“People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.”
–James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
“What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts., society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.”
–Donald Trump, Central Park Five death penalty ad
In 1989, the New York Times and other newspapers reported the rape of a white jogger in Central Park. Some thirty years later, on the eve of the airing of Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us,” the Times looked back on the incident in an article entitled “The True Story of How a City in Fear Brutalized the Central Park Five,” conveniently ignoring the role the paper itself – like most of the media at the time – played in their brutalization. After all, this was the same newspaper that ran Donald Trump’s ad calling for the execution the so-called Central Park Five and that ran an editorial wondering “how could apparently well-adjusted youngsters turn into so savage a wolf pack?”
How indeed? Perhaps if the Times had probed deeper it would have found an answer but one that did not confirm the one implicit in its question: it could happen because these youngsters were black and brown and – thirty years ago as it is today – to be black and brown in America is to be considered pathological, a menace to society. As former educational secretary and wannabe shock jock William Benedict opined on his radio show in 2005, “If you wanted to reduce crime, you could – if that were your sole purpose – you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down.”
Exonerated some twenty-three years later, these men were robbed of years of their lives as a consequence of a corrupt legal system that was more eager to falsely convict them than to seek truth. Ostensibly, they were punished for the rape, but their real offense was insisting on their innocence, something our legal system and the carceral state that sustains it could not accept. Coerced, they confessed. We punish liars, particularly when their lies conceal truths we do not want to face.
The New York Times, as it now repeatedly reminds us in the wake of Trumped-up “fake news” charges, is sworn to seek Truth. In 1989 that Truth – or what stood in lieu of it – was the false narrative off these boys as fabricated by corrupt cops and iniquitous prosecutors. But Truth, an “enlightened” Times recognized in its 2017 ad campaign, “is hard to find,” particularly when it is obscured by one’s own implicit bias.
The Times’ search for Truth is made even more difficult when it buries it deep within its own pages or ignores it. “All the news that’s fit to print” aside, the paper’s reportorial Darwinism does not seem to apply when the alleged rapist is the president of the United States. How else to explain why it chose to run columnist E. Jean Carroll’s rape allegation against Donald Trump not on its front page but in its book review section? Ironically, the June 28th international edition of the Times (distributed with the Japan Times) carries a front-page story on the alleged rape of a beauty queen by Gambia’s former president.
In 1989, the Central Park rape was front-page news, galvanizing a fearful and racially divided nation. But while the mass media rushed to judge the Central Park Five, it now tempers its judgment about another alleged rape, with most Sunday morning talk shows initially failing to discuss the issue. Instead, in the echo chamber of corporate media, it has been its own lack of coverage rather than the allegation itself that prompts commentary, some pundits blaming the omission on desensitization brought on by Trump’s constant assaults on decency rather than on a deficit of journalistic due diligence. In this view, nothing surprises us anymore, not even allegations of presidential rape, or at least not against our own.
For those keeping count, Carroll’s is the 24th allegation of sexual misconduct against Trump, the first, excluding Ivana Trump’s (who later rescinded hers), to allege actual rape. Predictably, Trump has denied the charge, stating he has never met Carroll, adding despicably that she is “not my type.”
Consider: five boys of color are accused of raping a white jogger in 1989 – coincidentally the same year, according to Harry Hurt’s Lost Tycoon: The Many Lives of Donald J. Trump, that Ivana alleges in a sworn divorce deposition that Trump raped her furious over a painful scalp surgery performed by her plastic surgeon to remove a bald spot. None of the boys have prior criminal records or have previously been accused of sex offenses. But they are black and Latino and were in the park at the time of the incident. It is assumed they are the perpetrators because the police have their confessions. The incident becomes major news – the “Crime of the Century.” Assuming them to be a pack of savages, we punish them accordingly, caging these black and brown boys – who could have been and were any black and brown boys – for from six to thirteen years and offering them up as scapegoats for prosecutorial slaughter because they embodied the fears of a racist republic.
Consider: Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by two dozen women. He has boasted of grabbing women by their genitalia and getting away with it because he is a “star.” He has a history of alleged sexual abuses far more extensive than any of the Central Park Five. And yet, there are no front-page headlines, no narratives purporting to explain “The True Story of How a Country in Denial is Debased by Its President,” no editorials inquiring how an ostensibly well-adjusted orange former real estate mogul /reality tv host turns into a serial sex offender. One wonders: Will the president place an ad in newspapers renewing his call for the death penalty? Would the Times run it if he did?
