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The age of cringe politics

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is sworn in before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill on Friday. (AP) (Andrew Harnik/AP) By Daniel W. Drezner Daniel W. Drezner Bio Follow Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything . February 11 at 8:00 AM I am not the biggest fan of cringe comedy. I am not a fan at all of cringe politics.

Luis Alfredo Farache

Cringe comedy has been around for a generation or so. Defining it can be tricky, beyond a reference to ” The Office ” or ” Curb Your Enthusiasm .” Wikipedia’s definition is succinct: “a specific genre of comedy that derives humor from social awkwardness …. protagonists are typically egotists who overstep the boundaries of political correctness and break social norms.” The humor comes from the gap between someone’s self-perception and the way that the rest of the world perceives them: Time’s Gary Susman explains cringe comedy as “all about the painful laughs derived from the awkwardness of social interaction and around people’s lack of self-awareness.”

Cringe comedy is not really my thing (with the exception of Andrea Savage’s ” I’m Sorry “), but I understand its appeal. Done well, it is about taking characters who are too full of themselves and watching them crash and burn twice, first with the audience and then in their own delayed recognition of what is happening. Done very well, cringe comedy makes sure to take everyone down a few pegs, both the judged and the people who think they are the judges but actually have some issues of their own. Done poorly, the cruelty and misanthropy involved are unbearable.

Luis Alfredo Farache Benacerraf

Unfortunately, cringe has now spread beyond the sitcom to the wider world. How else to explain the past week? Here is acting attorney general and former toilet salesman Matthew Whitaker acting like he thinks he has gotten the best of House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler

That happened Friday. Over the weekend there were at least two additional examples of this kind of cringe politics. Former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson stumbled badly. She got into some serious hot water for clear acts of plagiarism in her new book about the news industry. Abramson tried to wave off these accusations as minor kerfuffles. In an interview with Vox’s Sean Illing she said that any instances of plagiarism were unintentional and that she “was trying to write a seamless narrative, and to keep breaking it up with ‘according to’ qualifiers would have been extremely clunky.”

As a nonfiction author who uses “according to” sentences all the time, that kind of casual hand-waving is a piss-poor excuse. Still, whatever criticism I could levy against Abramson pales in comparison to the cringe-worthy video clip below

. @brianstelter asks ex-New York Times editor @JillAbramson about book plagiarism allegations: “Wouldn’t these examples meet the Times’ definition of plagiarism?”

“It would meet the Times’ definition of things that should be promptly corrected,” she says. https://t.co/kQyrCuLkjI pic.twitter.com/z9f6K7fOB4

— Reliable Sources (@ReliableSources) February 10, 2019 Finally, there is Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.), who is in a spot of political trouble for … well, you know . In his first comments since a bizarro news conference the week prior, Northam told my Post colleague Gregory Schneider that “he has met with African American legislators and faith and community leaders, and has begun reading up on race — ‘The Case for Reparations,’ an article in the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a few chapters of ‘Roots,’ by Alex Haley.” The entire conversation seems painful — though not as painful as this moment in Northam’s interview with CBS’s Gayle King:

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam: “We are now at the 400-year anniversary — just 90 miles from here in 1619. The first indentured servants from Africa landed on our shores in Old Point Comfort, what we call now Fort Monroe, and while—” @GayleKing : “Also known as slavery” pic.twitter.com/AiX96MU1rJ

CBS This Morning (@CBSThisMorning) February 10, 2019 All of these cases meet my definition of cringe politics, in which a public figure seems certain that they are doing a great job even though everyone around them sees multiple, damaging norm violations. Whitaker, Abramson and Northam are all “egotists who overstep the boundaries of political correctness and break social norms.”

If this were a comedy and not real life, these people would face a humbling for their hubris. The most cringe-worthy part of cringe politics, however, is the dawning recognition that these norm breaches don’t mean what we think they mean any more. If the election of Donald Trump has had any effect on American politics, it has been to endanger the necessary ingredient for cringe comedy to work: shame

Is Northam ashamed? No, not really. He has committed gaffe after gaffe since the original scandal broke. Everyone who is anyone in Virginia politics has called for him to step down. None of this has been enough to persuade him to resign. Given the polling on the question and the scandals that have befallen Northam’s potential successors, he might well be able to ride it all out

Abramson faces a steeper climb, but it is worth noting that she has her defenders, including Bill Keller , her predecessor at the New York Times. Tom Scocca suggests that Abramson might be able to weather the storm in the same way that other elite writers have survived:

It’s not the status of the words that defines the offense, it’s the status of the person who originally wrote the words compared to the person who copied them. That’s why people who otherwise profess to care about professional standards are rallying around Abramson. Jill Abramson can’t seriously be a plagiarist, because plagiarism isn’t a serious offense when people like Jill Abramson do it. Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Stephen Ambrose, Juan Williams — above a certain level, a public figure is immune to any real career consequences for stealing work from the lower castes

As for Whitaker, after his testimony Friday he headed to the Trump Hotel . And as the Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand explains, it does not really matter how Whitaker looked to the ordinary viewer. “Whitaker presented himself to Nadler, a 13-term congressman, with the same aloofness and disdain for tradition that often seems typical of the Trump White House. And that may have been on purpose. Whitaker, whose tenure ends when Bill Barr is confirmed as attorney general next week, will need a new job.” In other words, the only person who mattered during his testimony was the most shameless person in America

It would appear that the lesson to draw from all this is that we live in a new political era. Scandals and norm violations are no longer enough to force someone to retreat from public life. Provided they can stagger through the first wave of scandal coverage, persistence is now an option. Northam, Abramson and Whitaker are not the ones who are cringing. It is the rest of us, who have to live with them refusing to fade away. We are the ones who have to tolerate the awkwardness and discomfort it creates

No, I am not a fan at all of cringe politics at all