Accountability is for the little people, immunity is for the ruling class. If this ethos seems familiar, that is because it has preceded some of the darkest moments in human history.
When the former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was released from prison a few weeks ago, the news conjured memories of a corporate scandal that now seems almost quaint – and it was also a reminder that Enron executives were among the last politically connected criminals to face any serious consequences for institutionalized fraud.
Since Skilling’s conviction 12 years ago, our society has been fundamentally altered by a powerful political movement whose goal is not merely another court seat, tax cut or election victory. This movement’s objective is far more revolutionary: the creation of an accountability-free zone for an ennobled aristocracy, even as the rest of the population is treated to law-and-order rhetoric and painfully punitive policy.
Let’s remember that in less than two decades, America has experienced the Iraq war, the financial crisis, intensifying economic stratification, an opioid plague, persistent gender and racial inequality and now seemingly unending climate change-intensified disasters. While the victims have been ravaged by these crime sprees, crises and calamities, the perpetrators have largely avoided arrest, inquisition, incarceration, resignation, public shaming, and ruined careers.
That is because the United States has been turned into a safe space for a permanent ruling class. Inside the rarefied refuge, the key players who created this era’s catastrophes and who embody the most pernicious pathologies have not just eschewed punishment – many of them have actually maintained or even increased their social, financial and political status.
The effort to construct this elite haven has tied together so many seemingly disparate news events, suggesting that there is a method in the madness. Consider this past month that culminated with the dramatic battle over the judicial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.
September began with John McCain’s funeral – a memorial billed as an apolitical celebration of the Arizona lawmaker, but which served as a made-for-TV spectacle letting America know that everyone who engineered the Iraq war is doing just fine.
The event was attended by Iraq war proponents of both parties, from Dick Cheney to Lindsey Graham to Hillary Clinton. The funeral featured a saccharine eulogy from the key Democratic proponent of the invasion, Joe Lieberman, as well the resurrection of George W Bush. The codpiece-flaunting war president who piloted America into the cataclysm with “bring ’em on” bravado, “shock and awe” bloodlust and “uranium from Africa” dishonesty was suddenly portrayed as an icon of warmth and civility when he passed a lozenge to Michelle Obama. The scene was depicted not as the gathering of a rogues gallery fit for a war crimes tribunal, but as a venerable bipartisan reunion evoking nostalgia for the supposed halcyon days – and Bush promptly used his newly revived image to campaign for Republican congressional candidates and lobby for Kavanaugh’s appointment.
The underlying message was clear: nobody other than the dead, the injured and the taxpayer will face any real penalty for the Iraq debacle.
Next up came the 10th anniversary of the financial crisis – a meltdown that laid waste to the global economy, while providing lucrative taxpayer-funded bailouts to Wall Street firms.
To mark the occasion, the three men on whose watch it occurred – Fed chair Ben Bernanke, Bush treasury secretary Hank Paulson and Obama treasury secretary Tim Geithner – did not offer an apology, but instead promised that another financial crisis will eventually occur, and they demanded lawmakers give public officials more power to bail out big banks in the future.
In a similar bipartisan show of unity, former Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn gave an interview in which he asked “Who broke the law?” – the implication being that no Wall Street executives were prosecuted for their role in the meltdown because no statutes had been violated. That suggestion, of course, is undermined by banks’ own admissions that they defrauded investors (that includes admissions of fraud from Goldman Sachs – the very bank that Cohn himself ran during the crisis). Nonetheless, Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder – who has now rejoined his old corporate defense law firm – subsequently backed Cohn up by arguing that nobody on Wall Street committed an offense that could have been successfully prosecuted in a court of law.
Meanwhile, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon garnered non-Onion headlines by floating the idea of running for president – a reminder that a decade after his firm played a central role in destroying countless Americans’ economic lives, he remains not only unincarcerated and gainfully employed, but so reputationally unscathed that he is seen as a serious White House candidate.
Again, the message came through: nobody who engineered the financial crisis will pay any real price for wreaking so much havoc.
