I assume you had a moment as a child when you discovered that the Invisible Referee didn’t exist. Something deeply unfair happened to you. Perhaps someone stole something from you, or destroyed something of yours, or hit you, or told a lie about you. And perhaps you told an adult, and they not only didn’t seem to care, but they actually believed the wrong person. And in your head you thought “NO! That’s not allowed. They’re wrong. They’re lying. This isn’t fair.” This is where you probably began to learn that in life, there is no “invisible referee” floating above the game and calling foul when someone does something wrong. If there is a God, they do not step in and say to the person in the wrong: “Excuse me, exactly what do you think you’re doing?” Oftentimes, people do horrible things, and they don’t get punished. There’s no instant karma, no lightning-bolt justice. They just get away with it.
It’s depressing when you realize that cheaters can win, and the wicked can go unsmited. It’s also burdensome, because it means that if we want justice in this world, we have to make it happen ourselves. You can shout “That’s not fair!” at our uncaring universe, but you will be met with silence. It might be satisfying to know you were right, that the Invisible Referee would have ruled in your favor, but it doesn’t fix the situation.
My colleague Lyta Gold introduced me to this idea of the invisible referee, in a comic she wrote for this magazine a couple of years ago. And now I think about it every time I see Democrats appeal to the court of divine justice to vindicate them, rather than actually organizing to stop horrible things from happening. The latest example is in the fight over filling Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat on the Supreme Court. Congressional Democrats have pointed out repeatedly that many Republicans swore that they would not do exactly the thing that they are now doing, namely pushing to fill a Court vacancy right before an election. Cory Booker invoked the legendary Republican “sense of honor”:
“I think Democrats are gonna continue to appeal to the sense of honor that when someone gives their word, as Lindsey Graham did, that they can’t just break it.”
But of course, they can just break it. They are just breaking it. This is because their “word” is just that: a series of words. Nothing legal or cosmic happens to you if you violate your word. Perhaps you will go to Hell. But that is a matter for later. For the moment, Republicans can break their word easily, so long as they don’t care how doing so affects Cory Booker’s opinion of them.
Donald Trump realized early in life that there was no invisible referee. He saw that many things considered “rules” were social conventions, but that there was no real punishment for violating them, except that some people would hate you and think you a sociopath. But so long as those people’s opinions didn’t matter to you, then you could do whatever you wanted. So, for example, sometimes he just didn’t pay people for work they’d done. USA Today “found hundreds of people—carpenters, dishwashers, painters, even his own lawyers” who said Trump had them do work for him and simply ignored the bills when they came. Of course, in this situation you can sue. But that takes a lot of time and energy and money, and a rich man can tangle you up in litigation for ages, and if the sum involved is not worth that much effort, you might just give up. Trump won, and kept winning, even though he broke contracts and behaved utterly dishonorably.
Trump’s philosophy of honor appears to be this: you can do and say anything and the only thing that matters is whether there are any negative consequences for you. He made fun of John McCain, essentially calling him a loser for being captured and tortured. But nothing happened to Trump. The rule that says you have to “respect heroes” is not a “real” rule, because violating it does not produce any consequences that someone like Trump cares about. Trump freely groped women without their consent, whenever he liked. He bragged about it. The bragging was taped. But Trump doesn’t appear to have had a second thought about it, because nothing happened to him. He went into the changing rooms at the Miss Universe pageant and ogled teenage girls while they were undressed. He told Howard Stern he did this. He knew he could get away with it.
I remember watching the Republican debates in 2016 and seeing Trump flagrantly violate the moderators’ rules even as they asked him to stop. Trump realized that these were not actually rules, they were just requests. Nobody was going to drag him off stage if he violated them. So he violated them.
You might say that this is sociopathic behavior, and you would be correct. But you cannot stop sociopathic behavior by pointing out that it is unjust. Winning the argument, or the moral high ground, means nothing if you end up facing a firing squad.
I suspect that people like Booker would agree on principle that that honor is not “enforceable.” The purpose of pointing out that Republicans are dishonorable is to turn public opinion against them, on the assumption that people will care when they see Republicans announcing a principle and then violating it. The “people” are the referee. But what if the people don’t really care? This is certainly what Trump found out. Slandering the good name of John McCain did not lose him an election. In fact, many of his supporters like watching him piss people off and be denounced for his bad character. Trump’s shops have big signs outside that say “Making Liberals Cry Again.” Watching Cory Booker fume is part of the fun.
Of course, a certain percentage of the population might be angry when they see Republicans behaving dishonorably. But most of those people probably didn’t think Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Lindsey Graham were upstanding to begin with. The number of people who thought Republicans were consistent, but are genuinely outraged to discover that the right cares more about its ends than its means, is vanishingly small.
Life is unfair and our job is to work very hard to make it more fair. People do shitty things all the time and not only don’t get punished but often get rewarded. Abusers maintain high positions of power; cops shoot people in cold blood and never get indicted. It is certainly important to expose criminal misconduct, but what we must understand is that exposing it is not enough. This is one reason why investigative journalism is toothless unless a political movement is built to correct what is investigated and exposed. “Raising awareness” is the first step towards an end, not the end. Phrases like “sunlight is the best disinfectant” and “democracy dies in darkness” can mislead us into thinking that transparency does more than it actually does. A giant 100-page inspector general report can be issued showing clearly that some entity abused its power, but the question is: what are we going to do about it? Trump may win the election through blatantly underhanded means, but spending four years complaining about this will do nothing to change it. The game may be rigged and our opponent may cheat, but we’ve still got to play. In the absence of an invisible referee, how are we going to win?