As ‘Brand’ Replaces Reputation, Democracy Goes to Hell

Kellyanne Conway

Kellyanne Conway photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

[Also published at Huffington Post.] There’s one question that has so far gone unasked during any of the thousands of interviews with Donald Trump’s surrogates or spokespeople, but during each one, it’s the elephant in the room:

What is wrong with you?

How can any educated, rational, moral person be willing to lie so flagrantly, on behalf of a grotesquely unworthy candidate for the most important job in the world?

The question goes unasked, of course, because it would violate the norms of civil discourse, on which democracy depends.

The trouble is, Trumpists are happy to violate those norms, knowing they have their interlocutors in a bind: Responsible journalists can only respond with the facts. But if you don’t care about facts — if you deny them when they’re played for you on video — there’s nothing to constrain you from saying anything.

As Josh Barro tweeted recently, “Trump’s people lie and lie and lie and lie and lie and they don’t even respect us enough to lie well.” 

How did we get here? We’ve always had dishonesty in politics, but how did we get to this point of utter shamelessness?

KellyAnne Conway, Jason Miller, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich, and the rest all appear to be rational people. They have to know that they will carry the stink of this campaign for the rest of their lives. Whether Trump loses or (incredibly) wins, their reputations are destroyed.

Ah. That’s it. Reputations don’t matter any more.

We’ve replaced them with “brands.”

And nothing destroys a brand, as long as it keeps selling.

Newt Gingrich, for example, didn’t need the Trump campaign’s help to destroy his reputation. He long since did that himself. And yet he still gets booked all over cable TV, still gets paid to speak, still runs profitable scams.

His brand still sells.

When reputation mattered, it was a brake on perfidy. The fear of public shaming would cause even the most mendacious public figures to modulate their behavior.

Now, shame is a monetizable commodity: just ask any celebrity who’s traveled the well-worn circuit of fame — humiliation — more fame.

You can’t threaten a Trumpist with shame, because they’re wearing the reputational equivalent of suicide vests. Just like terrorists believe they’ll live on in paradise, Conway, Gingrich, and the rest believe — with reason — they’ll live on in media.

We sophisticated moderns may be rediscovering, through its absence, the value of the archaic concept of honor. To the signers of the Declaration of Independence, honor was “sacred.” To us, it seems quaint.

But what if we brought it back? Not exactly the old version, which was often tied to assumptions about class, gender, race, and censorship that we’ve rightly left behind, but one rooted in a basic reverence for democracy?

Journalists often say of KellyAnne Conway that, despite the flagrant dishonesty, she’s “a professional,” or a “good person.” I understand the desire to preserve standards of civil discourse. But Conway and her colleagues are exploiting those standards, and in so doing they’re undermining democracy.

They’re behaving dishonorably. Even in — or especially in — the most democratic society, there should be a cost for that.

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