Then as Hurricane Florence provided the latest illustration of climate change’s devastation, ExxonMobil marched into the supreme court to demand an end to a state investigation of its role denying and suppressing climate science. Backed by11 Republican attorneys general, the fossil fuel giant had reason to feel emboldened in its appeal for immunity: despite investigative reporting detailing the company’s prior knowledge of fossil fuel’s role in climate change, its executives had already convinced the Securities and Exchange Commission to shut down a similar investigation.
Once again, the message was unavoidable: in the new accountability-free zone, companies shouldn’t be bothered to even explain – much less face punishment for – their role in a crisis that threatens the survival of the human species.
Now comes the latest stage of the immunity project: the installation of Kavanaugh as the sentinel standing watch over this sprawling accountability-free zone from a lifetime perch on America’s very own star chamber.
Kavanaugh is the nominee of Donald Trump, who as a businessman helped set the legal precedent protecting corporate titans from fraud charges, and who as president has appointed a cabinet of accountability evaders – from the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, who escaped prosecution during the financial crisis, to the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, who avoided consequences for her role at Wells Fargo during that company’s mass fraud. Kavanaugh is also the nominee of an accountability-free party whose last House speaker was deemed “a serial child molester” by a judge, whose potential next House speaker is named in acollege sexual abuse scandal, and whose White House occupant was caught on camera bragging about sexually accosting women.
To the delight of the Republican party, Kavanaugh is not backing down in the face of multiple credible accusations of sexual misconduct. On the contrary, in a snarling refrain that must seem all-too-familiar to victims of sexual assault, Kavanaugh is angrily insisting that “you’ll never get me to quit”.
In the context of this political moment, Kavanaugh’s defiance is more than merely a plea of innocence. It is more than just an ideological warrior’s yearning to serve on a court that has been making it ever-harder for commoners to hold the aristocracy accountable. It is a grand edict detailing the entire culture of entitlement and immunity inside the accountability-free zone.
Here is a corporate lobbyist’s son armed with a prep school education, a diploma from his grandaddy’s Ivy League alma mater, a writing credit on Ken Starr’s Clinton-Lewinsky report, a law review article arguing that Congress should consider exempting presidents from indictments, and a sheaf of judicial opinionsthat consistently side with power.
Kavanaugh has precisely the pedigree that is the ticket into the accountability-free zone. His braying at senators, his laughably obvious dissembling, his refusal to explicitly support an FBI review of his accusers’ allegations – this is the behavior of someone who seems to believe a supreme court seat is his to arrogate.
Indeed, Kavanaugh has been inside the aristocracy’s hermetically-sealed bubble for so long that he is genuinely surprised and outraged that anyone would dare get in his way – as are his biggest boosters such as the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell. Promising a forceful defense of the accountability-free zone, McConnell explicitly lashed out at sexual assault survivors who are now begging Republicans to vote down Kavanaugh’s nomination.
“I want to make it clear to these people chasing my members around the hall here, or harassing them at the airports, or going to their homes. We’ll not be intimidated by these people,” McConnell declared.
To be sure, you could write this last month off if it was an anomaly – but it is the norm, not the exception.
Over the last decade, we saw presidential administrations of both parties decreasewhite-collar prosecutions and grant telecom companies retroactive legal immunityfor their role in the government’s mass surveillance system. We witnessed the director of national intelligence, James Clapper brazenly mislead Congress about that surveillance, then face no charges of perjury – and then be rewarded with a CNN contributor gig.
We watched the Trump White House grant “waivers” – another word for immunity – to its own employees who violate seemingly strict ethics rules, and we watched the Obama labor department waive punishment for a politically influential financial firm after it had been convicted of operating what law enforcement officials said was a scheme that “knowingly and willfully aided” tax fraud.
We saw congressional Republicans so utterly eviscerate the Internal Revenue Service’s budget that “there may never be a better time to be a tax cheat”, according to a recent ProPublica report.
