Revisionism Is Winning in American Politics
Joe Biden wants to move on. Mark Halperin wants to come back. Donald Trump is Donald Trump. They’re all missing the point of true reckonings.
Last week, Jill Biden, the wife of the now–presidential contender Joe Biden, gave an interview to NPR. While she was there as an author—Biden recently published a memoir, Where the Light Enters—she was also there as a surrogate for her husband, and she answered questions about some of the controversies that have followed Joe in the early days of his latest primary run: the allegations of inappropriate touching; his treatment, when he was the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, of Anita Hill. As for the latter, Jill Biden said: “It’s time to move on.”
This is a familiar kind of pronouncement: Weary and wary, it attempts to curtail further discussion. It’s been litigated, Biden was suggesting of the way her husband treated Hill in 1991, even though it definitely has not. The rhetoric, in its attempt to impose a statute of limitations on a matter that doesn’t have one, is reminiscent of many of the reactions to Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations against Brett Kavanaugh (“This accusation is 36 years old,” Lindsey Graham put it, wearily, warily). It’s historical revisionism of an especially cynical strain: an attempt to rewrite the record not by offering a new version of events, but by insisting that the old versions are no longer worth our attention, because the old versions have become tedious. It’s time to move on is restless; it is also purposely forgetful.
The historian Richard Hofstadter talked about the paranoid style in American politics—the way the psychological logic of the conspiracy theory is woven into American habits of thought; the way an overarching attitude of “suspicious discontent” permeates our political discourse. These latest calls to willful amnesia, however, suggest an additional mode at play: the amnesiac style. The posture that takes an addled and messy world and concludes that the best way to make sense of it all—and the easiest way—is to focus on the present. Washed in the warm fog of forgetfulness, the amnesiac style surveys the past, with all its evils and errors, and insists that, for the good of us all, it’s time to move on.
As Joe Biden and his surrogates engaged in an apology tour that was notable mostly for its lack of true apologies, reports began circulating about another tour: Mark Halperin, the political pundit who lost his job two years ago after several of his colleagues came forward to accuse him of sexual harassment and abuse, has been making his comeback with the help of his network of friends in the media, and with the apparent aid of forgetfulness.
Here are some of the behaviors Halperin was accused of in 2017, by several of his former co-workers: propositioning women colleagues for sex. Grabbing one’s breasts against her will. Masturbating in front of another. Pressing his erect penis against another. Requiring one woman to sit on his lap—while his penis was erect—before he would give her the piece of information she needed to do her job. Calling co-workers late at night, with conversations that were sexual in nature and unwanted. One woman said that Halperin had violently attacked her, throwing her against a plate-glass window and pinning her arms to its surface. She also said that, after she rebuffed him, he threatened to ruin her career.
Halperin, CNN reported at the time, denied that he had “masturbated in front of anyone, that he physically assaulted anyone, or that he threatened anyone in the way described in this story.” And when the reports first emerged, he apologized, profusely, for the behavior he did admit to. “I am profoundly sorry for the pain and anguish I have caused by my past actions,” he said in a 2017 statement. (Halperin has not responded to The Atlantic’s request for comment.) He reiterated his regret in April, in the first interview he gave after the allegations were made public, on Michael Smerconish’s radio show: “I did things that were wrong and affected the lives of other people, and I need to earn my way back into being in a place where people are willing to listen to what I have to say, or hire me for a job, or let my son be part of their life.” But then Halperin shifted to cast-the-first-stone terms. “I wasn’t a perfect person when I made these mistakes,” he said. “I’m not a perfect person now. I’m happy to be judged by perfect people.”
In one way, this is PR 101—express regret, focus on the future, set the terms of the discussion to suggest that no one can be a fair critic—but the spin cycle here is cleansing much more than bad press. This is how forgetfulness sets in. (In the uncanny dystopia of 1984, “the past not only changed, but changed continuously.”) The sharp facts get dulled; the other characters get written away; and soon the story about Mark Halperin becomes generalized in the haze. He merely “did things that were wrong and affected the lives of other people.” And should we really be in the business of taking someone’s life from him just because he’s not a perfect person? Isn’t it time to move on?
“He seems genuinely sorry for what he did,” Smerconish said, defending his decision to host Halperin on his air. “My view is that to not let him opine after two years would be akin to a professional death sentence.”