Our selectively carceral state forces the innocent to confess to things they have not done; yet it grants the guilty the privilege of presumed innocence. Whether we believe them or not, they face no consequences, as our transgressive president ceaselessly reminds us. For Trump, we split legal hairs, parsing innocence with Clintonian precision, though here the alleged abuses, sexual and otherwise, should trouble us more if not only for their sheer number but also the clear and present danger they pose to the rule of law.
Certainly, political elites on both sides of the aisle know that Trump is cognizant of his lies; otherwise they would have to assume him delusional, and a delusional president would warrant removal from office through the 25th Amendment. Instead, they pretend there is a method to his madness, that his pathological inability to utter a single truthful statement and to acknowledge any reality that exists beyond the narrow singularity of his narcissism is strategic, the product not of an unstable dolt but of a self-avowed “stable genius.”
In fact, the more Trump lies, the more we normalize his behavior, transforming it into a tolerated if discomforting feature of the national landscape like extreme weather, police brutality, and mass shootings. We expect Trump not only to lie, but to lie “bigly” in the face of undeniable (yet repeatedly denied) proof of his mendacity: the gas-lighter-in-chief who is buoyed by the fact that unlike in the courtroom lying in the court of public opinion is legal. Our concern is less with eliminating the cause of our discomfort than managing the extent of the collateral damage left in its wake.
Two years and an exhaustive 448-page Mueller Report later, when asked by ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos if in retrospect he should have reported to the FBI Russian meddling in the 2016 election by providing his campaign with “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Trump still equivocates. One would think after Mueller essentially cleared him of conspiracy that, lesson learned and with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, our brazen flag-humper would clean up his act, rush to the nation’s defense, and in stalwartly patriotic tones declare that he would immediately report such overtures to the FBI. Instead, with the 2020 election approaching, Trump telegraphs to foreign governments everywhere (including his beloved Norway) that if you’ve got dirt on his political enemies, he’d be delighted to hear from you, though “maybe,” just maybe, he would report it to the FBI – but only after reviewing it first.
This is Trump – the omniscience child-man who has “seen a lot of things over my life” but has never reported them to the FBI – speaking. This is the man-god of braggadocio who boasts of knowing everything about everything but whose putative lack of knowledge saved him from conspiracy charges because his nemesis concluded that he could not prove Trump had “knowingly” or “willingly” broken the law.
Which begs the question where is “ignorantia legis neneminem excusat (or, as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it”) when you need it? While a lack of knowledge of campaign laws seems to have gotten Trump off the hook for actions committed in 2016, three years later he has apparently learned nothing from the experience, and sadly neither have we. For if, as am unequivocal Federal Election Commission chair Ellen L. Weintraub recently tweeted, “it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept, or receive anything [my emphasis] of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” why then should these officials’ participation in such matters knowingly or not carry no legal consequence? The fact that it has not and that he flaunts the law even now, even after he is presumably aware of it, speaks volumes about the precarious state of the rule of law and the spinelessness of those who charged with defending it.
Time and again Trump reveals his true colors, yet his enablers continue to make excuses for him and for their own complicitous inaction. His Republican colleagues court his base, hemming and hawing when not actually encouraging his flagrant law-breaking. Despite his lies, a cowardice of Republicans (90%) and a tartuffe of white evangelicals (69%) staunchly support him. A murmuration of establishment Democrats, while occasionally tepidly demonstrative, has nonetheless done little to hold him accountable. In the case in question, according to the Huffington Post, Nancy Pelosi believes the Democratic caucus has no responsibility to do anything about the rape allegation, passing the buck to her Republican co-conspirators. Forget hypothetical shootings on Fifth Avenue, Trump’s policies have killed at least six brown migrant children in detention centers along our southern border, yet he remains the Teflon Don. (However, he is in good company; his predecessors have killed hundreds of thousands without consequence, though if Trump has his way on Iran and Venezuela he may outdo them.) Despite all this, according to a recent CNN poll, 54% of Americans oppose his impeachment.
Trump’s ascendancy and endurance tell us about ourselves. Long after he is gone, we will have to struggle with his legacy, including a conservative Supreme Court and federal judges who will dominate the judiciary for decades, and emboldened white nationalists. We will also have to deal with yet another shameful chapter added to the American narrative, one in which innocent children and their parents are also caged or die on its border and in its deserts, drown in its rivers. To paraphrase a question from Trump’s Central Park ad, how can a society tolerate the continued brutalization of others by a crazed misfit?
When we saw the Central Park Five, we saw monsters.
When we see Trump, we see what by our silence and inaction we have become.