(JTA) — “Nothing matters.” You hear that a lot these days.
You hear it when The Wall Street Journal reports that the president’s personal lawyer paid a porn actress $130,000, at the height of the presidential campaign, so she would stay silent about an alleged affair she’d had with Donald Trump. Or when the president uses a vulgarity to refer to African countries. Or when the president is credibly reported to have demanded the firing of the man investigating obstruction of justice claims concerning the president’s firing of another man investigating obstruction of justice claims.
That was the premise of a “Saturday Night Live” skit last week in which Jessica Chastain hosted a putative game show called “What Even Matters Anymore?” When a contestant suggests that Trump’s Africa comment must matter, an exasperated Chastain responds: “Actually, it does not matter. Zero consequences and everyone moves on.”
I bring this up not to vilify Trump, but to remember with wistfulness a faraway time — 2005 — when things still mattered. When a U.S. senator from Illinois could be photographed with a wildly anti-Semitic black nationalist, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus would suppress the photo so as not to sink his presidential chances.
That photograph, of Barack Obama and Louis Farrakhan, surfaced last week when the photographer who took the shot released it to Politico. Many agree that had the photo seen the light of day before the 2008 election, there would have been no President Obama. It may have cemented later accusations that he had consorted with radicals, including his own pastor, who was a Farrakhan apologist and a racist in his own right. Although Obama the candidate was eloquent in distancing himself both from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Farrakhan, a picture is worth, as the saying goes, thousands of beautifully crafted words.
Of course, there is plenty we don’t know about the circumstances of the photo. Although reportedly taken at a Congressional Black Caucus event in Washington, we don’t know who else attended, and whether the room was filled with other clergy and African-American power brokers, or if it was some sort of tete-a-tete. Is Obama smiling with Farrakhan, or was he caught on camera smiling near Farrakhan?
If you are inclined to exculpate Obama, you might ask what the Congressional Black Caucus was doing hosting Farrakhan at all. The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham notes that “it’s a sign of Farrakhan’s oddly lasting hold on popular influence that he was even invited to clink drinks with the members” of the caucus. Like Wright, the obscenely flawed Farrakhan represented a constituency that politicians felt could not be ignored.
Or you might be inclined to reject the photo as mere guilt by association. There is a style of gotcha journalism and opposition research that turns dumb gestures or sloppy planning into political felonies. Last week, Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., took heat when it was learned that in 2006, he gave an interview to a publication that peddles in Holocaust denial, and that a year later he headlined a rally that also heard from a musician with his own interesting theories about the Shoah. Barletta was a small-town mayor at the time, and last week he blamed his staff for bad vetting. I’d want to know a lot more before dismissing Barletta as soft on Holocaust denial.
Whether events like these do, or should, sink a politician’s career depends on a number of things. Fairly or unfairly, bad things stick to politicians if they somehow reflect something that the public has suspected all along. When Mitt Romney griped about a parasitic “47 percent,” it matched his image as an out-of-touch one-percenter. When John Kerry flip-flopped on his support for the use of force in Iraq, it sealed an impression, pushed by his opponent, that he’d say anything to win. And when George H.W. Bush checked his watch during a debate with Bill Clinton, it provided an unfortunate — and unfair — contrast between the sturdy if unexciting Washington insider and the energetic if sometimes undisciplined challenger.
Trump, it has been noted time and again, has obliterated the whole idea of the political gaffe. Starting with his “Mexican rapists” campaign launch, gaffes have become his brand. He’s shown that if you flood the zone with enough gaffes, distractions and downright lies, they all but cancel each other out. Twitter users love to use the “Can you imagine if” construction to point how any one of the daily outrages associated with Trump would have sunk a normal politician. Can you imagine if it were a Democratic president attacking the FBI? Can you imagine if Hillary had won the election and there were unmistakable signs that the Russians had gamed Facebook in her favor? (It works the other way, too: Can you imagine, ask Trump’s defenders, if Hillary had protected a campaign adviser accused of sexual harassment — oh wait, that actually happened.)
Had the Farrakhan photo come out before the election, it just might have ended Obama’s presidential ambitions, and there’s a strong case to be made that it should have: Even if he shared none of Farrakhan’s ideas, Obama would have lent the Nation of Islam leader — and by extension his penchant for anti-Semitic scapegoating — a senatorial hechsher. It may have confirmed an impression of Obama as opportunistic, transactional and — perhaps worst of all — hypocritical.
Yet had one photo done him in, America may have been denied a gifted leader who was able to embody, on the largest possible stage, a daily rebuke to Farrakhan’s hateful, racially polarized version of minority empowerment.
There has to be a way of thinking about our leaders that falls somewhere between overreacting to an inexpedient gaffe and ignoring a pattern of disqualifying behavior — the middle of a scale between, let’s say, Howard Dean’s Scream and James Traficant’s Entire Career (look it up). One can only hope that Trump hasn’t inured us to outrage, or lowered the bar to a degree that a politician’s bad, boorish or unethical behavior just doesn’t matter.