We have seen no consequences for a pharmaceutical company that made big money off peddling opioids – and now we see the same company turn the crisis into another prospective profit opportunity by patenting a treatment to help wean people off opioids.
Taken together, all of it evinces the same underlying message echoing throughout the country: to paraphrase Leona Helmsley, accountability is for the little people, immunity is for the ruling class.
If this ethos seems familiar, that is because it has preceded some of the darkest moments in human history – the eras of violent purges, authoritarian dictators and sharpened guillotines. There is no guarantee that is our future – and let’s hope it isn’t our destiny. Whether or not things proceed in that terrifying direction, though, the moral question remains: what can be done to restore some basic sense of fairness and justice?
Of late, one proffered answer is hard-hitting journalism – and there is no doubt that righteous media vigilantes such as Ronan Farrow have occasionally sparked some much-needed paroxysms of accountability. However, for every investigative reporter doing the hard work to break open a much-needed story of corruption and criminality, there is an entire machine that continues to provide platforms to those who are firmly ensconced in the accountability-free zone.
Flip on MSNBC, and it is much the same thing. In the morning you get economic analysis from Steve Rattner, who was given his media platform even after securities regulators charged him “with participating in a widespread kickback scheme” and he was banned from the securities industry. In the afternoon you get Nicole Wallace, who helped run the Bush administration’s PR operation during the Iraq war. And in the evening you get the news from Brian Williams, who was bequeathed a new show after he was busted for serially lying about his war reporting.
Meanwhile, if you take a peek at the business press, you will behold an entire corner of the journalism world that saw few mea culpas or firings after it missedalmost all of the warning signs in the lead-up to the financial crisis.
No, if there is an answer, it will not originate from media (at least not until there’s radical change in that industry). To wedge open the gates of the accountability-free zone, everyday citizens will have to be organized enough to overcome already well-organized money.
In the political arena, that means electing pro-accountability candidates of both parties, and then forcing them to follow through on prosecuting wrongdoers and voting down aristocracy-approved nominees who represent the accountability-free zone.
In the consumer economy, it will require boycotts, pressure campaigns, union drives, #MeToo movements, shareholder resolutions and other direct actions to hold companies and executives accountable (and as the recent minimum wage campaign against Amazon proves, those efforts can succeed). It will require support for companies that offer different models of corporate behavior, and it will require swarms of cable-news-addled dittoheads to shut off the TV and instead support other forms of media that are serious about questioning, scrutinizing and challenging power.
In the job market, it will require employers to actually fire executives when they lie, cheat, steal, harass and otherwise mistreat their workers.
And at a cultural level, it will require any and all efforts to rescind and deny social status to those who have committed egregious war, financial and sexual crimes – and it will require doing that even if those miscreants wear nice suits and have gilded credentials.
This is no easy way forward and there are no shortcuts – but if we avoid this path, then the accountability-free zone will fortify itself and we will probably see the rise of an institutionalized form of moral hazard that dooms us to a tragic repetition of history.
After all, if there are no social or professional consequences for those who lied a country into a trillion-dollar war that amassed hundreds of thousands of casualties – if that war’s architects can remain in good standing and in high-prestige jobs – what will deter any politician or pundit from supporting a similar military conflict when it is politically opportune?
If there are no legal consequences for profiteers who defrauded the global economy into a collapse, what will deter those profiteers from doing that again?
If there are no financial consequences for fossil fuel moguls who knowingly created an ecological crisis, what will deter them from continuing to try to profit off that crisis as the planet burns?
And if a petulant zealot like Kavanaugh can be credibly accused of sexual harassment, repeatedly distort the facts during his confirmation, temper-tantrum his way through congressional hearings and still get catapulted on to the nation’s highest court – what will deter any other power-hungry child of privilege from behaving in exactly the same way?
The answer is nothing – which is exactly the point for the aristocracy. But that cannot be considered acceptable for the rest of us outside the accountability-free zone.
- David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an investigative journalist at Capital & Main. His latest book is Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live In Now