Watergate vs. Iran-Contra and what it tells us about American attitudes to malfeasance

When we are faced with the obvious signs of malfeasance by high elected officials in the USA, people often assert that ultimately the malfeasance will be ended and the bad actors punished. The normal approach is some variant of “well, Nixon lost his job over Watergate, so the system corrects itself”.
This is all fine and uplifting, but the reality is somewhat different. For every Watergate, there are multiple scandals where perpetrators not only go unpunished, but they are actually rewarded for their bad behavior.
Like Iran-Contra.
The story is well-known by now. Oliver North, working in the Reagan administration, discovered that on one side of the world were a group of people with missiles but no money. On the other side of the globe were another group of people with money but no missiles. They wanted to buy missiles.
So, in the grand tradition of American entrepreneuralism, North brought the two sides together (totally covertly) and SHAZAM! a deal was done, and both parties were happy.
The fact that North should not even have been dealing with either group, since it was official US policy to not deal with them, was ignored totally. Plus the deal was illegal on multiple different levels.
Oliver North testified (or more correctly, gave limited testimony and then invoked his 5th Amendment right to non-self-incrimination dozens of times) to Congress, under an immunity deal. He was subsequently charged with felonies, tried and found guilty. However, since he had been granted a level of immunity in negotiations with the government over his testimony on the affair, his felony conviction was overturned on appeal.
North then ran for the Senate in 1994 as a GOP candidate for Virginia. Not only did the party eagerly embrace him, he came close to winning the election.
Were it not for the presence of a moderate Republican candidate on the ballot, who won 11% of the vote, North might well have won the election. North was, and still is, seen by many GOP partisans as a hero, penalized by spineless wimps and liberals for Doing What Was Best For America. The fact that, by his own admission, he broke the law and was unrepentant, is seen as a feature, not a bug. Most of the money he raised in his 1994 campaign came from small donors, a powerful illustration that the appeal of authoritarians to the GOP base is a long-standing one, not just a recent affectation.
Now, just in the last couple of days, North has been appointed to be the Chairman of the National Rifle Association. His status as a hero of illegal covert operations has once again catapulted him to a top public role.
Time and time again we see perpetrators of malfeasance suffering either no negative consequences, or at best suffering temporary negative consequences. This is important, since is a significant contributor to a pervasive cynicism about societal and political leaders. This cynicism in turn results in two negative behaviors (1) withdrawal from the political process and voting (2) a willingness to embrace any political candidate who is able to plausibly and superficially pass as an “insurgent” or “outsider” (which, in most cases is on a par with saying “I’m telling the truth, you can trust me”) and who promises to “turn the place upside down”, “drain the swamp” etc. Both of those behaviors, added together, resulted in the election of Donald Trump.

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