Even before Ted Wells issued his Deflategate report this week condemning quarterback Tom Brady for more likely than not being “generally” aware that footballs had been deflated, Brady had already been convicted in the general press. Despite the fact that there was no evidence at the time to implicate Brady – and only the flimsiest now – it has been assumed he had transgressed. And this is where Deflategate speaks to something more than alleged football chicanery. It speaks to a sea-change in our perception of human nature. Whether it is Brady, or Hillary Clinton and her e-mails, or Bill and his Foundation, or Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, we reflexively now always assume the worst about people. No one gets the benefit of the doubt.
This is not to say that we have ever had a particularly high estimate of human nature. Biblically speaking, we are born with original sin and are all stained by it. Controlling our base selves has been one of the engines of religious and political philosophy. Thomas Hobbes needed his Leviathan not because humans were fundamentally good but because they fundamentally weren’t. As he famously put it, “The natural state of man’s life is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Even Rousseau, who took a more charitable view of human nature, nevertheless found that society eventually corrupted our innate goodness. In Deflategate terms, then, Brady was destined to cheat because we are bad (Hobbes) or made to cheat because the NFL prioritizes winning above everything else (Rousseau).
In this country, the jaundiced view of human nature has had practical implications. As historian Walter McDougall laid it out in his path-breaking book “Freedom Just Around the Corner,” ours was a nation born of energetic hucksters and hustlers looking for an angle to exploit. This is, in fact, what made us who we are. The entrepreneurial spirit, the ambition, the drive to success – all these arose from a con man mentality and all provided the spark that made America the commercial envy of the world.
Most Americans may not have thought of themselves that way, but if they did, they seemed to have matured out of it, or maybe just repressed it. Over time, we came to extol a very different set of values that we like to think inhered to us: things like hard work, diligence, faith. Talk of American exceptionalism and you don’t talk about exceptional capacity to swindle. You talk about our innate goodness. We thought well of ourselves and one another.
It has been hard for that view of human nature to survive the last 50 years — from LBJ’s credibility gap to Nixon and Watergate to Clinton and Monicagate, to Wall Street, not to mention the serial violators using HGH in professional sports. We have been living within a well-earned nimbus of cynicism that has taught us that even when there isn’t smoke, there is likely to be fire. You could even call cynicism a form of self-protection — a way to prove that we can’t be duped by anyone. It is also a form of sophistication — a way of saying we are now too smart to believe that everyone isn’t basically corrupt. In short, we don’t believe in innate goodness any more.
Brady has, no doubt, taken special hits because he was perfection personified, both on-field and off. He was so good that he actually threatened our cynicism. But Brady may also be suffering for something else. Though we have tried to bury the idea of American hucksterism, it has always lurked beneath the surface. Cheating is an integral part of who we are and how we got to where we are. If Tom Brady was the quintessential American during his time of grace, he may be even more quintessentially American in his time of alleged disgrace. In a reversion to our roots, we just don’t believe in Tom Bradys anymore.
Neal Gabler is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Lear Center. He is writing a biography of Senator Edward Kennedy.