Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

Eroding America’s standards of decency, now in prime time

Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer spoke Sunday during the Emmy Awards.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer spoke Sunday during the Emmy Awards.

On Friday I wrote a piece criticizing Harvard for joining in the Trump administration’s ongoing attack on democratic and political norms by bringing on Chelsea Manning and Sean Spicer as fellows at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics.

On Sunday night, the Emmys asked America to hold its beer.

Spicer gave a cameo appearance at the outset of the show for a skit in which he joked that “this will be the largest audience to witness the Emmys period, both in person and around the world.”

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The “joke” here is that Spicer is lying in the same way that he lied when he said, as White House press secretary, that the crowd size at President Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever. It wasn’t, which everyone — including Spicer — knew at the time. What should have been obvious to the producers of the Emmys was that a former public official joking about how he lied to the American people is not actually funny. Rather, it’s a reason for that public official to be shunned, not celebrated.

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Indeed, I’m old enough to remember when that seemed to be the most likely career trajectory for Sean Spicer. I can recall when he was seen, largely, as a pitiable national laughingstock, for the shamelessness with which he used his position as White House press secretary to say things that were provably untrue.

I remember him defending the president’s fact-free claim that 3 million undocumented immigrants voted in the 2016 election and that Trump had gotten the most electoral votes of any Republican since Reagan (he didn’t). There were many times he defended Trump’s made-up claim that former president Obama wiretapped him (he hadn’t) and his assertion that government officials had concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government (they haven’t). He even said Trump knew “exactly what he meant” when he tweeted out the word “covfefe.”

I remember the time that Spicer attempted to defend a US attack on Syria for that country’s use of chemical weapons by suggesting that Hitler hadn’t used chemical weapons during World War II. Later he referred to Nazi concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”

I also remember him ending on-camera press briefings by calling on partisan news outlets to push pro-Trump stories and joining in the president’s harsh and dangerous attacks on journalists.

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Apparently, the producers of the Emmys and its host, Stephen Colbert — who thought an appearance by Spicer would be surprising and funny — recalled none of this.

Neither, it seems, was it remembered by the Emmy attendees who gave Spicer a huge ovation and then “mobbed” him backstage. According to CNN, “He could barely eat at the Governors Ball, he was so popular.” Vanity Fair said Spicer was the “Most Popular Selfie Accessory at the Emmys After Parties.”

As for all that dishonesty and attacks on the free press . . . water under the bridge.

This is how Trump and his acolytes diminish America, day-by-day — and will continue to do so. They lie; they deceive; they mislead; they enable the worst elements of American society; they violate once-sacrosanct political norms — often in shocking and shameless ways — and they face no consequences for their actions. As my fellow Globe columnist Renée Graham sagely noted on Twitter Sunday night:

Watching Spicer’s cameo at the Emmys was like watching the erosion of America’s cultural and political standards in real time.

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It’s not as if Spicer has much to add to the political discourse. He was an easily interchangeable partisan political hack before he became press secretary, and he remained one in the seven months that he had the job. Nothing about his tenure distinguishes him as a sharp or insightful political mind.

That he would be fêted for his one defining characteristic — telling brazen lies — is a disturbing preview of how those who have enabled Trump’s rise will wipe the stain of Trumpism off of them.

To be clear, I didn’t actually watch the Emmys last night (I watched clips of Spicer’s performance later, on the Web). Instead I checked out Ken Burns’s new PBS documentary on Vietnam.

In light of Spicer’s apparent rehabilitation, it was a depressing reminder that the cycles of American history seem to constantly repeat themselves. Those who deceived the American people about US involvement in Vietnam were never drummed out of polite society. They remained firmly ensconced in the bosom of the political elite. The same goes for the architects of the US war in Iraq and the advocates of torture and indefinite detention in the war against Al Qaeda. You can find them on op-ed pages or appearing as pundits on cable news shows or giving lectures for tens of thousands of dollars.

One might have hoped that the sheer odiousness of Trump and the incessant trafficking in misogyny, racism, and xenophobia would lead to a different outcome for those who have enabled his rise. But as last night showed, many Americans are happy to excuse terrible behavior for a cheap laugh.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.