Last weekend, Kirstjen Nielsen resigned as homeland security secretary. But buried in the reporting about her resignation was an alarming nugget: President Trump repeatedly pressured her to engage in illegal behavior – to sidestep the rule of law.

That should be disqualifying conduct for any president. But it won’t have any discernible impact on Trump. He won’t lose any votes because of it. It won’t even make many headlines. Instead, it remains buried within a bigger story about the resignation of a Cabinet secretary who was effectively imprisoning children after tearing them away from their parents at the border.

Worse still, that’s a comparatively minor scandal these days. Trump has almost certainly committed federal crimes by directing alleged hush-money payments and reimbursing them while in office. There is strong evidence he engaged in criminal tax fraud for decades. He attacked hurricane victims like a social media bully while an estimated 3,000 of them died on his watch. And his entourage is defined by criminal or corrupt conduct, including close associates who are now in jail and family members who should be allowed into the White House only on a visitor pass.

The United States has reached scandal overload, a political tipping-point when the news is so overloaded with corrupt or criminal behavior that it has already become the new normal. We’ve started to tune it out. Another indictment? Another abuse of office for private gain?

It might sound strange, but scandals are a barometer for democracy. In particular, there are two key metrics: how often they occur and whether they produce serious consequences.

North Koreans don’t hear about the murderous abuses of their glorious leader because there’s nobody willing to blow the whistle, to tell the truth, to override state media. The scandals never see the light of day. They are buried. And even if a scandal did emerge, the ruling regime enjoys complete impunity. Totalitarianism is defined by a lack of both scandals and consequences.

In other words, since there’s always scandalous behavior in politics, a complete absence of scandals often marks the death knell of democracy – a worrying sign that the watchdogs have been put to sleep.

On the opposite end, the healthiest democracies have a low but sustained number of scandals. And crucially, those scandals are meaningful – they come with costs. Those who engage in scandals lose their jobs. Some get indicted. The specter of accountability is a forceful deterrent. That’s where you want to be: Small scandals pop up every so often, but they are dealt with harshly when they inevitably emerge.

The United States under Trump now occupies an ugly middle ground studded with red flags. Those red flags signal a system lurching away from democratic accountability and toward authoritarian impunity. Instead of minor and infrequent scandals, Trump has produced scandal overload, in which the watchdogs are more like golden retrievers at an exploding tennis ball factory trying to figure out which one to chase, only to be distracted by a new one a moment later.

And unfortunately, when the watchdogs do catch a scandal, fewer and fewer people seem to care. Sure, Paul Manafort is behind bars, but it’s clear that the man at the top can lie and cheat and stretch the limits of the law with impunity. It has become an accepted fact that there’s pretty much nothing that can convince Republicans in Congress that Trump’s scandals merit a response beyond the occasional meaningless rhetorical tut-tut. And voters can’t keep track of all the scandals anymore either, reducing the impact of any one.

Trump grasped that dynamic early on, boasting of his ability to shoot an innocent person and face no consequences. But that campaign statement proved prescient, a “joke” that laid bare an uncomfortable truth about the fragility of democratic accountability. Too many politicians and too many voters who elect them care about “winning” more than playing by the rules.

Worryingly, Trump’s ability to weather scandals in an era of hyper-polarization is showing others how to do the same. Nobody lost their job from the disturbing cascade of scandals in Virginia. Montana’s lone congressman, Greg Gianforte, violently assaulted a reporter and subsequently got elected and re-elected. California Rep. Duncan Hunter was indicted for allegedly stealing campaign funds, planning to claim that he was buying golf balls for veterans rather than funneling the money to himself and his wife. Voters sent him back to Congress. Politicians have heard the message loud and clear: In the Trump era, you can get away with it.

The 2020 election is our last line of defense, our last remaining backstop. It is an opportunity for voters to send a new message to politicians: The era of impunity is over, and it’s time you paid the price.


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