For the past four years, Americans have experienced a political culture characterized by a complete lack of accountability.
Recent events may hold out some hope for a transformation of that culture.
Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin is on trial for murdering George Floyd.
Dominion and Smartmatic are suing Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, Fox News, and Mike Lindell for billions of dollars for spreading conspiracy theories about their voting machines.
Matt Gaetz is being investigated for possible sex-trafficking.
The Southern District of New York continues to investigate Donald Trump’s finances.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating election interference in Georgia by Trump and others in the 2020 presidential election.
The verdicts, of course, speaking most literally, are not yet in. How these verdicts are returned, though, will speak volumes about the nation’s interest in honoring its democratic ideals and in creating mechanisms that hold our institutions and people accountable to those ideals—and to the law.
We all remember former President Donald Trump’s now infamous boast during his 2016 campaign, “I can shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it.”
The statement became, for all intents and purposes, emblematic of his and his administration’s behavior and governance for his four years in office.
Trump proudly inaugurated and cultivated a political culture in which accountability had no place and also one in which “getting away with it” was the standard operating procedure and, even more so, a celebrated feat.
Trump survived two impeachments, of course, because Senate Republicans also reveled in the no-accountability culture, acquitting him earlier this year for inciting the deadly assault on the Capitol last January 6 and in February 2020 for trying to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening an investigation into Joe Biden by withholding military aid, among other transgressions linked to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Attorney General William Barr played a key role, as well, willfully and shamelessly misrepresenting the special counsel’s report on Russian interference produced by Robert Mueller, claiming it effectively cleared Trump and found no wrong-doing, when in fact the report highlighted “sweeping and systematic” efforts to influence the 2016 election. Indeed, a federal judge rebuked Barr for his handling of the special counsel’s report, highlighting his “misleading public statements” and “lack of candor.”
In short, Trump’s administration not only loved getting away with it, its defining practice was spreading misinformation. The “big lie” that somehow the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump and white America exemplifies this hallmark tactic, motivating a white supremacist deadly assault on the Capitol which was not about democratic law and order but holding on to a white racist order the democratic election had threatened.
Ok, so, let me check myself here. Its chief practice was also spreading hate, peddling racism and sexism to appeal to Americans’ most base instincts. From referring to African nations, Haiti, and El Salvador as “shithole countries,” to talking about “grabbing p***ies” in the notorious Access Hollywood tape, to race-baiting suburban voters, to inciting racist violence last January 6, among many other offenses, Trump and his minions pretty much got away with it.
Indeed, he often hid behind the egregious Department of Justice memo that protected sitting presidents from being criminally indicted.
To put it mildly, it has just been maddeningly impossible, it has seemed, to hold Trump and his administration accountable for both his reckless governance (such as his failure to address the coronavirus pandemic, costing hundreds of thousands of American lives) and his actual crimes and abuses of power that have put the nation at risk and undermined democracy.
The lawsuits Dominion and Smartmatic have filed against Giuliani, Powell, Fox News, and Lindell actually play a crucially important role in trying to address, and seek redress from, the misinformation campaign waged by Trump’s cronies.
Where Congress failed to exact any accountability for the “big lie” that has unleashed racist violence and undermined democracy in America, Dominion and Smartmatic may very well succeed in making Giuliani, Lindell, Fox News and Powell pay the consequences to the tunes of billions of dollars for knowingly spreading misinformation about their voting machines and seeking to profit from doing so.
If these lawsuits succeed and Fox News and these individuals have to pay anywhere near the billions of dollars these companies are seeking in damages, well, then major media outlets and individuals will have to start thinking twice about engaging in these misinformation campaigns.
What a novel situation that would be!
Media outlets and individuals have been getting away with this murderous peddling of lies for years.
In the absence of other accountability mechanisms, the importance of these lawsuits cannot be overstated.
Without consequences, the message is that this behavior can continue unchecked.
The other legal dramas unfolding across the nation have similarly high stakes for our culture.
The police have routinely been exonerated for using deadly force against African Americans. A verdict that holds Derek Chauvin accountable for murdering George Floyd certainly wouldn’t promise an immediate end to racist police violence, but it would send a message and begin to make police think twice—and begin to make the nation, hopefully, engage in further reflection on the reality of racism in America.
And American knowingly elected a president who consorted with pedophilic sex offenders like Jeffrey Epstein, who had been accused of rape, and who proudly boasted that his celebrity status enabled him to grab women by the genitals.
While it would be cathartic justice for Trump to experience consequences for his sexism, the investigation into Matt Gaetz and possible legal action may provide an opportunity for our justice system to check sexism and sexual violence.
And we’ll see what happens with investigations into Trump’s seemingly and potentially crooked financial dealings and with attempts to hold Trump and his cronies accountable for election interference and for their big lie.
Again, the verdicts are not yet in.
But what we need to recognize is that when returned these verdicts will not just tell us about these individual cases; they will foretell whether we are moving toward a political culture of accountability to the nation’s stated ideals or whether the horizon holds for us more of unchecked the sexism, racism, misinformation, and autocracy we have been experiencing in America.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.