Are We Entering Post-Scandal America?

SCANDAL!  We get a new one every week; sometimes two or three.  Or in the case of the past week, three in Virginia alone.  And on Friday we got a real juicy one involving Jeff Bezos and The National Enquirer.

I suspect I’m not the only one hesitant to express an opinion on recent scandals as they seem to be in a constant state of unfolding – what we discover next may upend what we presume to be the rational response.  And yet, adopting a patient “wait and see” approach is sure to relegate one to irrelevance; by the time we have all the facts the scandal is stale, Twitter has moved on to the nation’s next mess.  The cycle seems to only accelerate, never wane.  Our collective memory and attention span may not be shorter than it used to be, but only because it was limited to begin with.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, embroiled after publication of a photo that may (or may not) show him wearing blackface in the 1980’s, has bungled and waffled along for the past week – he even called a press conference in which he may (or may not) have contemplated doing the Moon Walk as a testament to his innocence before his wife (now forever to be regarded as the Brains of the Operation) reigned him in.  Northam has resisted calls for his resignation as his would-be successor, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, is now subject to multiple allegations of sexual assault.  And the man who follows Fairfax in the line of succession, Attorney General Mark Herring, preemptively announced that he also wore blackface in his younger days – take THAT opposition researchers!

As Virginia waits out its #HeToo Movement, Jeff Bezos gave us a fresh chunk of meat to chew on all the weekend.  It’s hard to imagine you’ve missed this story, so I’ll summarize it by saying that he’s accused the publishers of The National Enquirer of attempting to blackmail him with the threat of publishing a cache of salacious text messages to his mistress.  The most important aspect of this story – if importance is ranked as Mother Nature intended, by media coverage and Twitter discussion – is the fact that the messages include a photo of Bezos’ penis.  Oh yes, a dick pic.

What’s interesting about the Northam and Bezos scandals?  Two things, I think.  First, the lifespan of either scandal will be much shorter than it would have been five — maybe even two – years ago.  The Northam story is already fading from prominence.  Fine, let the Virginians sort it out.  And I suspect by this time next week we’ll either have seen Bezos’ penis all over our newsfeeds or will have forgotten we were ever curious to see it in the first place, and in either case we’ll have filed this away in the annals of crazy things that happened once.  In the world of American Scandal, what isn’t present is past and what’s past hardly matters.  What scandal-prone successes like Northam, Bezos, Trump, and the Clintons understand is that unwavering, shameless perseverance in the face of a scandal is often rewarded by America’s short attention span and tendency to just get over shit.

The second thing that’s interesting about this pair of early-February treats is that both men seem to be leading the charge to publicly confront their embarrassments.  Northam has perhaps been too public in his response to his scandal.  He’s a bumbling fool but, much like 49 other bumbling fools, will likely remain Governor for the remainder of his term.  The Bezos story was made public by Bezos, and he’s being universally applauded for his willingness to share with all of us that he did indeed send a dick pic or – we must acknowledge the possibility – dick pics.  The point is that both men will apparently survive their respective scandals.  Bezos may even come out as a sort of unlikely folk hero.

So what does this tell us?  What have we learned?  I think this teaches us that the ever-presence of scandals in America, paired with the acceleration of the news cycle, is changing what a scandal actually means for its subject.  We’ve reached the point where it’s almost expected that any prominent American politician will at some point be confronted with allegations of unacceptable behavior – a poorly-worded statement on a sensitive topic, drunken buffoonery, past criminality, even present and ongoing criminality.  This means scandals are becoming normalized, which means that on some level they are becoming acceptable even if we still regard them otherwise.  We will continue to condemn the scandalous behavior and say it cannot be tolerated, while tolerating it because we understand it’s the way things are now.  It’s the way things have always been, really, but now we move on more quickly.  Hell, we’ve got fresher scandals to tweet about.  Or we will soon enough, anyway.

We are on the cusp of Post-Scandal America.  The scandals will still exist but we will no longer expect that any scandal, purely by its scandalous nature, should have a long-term effect.  The outrage will still be there, but only because you can’t have a scandal without outrage.  If a scandal happens but there’s no one there to tweet about it, was it really a scandal at all?

We’ve also learned that dick pics are now officially no big deal. Finally.

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