Illustration by Ryan Inzana.

The United States is the product of an accountability movement that was never fully realized. Thomas Paine called the country into being with Common Sense, a pamphlet that invited the beleaguered residents of 13 British colonies on the eastern shore of North America to indulge their fury at the imperial abuses of King George III. He ridiculed the “men of passive tempers” who “look somewhat lightly over the offences of Great Britain, and, still hoping for the best, are apt to call out, ‘Come, come, we shall be friends again for all this.’” Rejecting the prospect of reconciliation with “the power that hath carried fire and sword into your land,” Paine encouraged Americans to ask themselves pointed questions:

Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then are you not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

This was about more than refusing to shake hands with the murderers, however. It was, Paine recognized, about forging a new mentality that would see beyond the lie of reconciliation with those who abused positions of authority to the detriment of the people.

No excuses. No forgiveness. The stakes were too high for that. The American people needed to make a clean break with their imperial overlords, and with the foolishness that would suggest that a relationship so broken as that of Great Britain and the United States could be mended. A failure to do so would squander “the power to begin the world over again.” When that revolution prevailed, Paine entertained the hope the new nation might “form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth.”

Unfortunately, that never happened. George III and the petty royalists of Great Britain were repudiated. But then the petty royalists of the United States took over. Men in wigs, enslavers from the South and slave traders from the North, wrote a constitution that embraced the sin of human bondage, denied the franchise to the vast majority of Americans, and saddled the new republic with an economic system so crudely rapacious that it instantaneously made a lie of the founding premise that “all men are created equal.” As Gore Vidal observed, “Long before Darwin the American ethos was Darwinian.” The drafters of the Constitution, who excluded Paine and the truest revolutionaries from the process, set the United States on a course that would see genocide, civil war, systemic racism and sexism, economic inequality on a feudal scale, and social divisions so stark that they would be exploited, decade after decade, century after century, by charlatans who capitalized on a system that invited their villainy. The worst of their kind, a royalist who worshipped the queen of England, came to power in 2017 after losing the popular vote. Taking advantage of an Electoral College that permitted losers to become winners, Donald John Trump claimed a presidency for which he was wholly unfit, and proceeded on a ruinous course that would eventually see the country ravaged by disease, mass unemployment, and seemingly irreconcilable division.

Trump’s presidency was the ugliest manifestation of a system where the rot had grown so severe, so overwhelming, that after Covid-19 hit, when hundreds of thousands were dying, when millions were sickened, and when tens of millions were left jobless, the stock markets soared to new highs. While nurses risked their lives with inadequate personal protective equipment against a pandemic, while bus drivers fell ill because they were required to work as the disease spread, while immigrant workers in meat processing plants died because their employers failed to put adequate protections in place, billionaires retreated to second and third homes and monitored the steady increase in their fortunes from federal “emergency relief packages” that literally redistributed wealth upward. Trump’s malfeasance was jarring, as Democratic Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington noted in the midst of the crisis. “States have been sort of left to play out The Hunger Games on procuring swabs,” she said. “I mean, literally, we have governors, my governor included, calling random people in China to try to get swabs off the back of a truck somewhere and get them here, only to find out then that perhaps they’re not validated; they’re not good for use. Same thing with PPE. I just think that the president has sort of come to this place where he’s willing to sacrifice people’s lives.”

But it wasn’t just the president; it was cabinet members, senators, governors, media personalities, and CEOs. The whole corrupt system was exposed. Yet it did not fall; it ran according to plan. In a moment of crisis, the rich and the powerful peddled the fantasy that no one was immune to the threat—even as they boosted their own immunity with fresh infusions of the wealth and privilege that had always protected them from the misery they imposed upon others. As the pandemic was being declared, Naomi Klein predicted how things would play out. “The Fed’s first move was to pump $1.5 trillion into the financial markets, with more undoubtedly on the way,” she explained. “But if you’re a worker, especially a gig worker, there’s a very good chance you’re out of luck…. And without comprehensive bailouts for workers, we can expect more bankruptcies and more homelessness down the road.”

Klein knew what to look for because she wrote the book on how economic and political elites exploit crises to implement their cruelest agendas. “Look, we know this script,” she explained in March 2020. “In 2008, the last time we had a global financial meltdown, the same kinds of bad ideas for no-strings-attached corporate bailouts carried the day, and regular people around the world paid the price. And even that was entirely predictable. Thirteen years ago, I wrote a book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, [which] described a brutal and recurring tactic by right-wing governments. After a shocking event—a war, coup, terrorist attack, market crash, or natural disaster—they exploit the public’s disorientation, suspend democracy, push through radical free-market policies that enrich the 1 percent at the expense of the poor and middle class.”

