawn breath, and already we’ve been wallowing through the show-trials of white capitalist male supremacy’s largest and most untouchable adult sons: Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein. The similarities are more than circumstantial. Both are rich, powerful men outraged at being held to account for even a fraction of the crimes they’ve been accused of. Both have allegedly enjoyed a full curriculum of moral corruption, from rape and sexual assault to blackmail and intimidation to the use of foreign powers to undermine their enemies and lube their way to hectic impunity. And both spent many, many years grooming allies. Weinstein and Trump bet heavily on creating complicity—so much complicity that the institutions they occupied cannot hold them to account without damning themselves by association. Both of them bet on being too big to fail.
In Trump’s case, he won the bet. The doomed attempt to impeach the president drew to its inevitable end last week, as Washington and the world were forced to acknowledge that, as California Rep. Adam Schiff put it, Trump “has compromised our elections, and he will do so again. You will not change him. You cannot constrain him. He is who he is.” Directly addressing any remaining Republicans in the Senate chamber with an inch of backbone, Schiff insisted that “you are decent. He is not who you are.”
The appeal came too late. In fact, the greatest threat that liberalism poses to the survival of the species is its relentless strategic assumption that “decent people” in full possession of the facts will do the right thing. Nobody, after all, is more anxious to win the war than those who already know they’ve lost the moral argument.
Presidents don’t go on trial alone. Politics is always in the dock beside them, fidgeting and trying to explain how on earth this was allowed to happen. This time, Trump’s defenders didn’t even try to pretend he didn’t conspire with foreign interests to help his own re-election campaign. “The question is not whether the president did it,” said Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, primly explaining why he was voting to let the Hog Emperor off the hook, “but whether the United States Senate or the American people should decide what to do about what he did.” And what the Senate decided to do is nothing at all, as trembling Republican excuses for statesmen cowered before the Reality Crimelord’s demands to wrap up the whole thing without witness testimony. Only Mitt Romney dared to break ranks and vote “guilty.” Thinking back to when that guy was the enemy, the ultimate subject of liberal derision, rather than the one Senator prepared to act from the center of his faith at the risk of Republican shunning brings on a sense of moral vertigo—a sudden understanding of how Trump has tossed a brick right through the Overton window of American political norms.
The root of the word “privilege” is “private law”—you get to rewrite the rules to suit yourself, or flagrantly ignore them. Where systems of privilege are robust, corruption, abuse, and sexual violence are not aberrations. They are enforcing mechanisms.Trump and Weinstein considered themselves untouchable, were treated as untouchable, and the ability to assault young women with impunity wasn’t just a side perk. Abuse, including sexual abuse, was and remains the core of how power operates in industries and institutions built on complicity. The test of power is always how much you can get away with it. For men like Trump, getting away with it is their personal brand, their special sauce. He appeals to a caucus of bitter moral cowards whose dearest wish is to be allowed to get away with it, too.
Trump and Weinstein considered themselves untouchable, were treated as untouchable, and the ability to assault young women with impunity wasn’t just a side perk.
Harvey Weinstein got away with it for years. Allegedly. Right now, as the trial is still in progress, I am legally obliged to say that Harvey Weinstein has not been found guilty of any of the more than eighty allegations of rape and sexual assault that have been made public, much less the two that are currently being litigated in New York state. Yet. I am morally obliged, however, to point out that the way in which Harvey Weinstein has not been found guilty of eighty counts of rape and sexual assault is not the same as the way you and I have not been found guilty of eighty counts of rape and sexual assault. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a legal principle, not a moral standard. Especially not when assuming his innocence so often requires us to assume her guilt, and hers, and hers, and hers. I am not a judge. I am not a juror. I don’t have the power to put a human being in a cage for the rest of his life, so I’m allowed to say what I actually think. I’m allowed to say it’s unlikely that hundreds of witnesses and teams of prize-winning investigative reporters are wrong. I think he did it. And so does almost everyone in his industry. And so do you.
Most of us know he did it, and that matters. Weinstein’s predilection for pouncing on young starlets in hotel rooms and crushing their careers if they dared to complain was an open secret in the international film industry. “Everybody fucking knew.” That’s the way Weinstein’s one-time protege Scott Rosenberg put it. Everyone knew what Weinstein was up to, and almost everyone chose not to know what they knew, chose to look away. Because acknowledging the scale of the wrongdoing, acknowledging what everyone knew, would have required action. It would require the bystander either to actively do something about it, or to actively do nothing, to allow it all to keep happening, the rapes and the violence and the silencing, the casual destruction of young lives by lumbering sociopaths who get off on hurting people and getting away with it.
Sometimes saying what everyone knows is an act of civil disobedience. When one person names her rapist, knowing the cost, knowing that she is likely to be punished again for the crimes committed against her, that is an act of defiance. When a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand women break ranks to speak out against structural violence, that is a revolution. The #MeToo movement was women realizing, collectively, that the cost of silence was higher than the cost of speaking up. It is no accident that the #MeToo movement came on the heels of Trump riding his flaming reckless clown car of white male resentment into the White House. Trump, who has also been accused of sexual misconduct, including rape and assault, by at least twenty women, has as much to do with the #MeToo movement as Weinstein.
