The onslaught is relentless; new controversies arrive before old ones have run their course, blurring the events of the presidency into a jumble of emotion and exhaustion. Remember the Helsinki summit? The Sharpie incident? The various accusations of treason?
For voters trying to take stock of the past four years on the eve of the election, a separate team of experts monitoring the health of American democracy at Bright Line Watch has been meticulously cataloguing the tumultuous events of the Trump presidency and polling hundreds of political scientists about the actions that worry them the most.
“These data are important because the Trump presidency is so overwhelming,” said Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, a co-director of the project. “Experts can help us identify the events that are both highly unusual and highly important, which are likely to be the ones that pose the most significant threats to American democracy.”
The group has been polling its panel, sampled from political science departments at American universities, about Trump administration events making news headlines since 2018. The experts rated each action on two tracks — one characterizing its level of normalcy, the other its importance — on a scale from 1 (“business as usual”) to 5 (“highly unusual for American democracy”).
They’ve collected average ratings for well over 150 events, including Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition, his accusations of treason and his failure to disavow white supremacists.
I’ve plotted the scores for each event on the unusually long bar chart below. You’ll note that for each item, there’s a narrow dark-teal bar showing where it fell on the abnormal scale, along with a wider orange bar indicating how important the action was. Actions are listed in order of normalcy, with the most abnormal events at the top. Scroll through it, and meet up with me at the bottom. As you’ll see, there’s a lot to talk about.
Scanning the events in this chart is a bit like taking a whirlwind tour of the past four years’ headlines. Note that the chart skews toward abnormality, because routine events don’t typically make headlines.
The items at the top of the list are rated as both highly abnormal and important, representing “major departures from democratic norms.” Three of the top four items concern recent Trump remarks about the upcoming election: his suggestion that the election be delayed because of the pandemic; his repeated refusals to commit to a peaceful transition of power if he loses; and his baseless accusations that the election will be marred by widespread fraud.
Experts were greatly alarmed by these actions. One volunteered that “attempting to discredit the results of the election is the most alarming and undemocratic thing that President Trump has done.” Another said that “he is actively undermining the election results, which is unheard of for a president of a country that values the right to vote.”
The Trump campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the findings.
Experts also rated Trump’s 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in which he praised the Russian autocrat and sought to discredit the work of U.S. intelligence agencies, as highly abnormal and confusing action.
“It’s incredible how many very serious violations of democratic norms have taken place,” Nyhan said. “I have done a lot of research on presidential scandal, and it’s impossible to imagine most of these events even taking place during other presidencies, let alone being largely forgotten.”
Moving down the list, you begin to see actions that experts agree are very weird but elicit differing assessments of importance: editing a hurricane projection with a Sharpie, for instance; or endorsing Goya products from the White House. While one surveyed expert called the Goya stunt “embarrassing more than important,” another called it “political bad taste with a whiff of corruption.”
Trump’s 2018 phone call with a 7-year-old, in which he asked whether the child was “still a believer in Santa,” also stands out for being highly unusual but not particularly consequential.
The actions at the bottom of the chart are more routine. Passing tax cuts, for instance, is both an expected Republican presidential action as well as an important decision that potentially affects millions of people. Ditto for nominating a conservative Supreme Court justice like Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Things like military base visits, news conferences with other North American heads of state, and bestowing a Presidential Medal of Freedom upon former Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera were seen as routine and unimportant.