The investigations and indictments continue for President Trump’s friends and associates. Some of them are in jail or headed there.
On Dec. 20, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis became the fourth member of President Trump’s cabinet to resign or be forced out in less than two months, and the third in less than two weeks. More than 40 of the president’s cabinet members, White House officials and agency heads have left their posts, willingly or otherwise, in the past two years.
Nor is the president’s family immune to legal inquiry and the occasional press exposé. Leaks have become a tidal flow. Almost daily there are reports of shady deals and malfeasance, criminal charges, claims of innocence, guilty pleas. Cabinet secretaries and top administration officials quit or are fired almost routinely. Accusation and denial now flow with a grinding regularity.
Yet we remain a nation of laws. Great effort has been expended to investigate the conduct of people close to the president, even the president himself. The pains taken to keep us from discovering the facts have only heightened a zeal to get at them.
All this brings on us a crushing numbness, the scar tissue of scandal fatigue.
This has happened before. The menace of Nixon and Watergate still outruns the Trump era, but as Trump gains on it we can turn to Nixon for clues to why we have a hard time staying tuned today.
President Nixon and close aides and allies tried to cover their ties to a botched burglary in 1972 at Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate complex in Washington. Then they lied about what they knew and when they knew it. For the next two years, the truth slowly closed in on Nixon and his co-conspirators. The nation was conflicted and worried, overrun with mounting scandal, the prospect of a constitutional crisis. Nixon was headed for impeachment by the House and trial in the Senate.
One thunderbolt after the next left our spirits immune to astonishment. How?
In mid-June, 1974, six weeks before Nixon resigned to avoid a Senate impeachment trial, Elizabeth Drew, The New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, leaned into something called “psychophysics.” This field centered on the study of the increments of stimulus that lead to increments in perception – or, when does a bit more stimulus become too much?
The answer, Drew found, is measured by a unit called the “just-noticeable-difference,” or JND. By this measure, if there is one lighted candle in a room and one more is added, it makes a big difference. But if one lit candle is added to a thousand, it does not.
With Watergate, the nation’s JND factor had run out. With Trump, here we are again.