Comebacks are certainly possible. Forgiveness is an act of grace. The allegations vary, and so must the responses to them. What has become clear, however, since the phrase #MeToo comeback became an open question and an anxious refrain, is the lack of a common vernacular that might lend precision to discussions of what redemption could look like for Halperin and so many others. The richness and nuance embedded in the discourse of restorative justice have not scaled to the mass media that direct the national conversation. Instead, for the most part, the professional returns have come through side doors and back channels, often without full restitution or, it would seem, true reckonings—corporations and institutions deciding on behalf of everyone else what time, precisely, will be the time to move on.
The New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, reassigned to cover HUD and HHS after a Times investigation concluded that he had “behaved in ways that we do not condone,” has quietly returned to covering electoral politics. NBC’s Brian Williams, suspended in 2015 not for a #MeToo-related offense but for telling an invented anecdote on the air, made a gradual comeback that, as Politico put it, “has been so understated and seamless, that it would have been easy not to notice.” The comeback culminated this week in Williams’s appearance at the NBCUniversal upfront programming presentation—which heralded, as Variety put it in a headline summarizing the event, “NBCU to Brian Williams: All Is Forgiven.”
Al Franken, who left the Senate in 2017 after being accused by several women of groping and unwanted kissing, recently tested the waters of a comeback via an essay he published in late April on his personal website. The essay said things about Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Attorney General William Barr; it also said, between its lines, It’s time to move on.
And now Mark Halperin is back, marketing punditry that will try—just as it did in the 2016 election—to shape the conversations that will in turn shape, among so much else, women’s futures. He has done work with a charity in Queens, he says; he has not, three of his accusers told The Washington Post recently, apologized to them personally. He has apparently simply forged ahead, confident that he’s done enough, and that his right to opine outweighs the other facts—and the other people—of the matter. So has Louis C.K., who has been playing small clubs as part of his own creeping comeback tour. (“An apology probably wouldn’t have satisfied his detractors on social media or the handful of protesters who set up in front of Acme [Comedy Company] for more than an hour Tuesday,” the Star-Tribune noted of a set C.K. performed last week in Minneapolis. “They didn’t get one.”) Over the summer, one comedy organizer explained the market logic of C.K.’s “redemption” like this: “At a club, the owners are going to want to put him up because there’s still money to be made with him and he’s still a name.”
The mechanics of the returns differ as greatly as the alleged misbehaviors do. But what they have in common, among other things, is an apparent faith in the shortness of the American attention span. They understand that the country’s personal capacity for forgetfulness can be, for them, a professional asset. The amnesiac style is there when Joe Biden, fresh off a discussion of the listening and learning he would do after women described how uncomfortable he had made them, proceeds to turn their stories into a joke: What better way to say it’s time to move on from something than to announce that you’re ready to laugh at it? The amnesiac style is there, as well, when the country, knowing exactly what it is getting, votes Donald Trump into office, effectively washing away the stories of the 19 women who have accused him of assault. It’s there when Trump’s administration hires Bill Shine, the Fox News executive who was ousted from the network for allegedly enabling a culture of sexual harassment there, as its communications director—a path of upward-failing so powerful that it ends its arc at the White House.
The amnesiac style is there, too, when Sean Spicer, made famous largely because of the angry lies he told at the very start of Trump’s presidency, gets a book deal that allows him to profit from all the mendacity. It’s there when Bill Clinton, credibly accused of rape, gives speeches to roaring, loving crowds. It’s there when Mel Gibson, after admitting to hitting his girlfriend and launching into a tirade against her full of racist and sexist epithets—and after drunkenly muttering to a police officer that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world”—returns to filmmaking to rousing acclaim. It’s there when Gibson, cleansed through fame’s alchemies, gets an Oscar nomination. It’s there when he is selected to feature in an upcoming film as a “rowdy Santa Claus.” It’s there when, as it was announced this week, he signs a deal to star in a satire of extreme wealth titled … Rothchild.
“We are permanently the United States of Amnesia,” Gore Vidal argued in his 2004 book, Imperial America. “We learn nothing because we remember nothing.” He was focused on geopolitics; he was talking about the past as a failed lesson; he was mourning all that is lost when a powerful nation proves itself singularly poor at doing the basic work of its own bookkeeping. But American amnesia is also decidedly mundane—the stuff of the politics that permeate people’s everyday lives. It is the result of daily concessions to inattention and distraction. Our particular form of forgetfulness can play out, all too often, in the present, lulling people to look away from the children in cages, from the abuses in the courts, from the systematized hatreds, from the planet that grows angrier by the day. Amnesia is a powerful force in part because it can be deeply preferable to the alternative: Remembering—recognizing—reckoning—is hard. It is so much easier to look around and give a shrug and conclude that, all things considered, it’s time to move on.