Mike Pompeo's Excuse For Ethics

Under Trump, ethics aren't just flexible, they're fungible.

Last night, the RNC broadcast an endorsement speech from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, recorded in Jerusalem.

In a classic case of the kind of “excuse ethics” that guide the government under Trump’s authoritarian rule, the State Department defended his speech by saying it had nothing to do with them and they weren’t paying for it… none of which addresses the actual objections, which include State Department rules that Pompeo signed off on and had reminded his own staff of. These rules did not focus on the question of who picked up the tab, but on maintaining the appearance of non-partisan neutrality and not getting US politics mixed up with US diplomacy.

This brand of ethics isn’t just flexible, it’s fungible. It erases the content and context of any argument for or against and assumes they’re all interchangeable.

“The Secretary of State is not supposed to be involved in party conventions.”

“How can you say that? The State Department didn’t pay for his speech.”

That’s obviously a good thing, but it’s not the right good thing. It’s not even a notable good thing. The State Department didn’t pay for anybody else’s speech, either! In theory – hopefully – nobody’s speeches last night were paid for by a department of the executive branch. This is literally not even the bare minimum. It’s the default. The State Department not contributing resources towards a speech is something that automatically happens whenever anyone makes a speech anywhere, barring some specific and special effort for the State Department to pay for it.

Substituting something else that sounds good in place of answering a criticism is an old trick in Trumpworld. The deficit is soaring? Well, the stock market is up. How can you say the government is losing billions when the country is making billions? Aren’t those the same thing?

It’s an old sales trick. When you don’t have an answer for someone’s question or criticism, you quickly bring up some other good-sounding thing that hopefully seems related enough that implication alone will answer the question.

Question: “Is this safe for children?”

Answer: “We developed this in close consultation with leading child psychologists.”

Question: “Are the rooms fully accessible?”

Answer: “All of our rooms underwent a modern update in 2017.”

Question: “What kind of precautions do you take in the kitchen?”

Answer: “We serve meals to celebrities from all over the world, and they have nothing but good things to say about our food!”

In an ideal world… well, in an ideal world nothing like this would have come close to happening. But in a version of this world with ideal journalists and pundits, the response to the excuse-making by Pompeo’s proxies would be something more like, “What’s that got to do with anything? No government resources used? That’s normal. Isn’t it? Wait, were government resources used for other RNC speeches? You know what, never mind. We’ll look into that later. Right now we’re talking about Secretary Pompeo’s speech, which broke not only longstanding norms but rules he himself distributed. Let’s talk about those rules.”

But the magic of this kind of excuse-making is that it doesn’t present itself as an excuse. The people who offer them do so with confidence as though they are, in fact, addressing the matter at hand, which is why it so often works. They offer an excuse in place of an answer and then later they can insist, “I’ve already addressed that.” You can see this kind of thing happen again and again in the hearings of Trumpworld figures.

They do this – and are able to do this – because strength in our society is so much about coding as it is about actions. Making excuses? Weak. Forcefully making direct statements? Strong.

But it’s a hollow strength, and it will crumble if pressed hard enough, often enough. That’s one of the things we have to do in order to expose the rot being busily painted over.