I’ve had the good fortune of taking the Trial Advocacy Workshop (TAW) over Jterm. Workshop activities occur in the afternoon. After that, we have dinner with visiting faculty (judges and trial lawyers from around the country). We end the day with an evening trial demonstration put on by visiting faculty.
On Wednesday evening of the final week of class, I trudged through the tunnels from Wasserstein (where we have dinner) to the Ames Courtroom (where evening demonstrations occur). I noticed a man at the front of the room in the “jury” seating whom I hadn’t seen before. He looked out of place because he clearly wasn’t a student, but he was dressed very casually. (The TAW faculty wear business attire.)
Professor Sullivan began the evening’s proceedings, as he had on some other occasions, by talking about various opportunities the workshop can lead to and the varied career paths that TAW graduates go on to have. He made a joke about this including a very brief stint as White House Communications Director. I was confused for a few seconds and then put things together. That out of place man was Anthony Scaramucci. And Anthony Scaramucci was a graduate of TAW.
In the mere seconds it had taken me to figure this out, Scaramucci had gotten on his feet and been handed the mic. A number of people applauded in the typical someone-is-about-to-speak sort of fashion. I did not applaud. Scaramucci said something about talking for 10 minutes and then having 15 minutes or so for questions. I instinctively bristled. This man had not only volunteered to be part of Donald Trump’s White House, he had taken on the role of promoting and disseminating Donald Trump’s messages as White House Communications Director. Despite Scaramucci’s extremely short tenure, this man had chosen to bind himself up with the rhetoric and messages of Donald Trump.
My thoughts went something like this: Should I leave? I wish I had known this was going to happen so that I could have decided whether to attend this portion of the demonstration. I feel like I should leave. Why do I feel that way? I’m not sure; I guess because I think by staying, I’m supporting or normalizing Scaramucci’s past actions and the actions of the Trump administration.
I wanted the luxury of time to decide what to do, but I didn’t have that. I decided to leave until Scaramucci finished talking and then return for the demonstration. I casually got up from my seat towards the back of the room and walked calmly along the side wall to the doors as the front of the courtroom. I didn’t give any indication that I was leaving for any particular reason. I plausibly could have been going to the restroom. But my heart was probably beating a little faster than usual.
Once out in the hall, I texted some friends in TAW to ask someone to let me know when Scaramucci had finished speaking. As far as I could tell, in a room with well over one hundred people, I was the only one who had left. I thought about all the people in that room whom I deeply respect: Prof. Sullivan, the visiting faculty, my fellow students. Why had I felt a compulsion to leave while they all remained?
The respect that I have for all those people who stayed made me doubt myself. Was I way off the mark here? Were there virtues in staying that I had significantly undervalued?
I decided the best thing to do now that I had made my choice to leave was to try to understand why I had made that choice.
Understanding my own decision came down to answering two questions. First, why did I feel that staying in that room was normalizing and perhaps even tacitly supporting Scaramucci, and by extension the Trump Administration? Second, why did I feel that normalizing and/or supporting Scaramucci and the Trump administration was something I shouldn’t do?
It’s the things I had been learning in TAW that helped give me my answer to the first question. In TAW , we learn the importance not only of the words we choose to say, but the power of how we choose to position ourselves in physical space. Juries, judges, and witnesses all make assumptions based on what we, as trial advocates, do with our bodies. Certain stances and placements help us assert control, while others show deference.
Being in the center of the Ames Courtroom with a mic in one’s hands during the TAW demonstration period is a position of power, and during the many evening demonstrations and dozens of other events I’ve attended in the Ames Courtroom, my sitting in the Ames audience has been a tacit sign of respect for those up front. My clapping at the beginning or end of a speech shows some level of respect. And my choosing not to cause a ruckus shows not only respect, but perhaps tacitly that things are as they should be—i.e. normal. If the power dynamics of the situation had been different or if a lack of endorsement for Scaramucci’s stances had been made clear, I would not have felt the same need to leave. But in this instance, it seemed to me that remaining would have indicated some level of respect and contributed to normalization via my body.
This moves into my second question about why I shouldn’t support or normalize the things Scaramucci stands for. The short answer is that I believe the things that Scaramucci came to represent as a (quickly discarded) mouthpiece for the Trump Administration are morally reprehensible and are inflicting a deep and unique sort of damage on the United States unlike anything in the nation’s history.
This claim is intentionally much stronger than a mere claim about disagreement between myself and the Administration that Scaramucci chose to serve. The ability to respectfully disagree with others is an important virtue. I work to disagree respectfully with many people who disagree with me on any number of issues. The two fields I’ve spent my twenties invested in (philosophy and law) both require that of me. And my life is much richer for spending lots of times sitting in audiences listening to people I disagree with.
But the damage I believe the Trump Administration is inflicting on America stems from a more fundamental value rift. I disagree with many of Trump’s policies. Those are worth opposing, but most of those aren’t worth leaving a room over. What’s worth leaving a room over is the fundamental disrespect of persons that Donald Trump consistently and brazenly displays, and the constant self-promotion Trump feels compelled to include alongside his degradation of others. There is nothing normal about the President of the United States behaving this way, and the behavior shouldn’t be treated as such.
In a world filled with necessary evils, there are many people whom I respect for taking or keeping jobs under Trump’s Administration. We need good people sticking around. Depending on the job, one can create more or less distance from Trump’s messages. But White House Communications Director is a job that almost completely removes any such space between message and messenger.
Scaramucci ended up talking in the front of the Ames room for far longer than the 25 minutes he advertised, so I had a good amount of time to think about all this. For a while, I wandered the law school tunnels but eventually came back to Austin Hall. I found that others had left the room too. They recounted to me how the conversation had turned to Scaramucci defending Trump against charges of racism. I trust that Prof. Sullivan had a good reason for allowing Mr. Scaramucci to speak, but that Mr. Scaramucci had taken the conversation in such a direction indicated to me that he was not properly respecting the privilege he had been given.
My respect for all those who chose to stay in that room has in no way been diminished. And their differing choices provide me with good reason to reflect on my own convictions and actions, and I welcome the opinions of others as to why it may have been valuable to stay. Yet, I confidently believe the following:
Trump’s messages—in their spirit and substance—are beyond the pale of what we can reasonably disagree over. They tear others down in self-aggrandizement. These messages are undermining what America could and should be. In accepting the position of White House Communications Director, Anthony Scaramucci chose to bind himself to Donald Trump’s disparaging and divisive messages, and hasn’t done the necessary work to unbind himself since. Wednesday night, I walked out on the Mooch. And I’d do it again.
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