I’ve had this conversation with several of my friends. We think we know how this whole Trump/Russian Collusion scandal is going to play out among the population.
We know how they’re going to demand that we wait for the evidence. That when the evidence arrives, they’re going to push the goalposts and say, “Wait, but we need more information?” And how they’re going to pin their hopes on obvious cranks.
We’ve seen it before. See, we’re the Penn Staters who understood the men we were supposed to look up to had screwed up so epically that they brought our beloved institution to its knees. We’re the people who shook our heads as uninformed students rioted. We’re the people who still support the valuable academic institution and cringe every time we see a “409” bumper sticker.
The problem in both places started with the savior myth. As Penn Staters, we saw the marketing of Saint Joe, Savior Emeritus. Many of us took part in it. The ironic difference between the Paterno and Trump is that the president frantically sought out the Savoir Mantle, teasing out his presidential run over several election cycles. He reveled in seeing that he could “Shoot someone on fifth avenue” and still have ardent followers. He shouted, “I alone can fix it” to a country bred to believe that a businessman is inherently a philosopher king and the answer to our prayers that Washington be fixed. Never mind that Oedipus Wrecks told everyone he planned to burn the city to the ground and gleefully dance around our smoldering institutions.
Paterno was different. He didn’t set out to be a savior. He set out to be the curmudgeon who could prove – and did – that football players could be academic leaders. He challenged many of his contemporaries to be better than they were. And fans -Penn Staters and non-Penn Staters – loved him for it. Journalists devoured the ethos. It culminated in painting Paterno’s stoic Nittany Lions as hope of traditional America against the brash Miami Hurricanes in the 1986 National Championship game. The racial undertones of the way that game was – and is – portrayed in the media are quite shocking. As Paterno won and churned out players who went on to be doctors, lawyers and community stalwarts, the truth of Paterno’s impressive accomplishments became shrouded in a rich myth. He no longer improved a proud tradition. He built the program. Never mind that the Nittany Lions went 16-0-1 from 1911-1912, that three of the previous four coaches at the University are enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame, that he took over a team that went 104-48-4 during the 15 years before he was at the helm. Hell, the myth grew so much that he was considered the reason a cow college on a rough hewn patch of sod ended up being an elite university. Never mind that it had graduated Pulitzer Prize winners, Academy Award-winners, Fortune 500 CEOs before he took over as head coach.
Still, he was different than Trump.
They are a study in contrasts, despite both attending elite schools and coming from New York. Paterno quoted Homer’s “Odyssey”; Trump quoted Homer Simpson. Paterno reluctantly allowed his name to be placed on a library his family funded. Trump placed his name on things to get funds.
Paterno was rightly praised and heralded, even if his own warts were often ignored.
I remember first finding out about the revelations that Jerry Sandusky was going to be charged with crimes. I worked in a Pennsylvania newsroom. That meant at least a third of the staff graduated from my alma mater. Many of them were like me and knew the fight song and the alma mater. Disgust filled us as we learned the facts.
Still, that weekend, I took my father-in-law and his wife to their first Penn State game. I was ecstatic while taking them around campus. No place has ever felt like home to me in the way Happy Valley did. If I could live anywhere on earth it would be there. So I told them about Paterno and his exploits. And like a true Penn Stater, I built him up. And I said that Jerry Sandusky was possibly about to get into big trouble for some troubling behavior.
That was the game. The 409th win. The final victory. I’d later find out Jerry Sandusky attended the game, despite reports in the Harrisburg Patriot-News about the grand jury investigation. The fact he was there, in a place of honor no less, as the allegations were known, will forever disturb me.
Within the week, everything came crashing down. As each sickening detail was revealed, I and other Penn Staters grew more and more disgusted. I talked with friends in the newsroom who felt the same way. These were people with Penn State paraphernalia at their desks who realized how vile things were. That night, I talked to family and other friends. I was shocked to realized someone was in a bubble.
They didn’t use the term fake news, but they might as well have. It couldn’t be true. People were just out to get Penn State. It was the media. They’d always hated Penn State.
Never mind the fact that the media, which had not honestly covered the ills of the program over the years, had too often given Penn State far too much rope. Never mind that the media around the country was filled with Penn State graduates.
Of course, the parallel with Trump’s fans are obvious. He’s been ranting about fake news for more than a year. His fans accosted and threatened journalists since he announced his campaign. And he benefited from some quite sycophantic outlets.
Here’s why that matters now. What we saw after the Sandusky charges were filed are what the nation is going to see from the FOXNews crowd for the duration: pleas for patience, illogical excuses, and rank conspiracies.
We’ll start with the pleas for patience. It was like a song. The refrain was the same: Let’s wait until all the evidence comes out. But the verses were different. “Let’s wait until the Freeh investigation wraps up.” “Let’s wait until the Sandusky trial wraps up.” “Let’s wait until the Paterno’s investigation wraps up.” There was always another investigation or event to wait for. No matter what the previous investigation found, those details weren’t enough. The goalpost moving was profound. Now, lets look at the excuses. Joe did what was legally required. Joe was old. Joe didn’t understand what child rape was. He wasn’t in charge? He couldn’t have done any more. To anyone who professed to be a fan, these excuses were beyond lame. The third thing was the conspiracy theories. Far too many Penn State fans fell in love with John Ziegler, a DC crank looking to push a “he was maligned because he was a conservative” narrative and the blog, “Tom In Paine.”
The playbook will be the same in the coming months. It won’t just be Trumpers, it will be people we expect to be rational and clear-headed. These charges are so antithetical to our morals that it’s going to be easier for some to deny them than address them. If you reluctantly voted for Trump, you don’t want to admit you hate some responsibility for this.
As more information about Manafort, Papadopoulos and Gates comes forward, and others are charged, these people will ask for patience. We’ll be told to wait and see until a trial occurs. We’ll be told that it’s only one or a few bad apples and that it doesn’t prove much. We’ll be told a grand jury can indict a ham sandwich.
Then other information will leak. It’s inevitable. We’ll be told not to trust the media. We’ll be fed false narratives – hell, we already are – about the corruption within the investigation. Red herring after Red herring will be thrown our way. At this point, you’re going to be exasperated. I know we were. I remember several friends saying they didn’t want to be around the 409 crowd and the JoeBots. Here’s what we learned from the Penn State scandal. Some of these people will never see the facts for what they are. And they’ll overstate your beliefs to make their perceived persecution more real. And they’ll cling to maxims they don’t afford others.
But there will be others. They’ll come to see the truth. They won’t come to it easily, but they will. Welcome them when they do. Their voices our needed.
The excuses have already started too. Paul Ryan himself told us Donald Trump isn’t an experienced politician. That doesn’t excuse anything. And we’ll also hear tons of whataboutism. We already see it with blaming Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. But these excuses will grow. And more information comes out, we’ll see the excuses become more and more untethered from reality.
Which brings us to the conspiracy theories. Again, we’re already seeing them. But wait until the trials. They’ll be even more in depth.
The evidence is about to mount for the people with both feet in objective reality and it will be very difficult for them to understand why people don’t understand what is happening.