TIME was when a disgraced politician would slip quietly into the shadows to live a life away from the public eye. The archetype of that was the cabinet minister John Profumo, who, after a sex scandal in the 1960s, went off to work among the poor in the East End of London for the rest of his life. The appointment this week of the retired US Marine colonel Oliver North as the head of the American gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), shows how far things have changed.
In the 1980s, you may recall, Colonel North created a secret network to sell American weapons to Iran and then covertly divert the proceeds to fund anti-communist Contra guerrillas waging war on the elected government in Nicaragua. He openly admitted that he lied to White House officials, misled Congress, and falsified and destroyed official documents as part of a preconceived cover-up — all on the alleged authority of unnamed superiors who, he hinted, went all the way up to President Ronald Reagan. He was convicted of three charges of unlawfully diverting US government funds.
It was one of the biggest political scandals of its day, and its violations of US law, and the policy of the Congress, cast a shadow over the Reagan administration. His convictions were later quashed on a technicality. But, rather than slip quietly out of the spotlight, Colonel North stood, unsuccessfully, for public office, before embracing what The Washington Post has called “a variety of crackpot positions and conspiracy theories”, and eventually becoming a conservative commentator on Fox News. Now, he has been elected as the new president of the NRA.
All this is a measure of significant change in public life. A man who was disgraced as a lawbreaker is now lauded as “a legendary warrior for American freedom” by a group that proclaims its devotion to law and order, and to the US Constitution.
It is just the latest example of a new phenomenon that past bad behaviour is now regarded as an asset rather than a liability. The same thing was clear during Donald Trump’s election campaign, when a succession of half-truths and lies — and bad behaviour as egregious as boasting on mic of grabbing women’s genitals — seemed only to boost his reputation among his supporters, even as it horrified his opponents.
There is more to this than a coarsening of public values. It is evidence of the deep divisions that now polarise politics in the US and — as the visceral vehemence of the continuing Brexit debates show — in Britain, too. Our public life is now characterised by semiotic semaphore and ostentatious virtue-signalling. President Trump was not even capable of revising the US’s position on the US-Iran nuclear deal without pre-announcing the announcement, as if he were building the tension before declaring the results on Strictly or MasterChef rather than handling an issue of grave international relations.
In the distorting mirror of our anti-fact world, the bombast has become a diplomat, and the liar and the lawbreaker a truth-teller and a hero. Disqualification is the new qualification.