James Fallows says that the recent revelations of widespread sexual abuse and harassment by powerful people in so many areas of work share one significant feature with the revelations in the new book Fire and Fury about how all the people working in the White House or who have come into contact with Donald Trump have known all along that he is utterly unsuited to the job. In both cases, the situation was an ‘open secret’, in that insiders knew what was going on and yet did nothing about it, except whisper the truth among themselves and warn those whom they happened to know personally.
He says that the open secrets culture that keeps the truth within the cognoscenti and does not sound a wider alarm is dangerous.
Who is also in on this open secret? Virtually everyone in a position to do something about it, which at the moment means members of the Republican majority in Congress.
They know what is wrong with Donald Trump. They know why it’s dangerous. They understand—or most of them do—the damage he can do to a system of governance that relies to a surprising degree on norms rather than rules, and whose vulnerability has been newly exposed. They know—or should—about the ways Trump’s vanity and avarice are harming American interests relative to competitors like Russia and China, and partners and allies in North America, Europe, and the Pacific.
They know. They could do something: hearings, investigations, demands for financial or health documents, subpoenas. Even the tool they used against the 42nd president, for failings one percent as grave as those of the 45th: impeachment.
They know. They could act. And they don’t. The failure of responsibility starts with Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan, but it doesn’t end with them. Every member of a bloc-voting majority shares responsibility for not acting on their version of the open secret. “Independent” Republicans like Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski share it. “Thoughtful” ones, like Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake. Those (in addition to Flake) who have nothing to lose electorally, from Bob Corker to Orrin Hatch. When they vote as a majority against strong investigations, against subpoenas, against requirements for financial disclosure, and most of all against protecting Robert Mueller and his investigation, they share complicity in the open secret.
We are watching the political equivalent of the Weinstein board paying off the objects of his abuse. We are watching Fox pay out its tens of millions to O’Reilly’s victims. But we’re watching it in real time, with the secret shared worldwide, and the stakes immeasurably higher.
It has been clear for some time that the Republican party is now on a “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” mode. They know that they may have just this year as the window where they still control both branches of congress and the presidency. They will try to ram through everything on their wish list: lower taxes for the wealthy, dismantling of regulatory agencies that protect the public from the rapacity of corporations, packing the federal judiciary with extreme ideologues, and dismantling the social security system.
They are not going to risk that ambitious agenda by pointing out that Trump is intellectually and temperamentally incompetent to be president and thus a danger to the nation and the world. They will continue to whistle nonchalantly that everything is just fine until the system collapses entirely at which point they, like those who surrounded the sexual abusers and enabled them to continue because of their silence, will try to shift the blame to everyone else for having done nothing to stop the rot. It is hard to say what that trigger that the end has arrived will look like, given their willingness to overlook pretty much anything so far,
The problem with open secrets is similar to the one where when everyone is responsible for something, then no one is responsible.