The Trump presidency thrives on norms
The main narrative of the Trump presidency has been about its hostility and indifference to norms. But if we step back from the repeated shock at the administration’s personal attacks, flouting of rule of law, and near-constant melding of campaigning and governing, a different picture emerges. I’m not being sarcastic – bear with me. The political project of the Trump administration depends on the existence of norms. This administration thrives on the politics of transgression, while also drawing its strength from existing structures of power. Thinking about the Trump presidency this way also clarifies the choice and possible next steps for its opponents, from Never Trump conservatives to mainstream Democrats to the left.
Most plainly, the Trump administration’s strongest moments have drawn on long-standing power structures. The president survived impeachment not because of some wild inversion of norms, but because of the kind of distrustful and team-protecting partisanship that has dominated American politics for decades and shaped it for much longer. Before the February vote, no Senator had ever voted to remove a president from their own party. The norm-breaker in this situation was Mitt Romney.
And it’s not just impeachment. The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was deeply unsettling, but the process by which it happened followed all the familiar power scripts. There was partisanship, of course. But furthermore – and more uncomfortably – this wasn’t even the first time in my lifetime that a powerful male nominee facing credible allegations of sexual misconduct has been confirmed to the high court! There’s a reason that the #MeToo movement has been so important and controversial. It pushes back against the exact scripts that have allowed powerful men to mistreat others without accountability; these scripts include scrutinize the credibility of accusers as well as downplaying the importance of their pain. The Kavanaugh hearings did not stray far from these, drawing on classic modes of preserving power for privileged groups.
The 2017 tax bill similarly drew on a mix of partisanship, standard GOP priorities, and the tendency in American politics to create policy that reflects the preferences of the wealthy. The gap between the populist claims of the campaign and the realities of its governance make an easy joke, but it’s also worth scrutinizing them through a norms framework. The administration that run on a message of disruption, yet has unfailingly maintained power arrangements. These developments are not contradictory. They are symbiotic.
Alongside faithful service to long-standing hierarchies, Trump’s political project has been nourished by a politics of transgression. I’ll get to the more serious violations in a moment. We’ve also been treated in the last three years to near-daily norm violations that are often superficial, yet strike at the heart of widely shared visions of what a president is supposed to be and do. This kind of behavior includes being angrily political in inappropriate venues like a speech to the Boy Scouts, or self-promotion like autographing photos of crime victims. These actions create media spectacle while generating red meat for core supporters. They allow the administration to show off its anti-PC credentials and maintain an outsider image, unbound by typical political rules. It’s important for these norm violations to be called out, of course – informal rules serve important democratic purposes. But Trump and his political allies also depend on the persistence of these rules for their actions to pack the intended punch.
Relatedly, violating norms is a way for the administration to demonstrate its power. While past presidents have (sometimes) deferred to informal limits in how they use their vast and undefined executive power, this president ignores those limits when it serves him. The firing of James Comey in 2017 and the Justice Department’s announcement that it would drop the case against former national security adviser Michael Flynn are some of the more important examples of these decisions. Demonstrating the blunt nature of the presidency’s formal power, unbothered by the soft bumpers of public rebuke, is a critical tool for minoritarian politics. There’s a JFK quote in response to a question about the thin margins of the 1960 election, in which he says that the mandate is that he’s the president – he won the election, regardless of the margins. Trump’s disregard for the sanctions that follow norm violations take this logic to a new extreme. The politics of the coronavirus crisis highlight this dynamic, as majorities support mitigation measures and crave authoritative expert voices, while a concentrated minority of the country demands exactly the kinds of norm transgressions that Trump has specialized in.
Where does this leave people who are concerned about the health of American democracy? The norms discussion creates unsolvable dilemmas. As Josh Chafetz and David Pozen point out, pushing back against norm violations can help preserve rules that remain unwritten but important. But my argument here also suggests that norms-based discourse is a bellows for the fire of transgressive politics.
Thinking about the problem in terms of democratic values – distinct from norms – shows a clearer path. The core, shared values of democracy need defense. This is especially important when thinking ahead to some of the more alarming election scenarios that have been envisioned for next fall to report, like state legislatures suspending the popular vote to choose electors. This possibility is notable for its constitutionality and consistency with existing power – it would give an advantage to Republicans, who have more strength in state houses than Democrats. But these features allow us to see the dimensions of the problem and its solutions. The requirement that democracy builds on popular input and holds the powerful accountable (instead of defaulting to structures that protect them) is what needs to drive the response to past and future norm violations. In other words, this is a moment where thinking expansively about how to defend democratic values like political equality and ballot access are not a luxury. They are a necessity. Thinking about the current situation in terms of preserving and protecting informal structures isn’t just inadequate. It’s counterproductive. Norms are useful, but rarely intrinsically valuable. The core values underlying them are what matter. Those values are likely to be best protected by thinking about what needs to change.
At a time when the informal rules are in flux, the range of possibilities widens and not all paths, to say the least, are good. But there’s some hope for taking advantage of this opportunity to think about democratic values and ideals. Rarely has our democracy been improved without such uncomfortable thinking, and without some degree of disregard for the old power structures and ways of managing politics.