Shortly after the new administration took office, I wrote for The Post, “The great issue of today is lying — constant lying in public.” Seven months in, it’s clear that lying is not the disease afflicting us, just the most obvious symptom. The infection’s name is “getting away with it.”
The phrase “getting away with it” didn’t even exist as an expression until the middle of the 19th century. It came into general use over the following few decades, coincident with the Darwinian phrase “survival of the fittest” and Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” In the 2012 book “Missing Out,” in a chapter entitled “On Getting Away With It,” psychiatrist Adam Phillips suggested we had, just in the last century, gone from regarding “getting away with it” as immoral — perhaps a forbidden pleasure we might secretly admire, sometimes indulge, but could never approve — to its elevation to a highest-value goal.
In the chapter’s conclusion he writes, “But what if getting away with it was a new moral principle or project? … In this new morality — which sounds like a moral game, or a parody of the idea of morality — moral excellence would reside in being able to successfully exempt yourself from rules you have consented to. … The Good Person would be replaced by the Impressive Person; and what would impress would be the breaking of rules without punishment. … Where once there were the principled, now there would be the opportunists; the clever would displace the pious.” He all but foretold the election of President Donald Trump.
We have not-so-gradually succumbed to the view that disregarding society’s common understandings, some legal, some moral (in the twin senses of common ethics and of mores, the ways people commonly behave), is a positive good, when you get away with it.
Getting away with things is a very old American tradition, as old as Tom Sawyer’s picket fence, as American as its cousin “questioning authority.” Because we’re all kind of suckers for impertinence, “getting away with it” as a moral principle is just that much more dangerous to us.
When Trump gets away with flouting a rule, even as he pretends to consent to it, when he gets away with a lie, even as he pretends to consent to the commandment not to lie, he readily congratulates himself: by his own values — values our society broadly understands, and sometimes almost shares (sometimes in jest, sometimes in horror, sometimes with a delicious sense of trespass) — “getting away with it” is good, in and of itself. And if the president is comfortable being surrounded by confusion and chaos, it may be because, when your primary goal is getting away with things, chaos and confusion are your friend.
Russian President Vladimir Putin initially gave smirking denials that the “little green men” invading Ukraine were Russians, declared that they were not in the Russian army or that they were on leave, until, still smiling, he finally allowed they were acting under his orders all along. It didn’t matter if no one believed him. It was all an ostentatious version of getting away with it.
Using the same playbook, Trump can proudly boast he could shoot somebody in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and get away with it; he can say, “My taxes are under audit,” as an empty excuse to not show his tax records; he can publicly invite police to rough up suspects; and he can even lie to the Boy Scouts. He can press for passage of a bill and oppose it at the same time. He can ask his advisers whether he can pardon himself — the ultimate getting away with it — and pretend it’s a legitimate question. Anything’s possible.
The country is in a tough spot. But knowing what you’re up against is half the battle, and we know that Trump’s “getting away with it” is a parody of morality.
Sam Waterston is a stage, film and television actor, who starred in TV’s “Law & Order.” He serves on the board of Oceana and the emeritus board of Refugees International.