The dilemma for politicians of all stripes is to find a way to talk about their opponents’ corruption without drawing attention to their own.
At the end of a bad week in court for the White House, The New York Times highlighted the quandary of Republicans facing re-election in November’s midterm elections with the headline, “Republicans Urge Embattled Incumbents to Speak Out on Trump.” The US has always encouraged its citizens to speak out. Isn’t it ironic that politicians, of all people, would have to be urged to do so for their own good?
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Framing the expression of one’s self-interest as a compelling demonstration of moral probity by attacking vulnerable opponents who might, after a little persuasion, be perceived as more impugned and corrupt than oneself
When citing the cultural values of the United States to compare them with those of other countries, the notion of “speaking out” or “speaking up” always takes a prominent place. Americans are encouraged to “speak their mind,” “tell it like it is,” “be outspoken,” “let their voice be heard,” “have their say,” “sound off,” “make their point” and — in the interest of assertiveness, the key to everyone’s success — “not hold back.” The Chinese and Japanese, by way of contrast, seek harmony (absence of conflict) and are careful to save face even when debating. They try to avoid demonstrating their disagreement even when they do disagree, a trait that traditionally led Americans to call Asians “inscrutable.”
Representative Tom Cole, a former House Republican campaign chairman, didn’t hold back and spoke out (kind of) against Donald Trump: “Where there’s smoke, and there’s a lot of smoke, there may well be fire.” What better way to persuade one’s audience of the logic of one’s complaint than rolling out a cliché? But a more appropriate cliché with smoke would be “smoking gun,” which the evidence in the court cases against Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen is beginning to smell — if not look — like.
And indeed, where smoke is the issue, guns can’t be far behind. This is America, after all. A few paragraphs later Cole speaks up again, offering yet another cliché: “[M]y advice to any candidate would be: Keep your powder dry and don’t rush to attack or defend anybody because you just don’t know enough to have a reaction that you can still defend three months from now.”
There is one American who never stops speaking out, especially after receiving his “intelligence” from Fox News. Reacting to President Trump’s latest tweet promising to save white South African farmers from expropriation, a white South African farmer says, “We don’t love Donald Trump and his outspokenness.”
We learn in the same article that “Democrats face their own pressure to shed their cautious midterm strategy.” On cue, one progressive Democrat, Ammar Campa-Najjar, spoke up in these terms: “The division, chaos and corruption in Washington has gone too far.” Democrats are being encouraged to identify Trump with a “culture of corruption.”
Now, why — we should ask ourselves — would the Democrats have been timid about doing so? The answer lies in recent history, and nowhere more obviously than in the 2016 election that put Trump in the White House.
Bernie Sanders, an independent consistently allied with the Democrats and seeking the party’s nomination, opposed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment on the grounds that the entire system was corrupt, including Clinton (doing the bidding of Wall Street) and the Democratic National Committee (doing the bidding of Clinton). There was enough evidence of at least “soft corruption” to convince a lot of otherwise Democratic voters not to vote for Clinton, paving the way for the election of a corrupt businessman who claimed to be above corruption because he was independently wealthy.
The Democratic Party has been living with this image problem ever since. It depends on corporate money — a certain source of corruption — just to stay in the game. The electorate finally understood that and is unlikely to forget. Highlighting corruption could thus be less a smoking gun for Democrats than an explosive boomerang.
In an extraordinary display of journalistic blindness, the author of The Times article cites Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi as spokespersons against corruption. Pelosi described the Trump White House as “a cesspool of self-enrichment, secret money and ethical blindness.”
Emanuel and Pelosi are household names, but not because of their association with moral purity. Chicago, under Emanuel, has been identified in a serious report as “the most corrupt city” in America. Pelosi has enriched herself on the stock market in circumstances related to the passage of legislation she promoted, where the drift of smoke is strong enough to hint at the existence of a gun with a warm barrel. And as the ideologue of the party the most committed to capitalism as a system of belief and belonging, Pelosi’s smoke smells a lot like the brand of incense favored by her cult: the church of self-enrichment.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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