Ame­ri­can cul­tu­re has a his­to­ry of high re­gard for the “bad guy”. Bank rob­bers and kil­lers like Bil­ly the Kid or Bon­nie and Clyde were gla­mo­ri­zed, wit­hout re­gard for the bad na­tu­re of their be­ha­vi­or. Being bad was a good way to be­co­me a folk hero. That seems odd, but it was en­ter­tain­ment. The pe­op­le who were kil­led or whose mo­ney was sto­len we­ren’t en­ter­tai­ned, but much of Ame­ri­ca was. So it see­med OK to port­ray bad as good.

That in­cong­rui­ty even­tu­al­ly spread to the Ame­ri­can le­xi­con. Mo­dern Ame­ri­can Eng­lish is best exp­lai­ned by the bril­li­ant­ly in­sight­ful Fin­nish co­me­di­an, Is­mo Lei­ko­la. To pa­raph­ra­se Is­mo, bad has be­co­me a sy­no­nym for good, es­pe­ci­al­ly when “bad…” is com­bi­ned with some ot­her choi­ce words! Like eve­ryt­hing el­se Is­mo says, it’s very fun­ny yet true. Il­lo­gi­cal sil­li­ness has be­co­me eve­ry­day re­a­li­ty in Ame­ri­can speech. 

But when that re­a­li­ty be­co­mes more than talk, it’s not fun­ny any­mo­re. In Was­hing­ton, bad po­li­ti­cal le­a­ders along with their bad choi­ces and bad de­ci­si­ons are no joke. And it’s got­ten wor­se over time.

Two bads combined

Po­li­ti­ci­ans can be ca­re­less with the truth, but they used to try to ap­pe­ar to be trust­wort­hy. Ima­ges of the “good guy” were cre­a­ted by Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­ci­ans in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with help from the me­dia who rou­ti­ne­ly downp­la­yed anyt­hing ne­ga­ti­ve when re­por­ting about Ame­ri­ca’s top le­a­ders. We la­ter le­ar­ned that such sa­ni­ti­zed port­ra­yals we­ren’t ac­cu­ra­te, but the main de­ci­si­on ma­kers in Ame­ri­ca back then wor­ked hard to ap­pe­ar good, even when they we­ren’t. 

In the 1970’s, Pre­si­dent Ric­hard Ni­xon was caught for bad be­ha­vi­or that he couldn’t hide, so he re­sig­ned as pre­si­dent be­fo­re he got kic­ked out of of­fi­ce. Bad was good on­ly as long as po­li­ti­ci­ans could main­tain the fa­ça­de of being good. In the 1990’s Pre­si­dent Bill Clin­ton was im­pe­ac­hed for lying about se­xu­al ac­ti­vi­ty with an in­tern, and his bad choi­ce be­ca­me a le­ga­cy of his en­ti­re pre­si­den­cy. Many don’t re­mem­ber if he did any good while he was pre­si­dent. For him, his bad be­ha­vi­or had bad con­se­qu­en­ces.

Even in the 2000’s, bad in­ten­ti­ons nee­ded to be dis­gui­sed. Pre­si­dent Ge­or­ge W. Bush sought an ex­cu­se to in­va­de Iraq, so “we­a­pons of mass dest­ruc­ti­on” were in­ven­ted to gloss over the lack of any con­nec­ti­on to the then-re­cent Sep­tem­ber 11th at­tacks on the USA. That fab­ri­ca­ti­on was even­tu­al­ly ex­po­sed, but with no con­se­qu­en­ces. No­bo­dy was held ac­coun­tab­le for the mul­ti­tu­de of de­aths that re­sul­ted from that lie. The at­tempt to port­ray bad as good had fai­led, but it was con­ve­nient that Sad­dam Hus­sein was al­so bad. Two bads com­bi­ned me­ant that bad was no lon­ger re­al­ly that bad af­ter all.

Then came Do­nald Trump. He cam­paig­ned for pre­si­dent by cras­s­ly brag­ging about his abi­li­ty to se­xu­al­ly as­sault wo­men be­cau­se he was fa­mous, cal­ling ot­her Ame­ri­cans ug­ly na­mes and la­bel­ling all la­ti­nos as cri­mi­nals and ra­pists. That was truly bad, but for Trump it was good. He was elec­ted Pre­si­dent of the Uni­ted Sta­tes in spite of be­ha­ving that bad­ly. Some think he won be­cau­se of it. 

Bad behavior is seen as good 

Bad man­ners were far from the worst thing about Trump. He had a flag­rant dis­re­gard for scien­ce or pro­ven facts. He didn’t back up his dis­ho­nes­ty with evi­den­ce; he me­re­ly re­pe­a­ted the same lies of­ten enough for them to be­co­me ac­cep­ted by many as true. Ma­jor po­li­cy de­ci­si­ons were then made wit­hout any ba­sis in ob­jec­ti­ve re­a­li­ty. That was bad, but by the next elec­ti­on on­ly a slim ma­jo­ri­ty of Ame­ri­cans vo­ters see­med to be ab­le to dis­cern bad from good. 