As Weinstein’s victims tearfully recount their experiences in front of a New York jury, the #MeToo movement is on trial as well, the movement that began with Weinstein and mushroomed into a global wave of civil disobedience in response to a failure of justice, a failure of due process. The justice system has failed to protect women from male violence just as the democratic system has failed to protect citizens from unscrupulous grasping oligarchs who get off grabbing government power by the pussy and getting away with it. The system has failed to do what nice white liberals expected it would, hoped it would—it failed to be reasonable or “decent.” The truth currently dawning like the morning after a war is that the system was always designed to smooth the path to power for men with enough wealth and guile to grab it. Unfortunately, the system was also designed on the basis that nobody would get carried away and do anything really, really stupid, like elect a deranged thug with the critical faculties of a rabid rottweiler barking at its own reflection and the self-control to match. Nobody would do anything that stupid. What could possibly go wrong?
The question of the day is whether the mechanisms of democracy are in any way capable of controlling men like this, smug nationalist autocrats entirely unburdened by conscience. And the answer to that question is, no, not at all. These show-trials are a test of whether these things can be settled in a civil manner, a test of democratic strength and of social decency. America has so far failed the test, just like Hollywood has for so long failed the test, for the same reasons: overconfidence, laziness, not bothering to study their history or anticipate difficult, uncomfortable questions. Questions like “how much humanity is the average whey-faced political invertebrate prepared to sacrifice for his own career?” Questions like “is patriarchy too big to fail?”
Men like this, unscrupulous oligarchs who mouth the language of the good old days while setting fire to the future are counting on general nostalgia for a past where women and people of color knew their place.
That’s the question I’ve kept coming back to, over these years of political consensus contorting itself into torturous knots to contain truths it can no longer bury. Watching what’s happening in culture right now, it’s hard not to feel the same cognitive dissonance as so many of us did watching the world economy collapse in 2008. Try thinking back to the desperate retrenchment of that autumn, the rolling news sweaty with red-eyed once-and-future kings of international finance explaining that while, yes, they had extravagantly shat the bed and many millions of people were about to suffer horribly, there was no conceivable alternative: we had to bail them out, or else. It was phrased as economic common sense. It felt, and continues to feel, like a mugging, and more than ten years later, there’s no pretense anymore. Civic society is now openly held hostage to white male pride, with belligerent tyrants daring us to come at them and see what happens. And for anyone who still believes that decent people can settle this among themselves, for anyone who is clinging with all ten fingers to comfortable complicity, here’s the bad news: we can never go back.
Even if Trump wins his second term, even if a hundred Harvey Weinsteins walk away from justice, we are not going back to the way it was before, pretending not to see, giving the benefit of the doubt, making excuses for abusers because it’s less frightening to hew to the flimsy belief that these men didn’t know what they were doing than it is to admit, say, that the world’s biggest superpower would rather elect a rapist than a woman.
There’s no regaining that special type of innocence peculiar to those of us who grew up trusting institutions to act rationally and in the public interest, trusting that once injustice was seen to be done, it would be remedied. America can never return to a time before it acquitted a president for crimes he clearly committed in pursuit of power he should never have been permitted to have. Western culture can never return to a time before Harvey Weinstein went to trial, before influential abusers in every industry were named and shamed. And men like this, unscrupulous oligarchs who mouth the language of the good old days while setting fire to the future are counting on general nostalgia for a past where women and people of color knew their place, and understood their duties, and understood that our final duty was to bury the evidence of white male shame. They are counting on a general yearning for a time when we understood the duty to hide the bruises, to cover up the corruption, to bury the damage deep in our bodies so powerful men and those who trail in their wake could continue to think of themselves as decent. As innocent.
The laws have long been in place and the evidence easy to summon to send men like Trump and Weinstein to jail. What was lacking was the political will to enforce those laws. Men like Weinstein and Trump have figured out, you see, that if you just drive a throbbing golden juggernaut of white male confidence right through the rules, nine times out of ten people will look the other way—not because they like you, but because they like things to be orderly and comfortable.
Most people want to believe in the idea of a just world. They want to believe that the consent of the governed still matters, so they try to give it in retrospect. Because for most people, these are crimes so enormous they undermine our sense of safety, crimes so big they can’t be allowed to be crimes at all. And that’s a kind of innocence we can no longer afford. It’s happening all over the world, wherever swollen strongmen swindle their way into power. It’s happening in India, in Britain, in Brazil. And wherever it’s happening, the center ground, people who believe in the “decency” of the system, are clinging to the swinging basket of institutional checks and balances, holding their breath as the ground disappears and the air gets thinner, wondering if it’s too late to let go.