Please see update below, based on breaking news.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the arrival of the Mooch last week seemed to blast the White House chaos meter up to 11. This raises two issues — one familiar, one less so.
The familiar issue is the old Trumpian key dangle. President Trump’s agenda is getting creamed — health care is just the latest example — so he orchestrates a major distraction. The media can’t resist, and the rest of us seem pretty much unable to drive by without looking at the car wreck.
I asked a smart, ethical journalist friend whether she really had to report every tweet. When Trump dangles the keys, must we look? She explained — sadly, I thought — that yes, she must. By definition, what the president says (and tweets) is news. Okay, I get that, and given the can’t-not-look problem, if her competitors print this junk, she risks losing readers’ eyeballs if she fails to follow suit.
But as I argued on this page as soon as Trump took office, you can’t believe anything he says. He (falsely) praises the Republican health-care plans as providing people great care for less expense, then later in the week he says the plans are “mean” for taking coverage away from vulnerable people. Thus a new story — “what does Trump really think?” — is born and takes up residence next to the facts of the case about the punishing human effects of their slash-and-burn health-care alternatives.
Am I the only one who couldn’t care less what Trump thinks on any given day about health care or any other policy? As readers know, I care deeply about the actual policies in play, but these are not the same thing!
Anyway, throw Trump’s mini-me Mooch into the mix and it seems certain that the keys will be dangling off their chains and there’s nothing we can do about it. I’d love to ply the tool of consumer sovereignty to signal to the media that they should stop facilitating distractions — we change the channel; they get the message — but even progressive friends seem unsettled if the president or his team haven’t done something nuts for a few days. There’s probably the same dopamine phenomenon going on here that leads me to check my email way too often.
Distractions are one thing, and although this is a serious problem, there’s still enough good eye-on-the-ball advocacy, research and journalism that I’m not overly worried that those of us paying attention will miss important threats. But the second issue that whacked us over the head last week may be even more dangerous: the erosion of norms.
It seems axiomatic that before the Trump presidency, any high-ranking administration spokesperson who spoke the way Scaramucci did in his profane rant to the New Yorker last week would have been out of a job minutes after the text was released (you can read the rant here, but you’re much better off reading the Onion’s fact check).
And yet the whole episode is pure key-dangle, with no suggestion of any repercussions. To be clear, I curse, too (although I neither front- nor back-stab colleagues), and although I don’t like this development, I don’t think it’s a big deal by itself (I also worked for Joe Biden, but at least when he was off color he was also generally off mike).
But what is a big deal is how quickly this administration has completely eroded valued norms, with truthfulness surely being the most important. The New York Times tracks Trump’s lies, with links to evidence, and its blunt summary is well taken (the bold is mine):
“There is simply no precedent for an American president to spend so much time telling untruths. Every president has shaded the truth or told occasional whoppers. No other president — of either party — has behaved as Trump is behaving. He is trying to create an atmosphere in which reality is irrelevant.”
Although the norm of bipartisanship began eroding well before Trump came onto the scene, it has gotten much worse on his watch. No question, Senate Democrats used the filibuster, too, but when they were writing policy that would affect 18 percent of the economy (i.e., health care), they held dozens of public hearings and worked closely with stakeholders. As practiced by today’s conservatives, the absence of transparency and its handmaiden, the loss of representativeness, is yet another unsettling new norm (just this morning, my taxi driver earnestly importuned me to explain why Republicans were trying to pass a health-care bill that so many regular folk disliked).
There’s much more such norm erosion than I have space for here. Norms of barriers between public office and private gains; relatedly, the norm of the president releasing his tax returns; the presence of Stephen K. Bannon; the whole tweeting shtick.
I’m far from the first person to note this erosion. And who’s to say that every norm was worth preserving? It’s not like Washington was functioning smoothly before Trump got here. But the hit on facts and truth is profoundly and existentially scary. There’s no question in my mind that democracy as we’ve known it cannot survive for very long on that basis. What’s even more scary is how quickly Trump has been able to crush that norm.
The question thus becomes: Can norms just as quickly snap back when Trump is no longer in power? Is norm erosion symmetrical? I’m confident that the pendulum will swing back — it always has — by which I mean it will become clear to many of his supporters that Trump has no intention of trying to help them and they will look elsewhere for help (whether they find it is another question). But that doesn’t ensure norms get repaired and built back up.
It’s too soon to assess the depth and persistence of the damage that has been done. But it’s not too soon to think and plan how to do something about it.
UPDATE: As of 3pm today (7/31/17), the Post is reporting that Scaramucci is out as WH communications director. Other reports suggest that his vulgar tirade is likely a primary cause of his dismissal. If so, then a) I need to rethink much of the above, b) this is a potentially positive development in terms of norm restoration, c) it’s a smart, potentially chaos-reducing move by new chief of staff John Kelly, but d) Trump being Trump, we are so not out of the eroded norm woods.