A New Era of Cultural Mistrust in American Politics

    Jacob Heilbrunn

    Politics, North America

    The partially redacted memos of former FBI Director James Comey, recounting conversations with President Donald Trump last year, are pictured after U.S. Justice Department released them to three House of Representatives committees in Washington

    What if the Trump presidency only proves to be the bridge to even darker conspiracies when it comes to whoever becomes president next?

    In 1991 Suzanne Garment, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, wrote a provocative book called Scandal: the Culture of Mistrust In American Politics. In it she examined the conspicuous place that personal scandals have come to occupy in American politics since the Watergate era. Garment’s contention wasn’t that genuine scandals don’t exist. Rather, she wanted to distinguish more sharply between real and manufactured scandals. She diagnosed the existence of an almost autonomous “scandal machine” consisting of the media, opposition research and politicians to either create or inflate a number of scandals as a political weapon.

    Since then, the intensity of scandals in Washington has only increased. What nineteenth-century historian Henry Adams called the “degradation of the democratic dogma” is being accelerated by the polarization and partisanship that accompanies the search for scandals and the destruction of personal reputations. Scandals are not cost-free for either American domestic or foreign policy. Whatever one’s views of Donald Trump—and Garment is a sharp critic of the president—it seems clear that the culture of mistrust that she originally discerned is reaching new heights generally between Republicans and Democrats.

    During the Clinton era, it began with the so-called Travelgate affair when Hillary Clinton fired several members of the White House Travel Office in May 1993. Over the next several years, the FBI, Department of Justice, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee and the Whitewater Independent Counsel examined Travelgate. The Whitewater investigation led by Special Counsel Kenneth Starr morphed into a general examination of Bill Clinton’s conduct as president, most notably his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Starr’s report led to the impeachment of Clinton, but did little more than indicate that he had a hazy acquaintance with the truth when it came to his personal affairs. Starr was widely criticized for prosecutorial overreach and Clinton’s popularity was boosted by what was widely perceived as Republican overreach.

    Now it is Donald Trump who stands in the crosshairs of a far more formidable investigation. The stakes could hardly be higher. The result is what could become what is widely being described as a potential constitutional crisis.

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