Two great American pastimes, baseball and politics, are immersed in upheaval over the same basic problem: cheating. Too many people have convinced themselves that it's acceptable to go all-out to win without regard to rules or laws. The key year when America's value system turned south was 2017.
President Donald Trump rang in that year with his inauguration after a hotly disputed presidential election marred by cheating — undertaken by Russia and publicly welcomed by Trump. As the new president's win-at-all-costs message resonated around the country, the Houston Astros began exploring how they could cheat their way to a World Series championship.
Trump won office after Russian agents designed a carefully crafted social media campaign to play on voters' worst fears and biases. They targeted specific sectors of the population in swing states where a few votes here or there could tip the balance. The goal was to defeat Hillary Clinton and put Trump in the White House. Clinton was a longtime critic of Russia who, as secretary of state, had engineered tough international sanctions to punish Russia for invading Ukraine and seizing Crimea.
Trump had praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and favored ending sanctions. He also publicly urged Russia to hack Clinton's emails. The Russians gladly obliged. Although Clinton won the popular election by nearly 3 million votes, Trump won the Electoral College by holding just enough sway — a vote here and a vote there — in swing states targeted by Russia.
Trump evaded punishment because the Justice Department determined a sitting president cannot be prosecuted. He proceeded to cheat again by withholding military aid to Ukraine while demanding its president announce an investigation of Trump's likely 2020 Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden.
January 2020 turns out to be the month of reckoning for cheaters.
In baseball, heads are rolling amid revelations that the Astros found their own way to manipulate the odds — a pitch here, a pitch there — to gain a batting edge over their opponents. Astros coaches spied on the opposing team and used elaborate ways to alert their own batters to the pitch they were about to receive. The advance knowledge gave Astros batters a huge advantage. Not only did they eke out unfair win after unfair win, they rattled the confidence and ruined the pitching records of their opponents.
It remains to be seen whether the Astros will be stripped of their 2017 championship — a punishment the team richly deserves. Whether it's sports, politics or any other worthy endeavor, once the message goes out that cheating is tolerable, public trust collapses and the rules go out the window.
Americans admire people who overcome barriers and are tireless in pursuit of victory. But we must never legitimize those who think rules and laws are for suckers.
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