Because Klein had sparked an understanding of how disaster capitalists and their neoliberal allies in positions of power employ the shock doctrine in times of crisis, and because Americans who remembered the exploitation of the 2008 meltdown were speaking up, there was a hope that 2020 would be different. But it was not to be. Despite the jarring circumstances of the first months of 2020, the only change was that those who had robbed us before upped the ante. The public largesse was again grabbed up by the elites. More misery was imposed on the working class. More lies were told. More of the feeble systems for maintaining health and security in capitalist countries were undermined. More people got sick. More people died.

“How does that happen in the richest country in the history of the world?” Bernie Sanders asked when we first spoke about the pandemic in April 2020.

Why does it always go this way?

The answer is summed up in a word: impunity. The United Nations defines “impunity” as “the impossibility, de jure or de facto, of bringing the perpetrators of violations to account—whether in criminal, civil, administrative, or disciplinary proceedings—since they are not subject to any inquiry that might lead to their being accused, arrested, tried and, if found guilty, sentenced to appropriate penalties, and to making reparations to their victims.”

With only the rarest and most insufficient exceptions, economic and political elites in the United States have enjoyed a regal level of impunity for more than 230 years. The founders exempted themselves from their own promise that “all men are created equal” and reaped the benefits of an economic system built on slavery, child labor, wage theft, and corruption. It took a civil war to undo the cruelest of their establishments: the institution of human bondage. When the war was over, former enslavers would, after a brief period of moral reconstruction, renew their fortunes by establishing a brutal system of Jim Crow segregation that was enforced by the night raids of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and chain-gang incarceration. So confident were they in their impunity that they erected statues honoring traitors, which only now are being torn down by the brave champions of a new American revolution that begins with the basic premise that Black Lives Matter.

The cruelest compromises of our founding were written so deeply into the official record that well into the nation’s third century, schoolchildren were taught that the delegates who forged the three-fifths compromise and counted African Americans as less than human were simply practical men who did what they had to do to get a country up and running. Those same children were taught that there was something “great” about the 19th-century compromises negotiated by Henry Clay, which doomed millions of men, women, and children to continue in a condition of chained and whipped servitude.

There has been no real accountability for sins against humanity in American history. What accountability did the slave sellers and slave buyers face in a post–Civil War era when the United States failed even to deliver on the promise of 40 acres and a mule? They undid democracy, claimed statehouses and congressional seats through rigged “white primary” elections, and ushered in a new age of American apartheid that enforced separate-but-equal racism, exploitation of sharecroppers, and right-to-work profiteering.

What accountability did Strom Thurmond of South Carolina face for filibustering in favor of racism as a young legislator? He served in the US Senate until he was 100 years old and was honored at the end of his tenure with a celebration during which the minority leader of the chamber warmly recalled a 1948 presidential campaign in which Thurmond declared, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.” Not in 1952, or 1962 or 1972, but in 2002 did the top Republican in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi, gleefully announce, “I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

That’s impunity, and—while Lott was ultimately eased out of his position—our political leaders continue to practice it with abandon. If you want to know how the United States ended up in the middle of a pandemic with a swindler president who could not be bothered to take the basic steps that were required to save lives, don’t start with Trump. Start, perhaps, with Richard Nixon, the Republican president who skipped town before the House of Representatives could impeach him for the high crimes and misdemeanors of the Watergate scandal. Nixon collected a presidential pardon and a pension and lived the rest of his life in luxury, writing books, commenting on foreign affairs, and trying to buff his reputation as an elder statesman. He could have been held to account with the completion of the House impeachment trial and conviction by the Senate. Instead, the Democrats who controlled those chambers conspired with the unelected Republican who succeeded Tricky Dick, Gerald Ford, to let Nixon off the hook with the cruelest lie of all: the promise of “healing.”

