Who gets a second chance?

On accountability and reinvention in American life

In theory, second chances are a good thing. I mean, we all need them. Many of the ancient religions counsel mercy, and second chances are the natural consequence of that. Situations are not identities. Your worst deed is merely a situation. You should have the chance to become more than that deed, to transcend it.

But as the Trump era fades and a new wave of second-chance-seeking gets under way, I have been wondering: Who gets second chances and who doesn’t, what must you do to get one, and how is that connected to all the people who don’t even get first chances in America?

After President Trump’s acquittal in the Senate, what we’ve known all along was confirmed once again, and flagrantly: that certain people, especially if they are rich and powerful and white and male, enjoy total impunity in American public life. There will be no consequences for Donald Trump. Maybe some prosecutor somewhere will find a spine, but I wouldn’t bet my coffee on it.

So now, with a kind of constitutional sanction, Trump will get his thousandth second chance. Just as he got after every business failure, just as he got every time he crossed some supposed red line in office. And is this surprising? Is this second chance to resume a role in public life all that different from the impunity of every police officer who has shot an unarmed Black person? Is it different from the impunity of every Republican who laid the ground for Trumpism, then bailed at the last minute, only to reinvent themselves as a democracy-is-fragile guru? Is it different from the impunity of the speculators who caused the 2008 financial crisis? Is it different from the impunity of those who brought us Guantanamo and torture and Iraq and Katrina and climate change and voter suppression and suffocating plutocracy and more?

Not only are these powerful figures who maim or defraud or starve or oppress other people immune from accountability in America today. They come back better than ever. The 21st-century second chance is a flashy, well-publicized, flex of a reentry in which one expects more than a chance to be back in polite society. One expects to lead, to become an expert in the problem one caused, in the vanguard of the search for solutions to the problem that one is, the fire chief of the department investigating the arson one has set.

See, for example, how many highly culpable figures of the George W. Bush presidency have now become well-published writers on the topic of saving democracy — saving it from the totally predictable consequences of everything they once worked toward. Or how the Lincoln Project guys, before the organization imploded, became media darlings, despite having somehow had no problem with the pre-Trump Republican Party of “welfare queen” slander, the Southern strategy, trickle down, WMDs, Sarah Palin, and more. Or how the Wall Street speculators who brought you the 2008 crisis around the world now run “impact” and “social” funds, promising to solve through their investing genius the problem of poverty to which they helped contribute. Or how Jeff Bezos is now donating money to fund free preschool for children from low-income families, which is another way of saying the families Bezos and his friends underpay and thwart from unionizing.

If you play your cards right, you don’t even need to atone for one of these second chances. You can go straight from the arson to the firefighting, straight from causing the problem to leading the search for solutions to it. You can do this by starting a foundation, or writing some attention-getting magazine cover, or, as Kellyanne Conway did the other day, dancing on “American Idol” to begin the reputation-laundering process that will surely get her a cable explanatory job soon.

This oversimplifies it somewhat, but I imagine a certain older arc of atonement that went something like: Sin>Accountability>Redemption. What we often see now is a very different arc, more like Sin>Sin-related expertise>Leadership of sin prevention. It will not be long before some of the most craven collaborators of Donald Trump are teaching seminars and leading panels on how to guard against future autocracy.

So one of the problems with this kind of second chance that so dominates our public life is that it isn’t really a second chance, because people don’t atone, don’t seek mercy, don’t show they’ve changed. They just clean their stink, which is different. And they go right to the helm of supposed solution-seeking, cutting in line everyone who was right all along, in fact battling them all along.

But another, more fundamental problem with these costless second chances for those at the top is they entrench a reality in which second, and often first, chances are withheld from most people. There is a zero-sum relationship between these second chances at the top and the chances people enjoy below the stratosphere. Because if bankers who wreck the housing market get costless second chances, bankers keep doing what they did, and people down below don’t get second chances to own a home after losing one to foreclosure. If people who lie the nation into war get costless second chances, there will be more lying into wars, and more young men and women who, meeting an IED on some dusty road, get no second chance. If people who enable fascism get costless second chances on cable and reality TV, it reduces the price of enabling fascism, and that makes it that much more likely that a refugee from violence won’t get a new start here. If the tax avoiders and union busters get costless second chances through reputation-laundering philanthropy, their workers will see their chances of ever experiencing a day of economic security withering and dying.

Their second chances, high up there, are the reason you perhaps often feel you don’t have a first one. Not everything in life is simple. This is. Either they keep getting second chances they don’t deserve — or you start getting first chances you do.


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