Dec. 12, 2017 may go down in history. Like a perfect storm, indecent tweeting from the White House, a senatorial candidate accused of child molestation, and a tsunami of revulsion over sexual predation by powerful men, coincided that day.
There were two epicenters: the special Senate election in Alabama and an editorial in a mainstream, middle-America newspaper. The two events might seem disconnected but in fact they signal that the American people are desperate for decent behavior by their leaders, which has dire implications for this particular president.
The choice in Alabama was between an indecent candidate and a decent, if not honorable one. Republican Roy Moore spouted bigotry like a broken sewer, had defied the U.S. Constitution while holding the highest judicial office in the state, and, according to credible accusations from multiple women, stalked and molested teenage girls. Democrat Doug Jones successfully prosecuted Ku Klux Klansmen who had killed four black children in a Birmingham church bombing in the early 1960s.
Almost anywhere but in Alabama, Jones’ victory would have been met with, “well, dummy, who else did you think would win?” But even in Alabama, a state of evangelical and anti-abortion voters with no use for Democrats, the bargain that Roy Moore offered was too much to stomach.
Think about it: to these voters, Moore’s nauseating brand of indecency wasn’t worth keeping a vote in the Senate to confirm a Supreme Court Justice who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Let’s applaud conservative Alabama voters because, for the ones who stayed home, or wrote in a different candidate, or even voted for Doug Jones, the sacrifice of that Senate vote must have been wrenching.
That same day, something truly extraordinary appeared on USA Today’s editorial page. The widely read newspaper is no Mother Jones or The Village Voice. But, like the Alabama voters, the editors, just couldn’t stomach indecency any more, in this case, the president’s.
The trigger, not surprisingly, was a Trump tweet, in this case, launched at Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEx-officials voice deep concerns over new Pentagon UFO unit Paid leave advocates ramping up the pressure on Manchin and Schumer Gillibrand, bipartisan lawmakers push to keep military justice overhaul in NDAA MORE (D- N.Y.). The senator, citing the many women who had accused Trump of sexual harassment during last year’s election, had called for Trump to resign, as Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken rules out challenge against Gillibrand for Senate seat Franken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' MORE (D-Minn.) and several congressmen had resigned following similar accusations (Trump denies the accusations against him). Trump tweeted that Gillibrand that she “would do anything” for campaign contributions.
Many took this claim to mean Trump was calling Gillibrand a prostitute and it drew widespread condemnation, despite White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ attempt to spin the tweet as a tutorial on the need to reform U.S. campaign finance laws.
But the USA Today editorial outdid everyone by going light years beyond simply saying that Trump was unfit for his office. “A President who’d all but call Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand a whore isn’t fit to clean the toilets at the Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP infighting takes stupid to a whole new level Politics must accept the reality of multiracial America and disavow racial backlash To empower parents, reinvent schools MORE Presidential Library or shine George Bush’s shoes.”
Coming from a newspaper that can be found in homes that would never dream of subscribing to The New York Times, that kind of brutal truth knocks the scales from a lot of people’s eyes. It may be the equivalent of the J’accuse moment that undid another bully, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R. Wis.) in the 1950s. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” said Joseph Welch, the lawyer for the U.S. Army, which was then in a fight with McCarthy in the Senate, after McCarthy attacked one of Welch’s assistants. “You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
I don’t know whether it will be by impeachment or by losing in 2020 but one way or the other Trump can’t survive a national thirst for decency because indecency is his defining characteristic.
This piece has been updated at the request of the author.
Gregory J. Wallance is a writer, lawyer, former federal prosecutor. He is the author of the forthcoming “The Woman Who Fought An Empire: Sarah Aaronsohn and Her Nili Spy Ring” (March 2018), follow on Twitter @gregorywallance.