The Trump administration is proving very stressful for anyone who cares about the future of American democracy, because it is an ongoing stress test of our constitutional order. We do not yet have proof, at least not the kind that can be presented in court, that President Trump has violated the law; if it exists, that must await the conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation. What we do know is that he is systematically violating our democratic norms.
These are the unspoken assumptions about what a president is and is not supposed to do. It was never thought necessary to write down that the president should behave in a dignified manner, avoid conflicts of interest or not misuse his emergency powers for political purposes. But Trump is colossally ignorant and contemptuous of the way his predecessors have acted. Unconstrained by morality or tradition, he is systematically redefining the presidency in a style that owes more to Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orban than to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Some of the norms he is violating appear minor, but their collective impact is substantial. Until two years ago, for example, there was an expectation that presidents would work hard and pay serious attention to their intelligence briefings. Trump, by contrast, routinely blocks off 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. as “executive time,” and “rarely if ever reads the President’s Daily Brief” prepared by the intelligence community.
In another break with his predecessors, Trump appears to give more credence to the United States’ enemies than to its own intelligence agencies. Former FBI acting director Andrew McCabe writes in a new book that Trump refused to believe the intelligence community when it told him that North Korea had test-fired an intercontinental ballistic missile: “He thought that North Korea did not have the capability to launch such missiles. He said he knew this because Vladimir Putin had told him so.”
Other norms relate to ethics — a concept as alien to Trump as understatement or self-restraint. Previous presidents going back decades voluntarily disclosed their tax returns and either divested from their businesses or put them into a blind trust. Trump has refused to do any of this. Instead, he has profited from the presidency by, inter alia, doubling initiation fees at his Mar-a-Lago resort and frequently bringing his vast entourage to his own properties at government expense.
Then there are the norms of presidential speech and decorum. No previous president would have referred to his former mistress in public (and not in private either) as “Horseface” or to a political opponent who claims Indian ancestry as “Pocahontas.” Previous presidents also refrained from accusing their political opponents of treason or calling for them to be incarcerated. Nor would any previous president —at least not in the past hundred years — have engaged in so many openly racist utterances, from referring to African nations as “shithole countries” to praising white supremacists as “very fine people.” Likewise, no previous president, however aggrieved at the press, ever referred to them as “the enemy of the people.”
Some of the most important guardrails that Trump has shattered are the ones safeguarding the Justice Department from politicization. Trump fired the FBI director and attorney general to protect himself from investigation. Not even Richard Nixon continually vilified in public the FBI and the Justice Department as Trump has done — while publicly urging witnesses not to cooperate with law enforcement. Obstruction of justice isn’t new; doing it in plain sight is.
Trump has transgressed other vital norms by sending troops to the border on a blatantly politically deployment, citing “national security” justifications for imposing tariffs on allies such as Mexico and Canada, trashing the leaders of American allies, continually calling into question the integrity of the electoral system, and inviting foreign interference in our politics.
But arguably nothing Trump has done to date has been as alarming as his misuse of the 1976 National Emergencies Act to pander to his nativist base, which has been conditioned by his propaganda to imagine that the United States is under incessant assault by caravans of brown-skinned newcomers. This legislation was written to limit the president’s power to declare national emergencies to actual emergencies such as a natural disaster or an armed attack. But the language is vague enough that Trump is trying to use it to build a border wall that we don’t need and that Congress refuses to fund. The drafters of the 1976 law were operating under the naive assumption that future presidents would be people of goodwill who should be afforded considerable discretion to do their duty. They could never have imagined someone like Trump in the Oval Office.
Illegal immigration has declined 75 percent since 2000. The only real emergency here is the way that Trump is misusing the powers of the presidency. The solution, laid out by the nonprofit group Protect Democracy in a “Roadmap for Renewal,” is for Congress to codify many of the unwritten expectations of presidential conduct and to constrain the president’s vast discretion. But that won’t happen anytime soon because Republican members of Congress have violated an important norm of their own: They are putting their loyalty to the president and their political party above their loyalty to the country and the Constitution.