Trump wasn’t re-elec­ted, yet the dai­ly news in Ame­ri­ca is still fil­led by re­ports of his con­ti­nu­ed lies about how he won the elec­ti­on. It’s got­ten so bad that he re­cent­ly wrote that the U.S. Cons­ti­tu­ti­on should be “ter­mi­na­ted” to give him back the pre­si­den­cy rat­her than wait for him to be elec­ted again in 2024. He sing­le-han­ded­ly cre­a­ted an era where ba­se­less fal­se­hoods and bul­lying are ac­cep­ted as part of Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal dis­cour­se. Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­ci­ans’ inc­re­a­sing­ly bad be­ha­vi­or is surp­ri­sing­ly seen as good in the ey­es of many Ame­ri­cans who vote. 

This was pro­ven by the re­cent 2022 U.S. cong­res­si­o­nal elec­ti­ons. As part of the ear­lier 2020 Ame­ri­can pre­si­den­ti­al elec­ti­on pro­cess, 147 Re­pub­li­cans, inc­lu­ding eight se­na­tors, vo­ted to deny cer­ti­fying Joe Bi­den as the Pre­si­dent. All eight se­na­tors are still in the cur­rent U.S. Se­na­te. Of the 139 rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves who de­nied the elec­ti­on re­sults, 124 ran for ree­lec­ti­on in 2022 and 118 of them won. 

Some new­ly elec­ted rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves are al­so elec­ti­on de­niers, for a to­tal of 145 rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves (and per­haps more, de­pen­ding upon how proof of elec­ti­on de­ni­al is de­fi­ned) who pub­lic­ly deny that the Uni­ted Sta­tes has a va­lid­ly elec­ted pre­si­dent. That’s at le­ast a third of the to­tal cur­rent mem­bers of the U.S. Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves who ig­no­re the fact that no evi­den­ce has ever been of­fe­red in any court or anyw­he­re el­se of a sto­len U.S. pre­si­den­ti­al elec­ti­on in 2020. 

They me­re­ly re­pe­a­ted Trump’s lies to win their own elec­ti­ons to the U.S. Cong­ress. They are all Re­pub­li­cans who al­so won a ma­jo­ri­ty in the U.S. Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves, so their bad be­ha­vi­or was good for them and for their par­ty. Yet they im­me­di­a­te­ly be­gan in­figh­ting with ot­her Re­pub­li­cans, which was sup­po­sed­ly good for the De­moc­rats. The same group has pro­mi­sed more dis­rup­ti­ve be­ha­vi­or in the fu­tu­re by how they will vote while in Cong­ress, inc­lu­ding thre­ats to deny fun­ding for as­sis­tan­ce to Uk­rai­ne. How can that pos­sib­ly be good for Ame­ri­ca or for the rest of the world?

Not bad enough

Now, in ear­ly 2023, one new­ly elec­ted U.S. Hou­se of Rep­re­sen­ta­ti­ves mem­ber was dis­co­ve­red to have chro­ni­cal­ly lied about all facts of his life to get elec­ted. Re­pub­li­can Ge­or­ge San­tos wild­ly mis­rep­re­sen­ted his edu­ca­ti­on, work, fa­mi­ly, an­cest­ry, emp­lo­yees, we­alth and sour­ces of cam­paign mo­ney, to name just a few of his de­cep­ti­ons. 

San­tos took Ame­ri­can po­li­tics to a new le­vel of unac­coun­ta­bi­li­ty. He was elec­ted to Cong­ress as a comp­le­te im­pos­ter. That should be bad, but so far, it’s not been bad for Mr. San­tos or for many of his fel­low mem­bers of Cong­ress. 

He has said he feels bad about ha­ving lied, but he feels so good about his new job as a Cong­res­s­man that he has no plans to quit. Some in Cong­ress say that’s bad, but ot­hers say it’s not bad enough to kick him out. They fi­gu­re that he has no res­pect (self-res­pect or res­pect from any­o­ne el­se) and they want him to stay in Cong­ress so they can ma­ni­pu­la­te him to vote ho­we­ver they want him to vote, as if that’s good. 

The end re­sult is that Ame­ri­can po­li­ti­cal in­teg­ri­ty as most of us know it has been tur­ned up­si­de down. Being bad bey­ond be­lief has be­co­me very good, and being to­tal­ly bad has be­co­me the best. That’s not good. It should on­ly be good as the ba­sis for an Is­mo Lei­ko­la joke. But it’s un­for­tu­na­te­ly the true state of af­fairs in Was­hing­ton.


Tom A. Lip­po is a Fin­nish-spe­a­king Ame­ri­can la­wy­er. Edu­ca­ted at Ya­le, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Jy­väs­ky­lä and Stan­ford Law School, he is the foun­der of FACT LAW, an in­ter­na­ti­o­nal law firm es­tab­lis­hed in 1985. FACT is the first law firm with of­fi­ces in both Fin­land and the Uni­ted Sta­tes. Tom has been a lawy­er in Was­hing­ton, DC ba­sed on Ca­pi­tol Hill for more than 40 ye­ars.