No one was healed. No lessons were learned. Barely six years after Nixon flew off to his beachside mansion at San Clemente, another charlatan from California assumed the presidency and began steering the country into a scandal that made Watergate look like filching a pack of gum from the grocery store. “The Iran-Contra Affair was a secret U.S. arms deal that traded missiles and other arms to free some Americans held hostage by terrorists in Lebanon, but also used funds from the arms deal to support armed conflict in Nicaragua,” the History Channel tells us. “The controversial deal—and the ensuing political scandal—threatened to bring down the presidency of Ronald Reagan.” But, of course, it didn’t. Even with clear evidence of explicit and extended lawbreaking by Reagan and those around him, the Democrats who controlled the House and the Senate again let a Republican president off the hook. No impeachment, no trial, no constitutional consequences.

Well, yes, of course Reagan broke laws. He violated his oath of office. He admitted as much: “Reagan himself acknowledged that selling arms to Iran was a ‘mistake’ during his testimony before Congress,” we are told at history.com. “However, his legacy, at least among his supporters, remains intact—and the Iran-Contra Affair has been relegated to an often-overlooked chapter in U.S. history.” Intact, indeed.

When even the authors of presidential legacies stop trying to set things right, impunity locks in. The misdemeanors are neglected, unless they are salacious enough to stir the imaginations of Ken Starr and Newt Gingrich. High crimes are charged, sometimes, but they are invariably dismissed by senators who embrace a political code of silence every bit as rigidly as characters in a Godfather movie. The Constitution is a shredded document. The courts are packed with partisan judicial activists who protect their benefactors in the legislative and executive branches. The media can rarely be bothered with anything more than gossip.

The dumbing down of political morality in the United States didn’t begin with Donald Trump; it ended with him. Not because the process was complete (rest assured that things can get worse) but because it seemed to have passed the point of no return. When a president presides over mass death and mass unemployment and remains politically viable enough to claim the nomination of a major party and to mount a reelection bid with even vaguely credible numbers, the rot in the system runs so deep that those who maintain it cannot be rehabilitated.

That’s what makes this moment so haunting. We know that without accountability for the coronavirus criminals, the past will repeat itself, with a more despicable president mishandling a more daunting pandemic, with more reckless jurists striking down more necessary health orders, with greedier CEOs cashing in on starker misery.

This is the point when we have to break the pattern. The guilty men and women have to be removed. Where appropriate—and necessary—they can be punished.

Nothing should be off the table in this country’s response to coronavirus criminals and pandemic profiteers: electoral humiliations, impeachments, investigations, indictments, seizures of assets, jail terms. But we should recognize in seeking all of these legitimate remedies that there is a point to the accountability process that has only a little to do with the present and quite a bit more to do with posterity. Winston Churchill was wrong about a lot of things, but he was right that “the use of recriminating about the past…is to enforce effective action at the present.” And it is effective action in the present that can transform the future.

People whose loved ones died in nursing homes ravaged by preventable outbreaks of the coronavirus can be forgiven for wanting to see officials penalized for their failure to place health and safety above politics and profits. Families who buried parents and grandparents who died because irresponsible leaders failed to lead in imposing mask mandates and social distancing, or because political hacks in judicial robes blocked responsible leaders from imposing those mandates, may well be inclined to demand specific punishments for the reprobates who rejected science and human decency. And workers who have been exposed to illness and death by billionaires who built their fortunes during a pandemic will be excused for entertaining vengeful sentiments.

But that can’t be the end game. There is temporary satisfaction that comes when a powerful figure is subjected to transitory chastisement, and we need not apologize for seeking it. But we must also keep our eye on the prize of transformational justice.

The achievement of that justice requires us to stand at the intersection of punishment and policy. What we recognize when we are in this position is that accountability, done right, drives change.

Trump and his Republican associates should face all the legal and constitutional penalties that their crimes demand. So, too, should the Democrats who transgressed. And so, too, should the reckless billionaires and pharmaceutical extortionists. But we dare not stop there. The pandemic profiteers must be banished—forever ejected from the political and economic future of the nation they have so crudely used and abused.

There are constitutional provisions and statutes that bar political wrongdoers from future service, and that can even bar corporate wrongdoers from future gain-taking. But far more vital is the social shaming that recognizes these evildoers must never again appear on our ballots, occupy positions of public trust, or be accepted as purveyors of sage wisdom on how best to govern. They can’t be rehabilitated, as Nixon almost was. Or remembered fondly, as Reagan was. They can’t be allowed to evolve into the “elder statesmen” that the miserable presidents of the turn of the last century—Bill Clinton and George W. Bush—aspire to become. They must carry the albatross of shame from this time forth and forevermore.