Nation

In age of Trump, politics has become a game with no shame

President Trump spoke last week in Springfield, Mo.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press
President Trump spoke last week in Springfield, Mo.

WASHINGTON — Some politicians, when they say something controversial or possibly inaccurate, apologize to whomever they may have offended. But President Trump often doubles down on his assertions — a trait that seems to be trickling down to other levels of government.

Across the country, Trump-loving politicians are refusing to be shamed into admitting mistakes or walking back divisive remarks, regardless of how inflammatory.

“I made my statements, and I’m not ashamed of them,” said Tim Sutton, a Republican county commissioner in North Carolina who gained national attention last month when he said Africans were not “slaves” but humanely treated “workers.”

Advertisement

In the last two weeks alone, Pennsylvania state Senator Scott Wagner, a candidate for governor, stood firm after calling George Soros, the wealthy businessman and Holocaust survivor, a “Hungarian Jew” who harbors a “hatred for America.” A Republican member of the Georgia House of Representatives said it was a “misunderstanding” — not that he made a mistake — when he told a black colleague that she “may go missing” if she tries to remove a Confederate monument. A GOP lawmaker from Missouri did not apologize after saying those who oppose Confederate monuments should be “hung from a tall tree with a long rope.”

Get Ground Game in your inbox:
Daily updates and analysis on national politics from James Pindell.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

For decades, conventional political wisdom said a well-crafted apology was a necessary step in moving past a bad news cycle. But like so many Washington rules, the political apology seems to be another casualty of the Trump culture wars.

Political observers said elected officials, especially those who support Trump, are now mimicking the president’s inability to be shamed or pressured by outsiders.

“Politicians who have Trump-like profiles have gotten the message,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “The old method of dealing with scandal was the fervent apology — sometimes tearful, occasionally accompanied by a full apology tour. It’s painful and no longer necessary.”

Trump’s refusal to admit fault is a core part of his public personality, as central as his deal-making.He spent years parroting the lie that then-President Obama was secretly born in Kenya but has never apologized. He has repeatedly called his 2016 election victory “the biggest Electoral College win since Ronald Reagan,” though Obama’s electoral margins were larger. In March, British officials were livid after Trump, without evidence, said English spy agencies had wiretapped Trump Tower at the behest of Obama. (The Justice Department said Saturday in a legal filing it has no information about such wiretaps.)

Advertisement

Regardless, Trump and other White House officials did not budge and have refused to apologize to one of America’s closest allies.

“I don’t think we regret anything,” said Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary at the time.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but officials have positively spun Trump’s refusal to apologize in the past. Some Republicans have said Trump’s stubborn stance is a good development, proof that he is breaking the long-hated shackles of “political correctness.”

“I think the American people elected somebody who’s tough, who’s smart, and who’s a fighter,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

Some Republicans, however, fear the worst about Trump’s actions, because of what they could inspire in others.

Advertisement

In Louisiana earlier this year, Robbie Gatti, the Republican front-runner for a seat in the state Legislature, refused to apologize when a picture emerged of him wearing blackface to a church event.

‘Trump has taken some combination of boorishness and vulgarity and shamelessness to a new level.’

Bill Kristol, conservative columnist 

“There’s a moral problem in politics,” said Evan Siegfried, a Republican pollster and strategist. “This is a part of what I call ‘the descent of decency.’ 

“This began long before Trump, but he’s the most glaring example and he’s certainly a symptom of a more overall problem,” Siegfried said.

Bill Kristol, the conservative political commentator and a past target of Trump’s ire, said the president has helped fringe members of the political community break into the mainstream because there is no longer the prospect of shame or embarrassment.

When asked what he thinks it would take for Trump and his supporters to be embarrassed, Kristol responded, “God knows.”

“Trump has taken some combination of boorishness and vulgarity and shamelessness to a new level, and that’s not a good thing,” Kristol said. “Some of his defenders, who began by reluctantly and qualifiedly defending Trump, have now become unembarrassed defenders of things that once would have and should have embarrassed them.”

Throughout history, shame has been an important tool in driving America’s political and moral compass, said Nancy Koehn, a Harvard Business School historian who just completed a book on a similar subject.

In an interview, she pointed to numerous examples of American political giants, including Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr., who became better leaders after being “chastened” by embarrassment.

“Being chastened by your own conduct, by mistakes you’ve made, by setbacks you’ve encountered are some of the most important classrooms in the making of great leaders,” Koehn said. “Chastening is how those leaders grow, get better, and get more decent — and that has a great impact on the world. Leaders that can’t reckon with themselves about their own mistakes are inevitably doomed to be less than they might.”

Koehn then singled out Trump. Prominent leaders such as the president, Koehn said, are role models, the “stars to steer our ships by.”

“What Trump has effectively done is lower and lower and lower the standards of how leaders of all kinds — of all shapes and sizes — show up, in terms of their words, their stances, and their actions,” she said.

But Trump, and those who are adopting his tactics, is reacting to the politics of the time, said Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist. The public continues to lose trust in public institutions and conventional media, and the rise of the Internet and social media has given voice to extremists, who have an incentive to make insults more biting.

That new universe, combined with the conservative backlash against political correctness, has enabled politicians to insulate themselves from criticism by decrying it as partisan.

“Trump now controls the information flow to his followers via Twitter, and he simply declares any negative information to be fake news or false facts,” Sabato said.

“Shamelessness is now considered a strength, so why apologize?” he asked.

In response, some would point to Yusef Salaam, one of the five black and Latino boys called the Central Park Five, who were accused of rape in New York City in 1989, until DNA evidence proved their innocence in 2002.

The group was demonized by Donald Trump, who took out a full-page advertisement in all five New York City newspapers calling for the teenagers to be given the death penalty when they were arrested.

Since being exonerated, Salaam has given several public testimonies about what it’s like to be targeted by false claims from Trump.

“For 27 years, I’ve been in Donald Trump’s crosshairs,” he wrote last year. “I am overwhelmed with fear that an overzealous Trump supporter might take matters into his or her hands.”

Salaam, now in his mid 40s, is a motivational speaker who lives in Atlanta.

Trump, now the president, has never apologized.

Astead W. Herndon can be reached at astead.herndon@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWH.