The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The common link in the torrent of Trump news: His disdain for rules

President Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a news conference to announce her as his Supreme Court nominee on Sept. 26 at the White House.
President Trump walks with Judge Amy Coney Barrett to a news conference to announce her as his Supreme Court nominee on Sept. 26 at the White House. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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Seldom in recent history have Americans coped with a torrent of events like the one that has just rushed over us.

Can it really be only 9 days since the White House ceremonies at which President Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court? Or eight days since the New York Times published details from Trump’s long-undisclosed tax returns?

The tumultuous debate between Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden happened two days after the Times article appeared, but it already feels like a lifetime ago. Then the president’s hospitalization with covid-19 seized the headlines — for the time being.

And yet there is a unifying theme to these chaotic happenings: Trump’s belief that rules, both written and unwritten, do not necessarily apply to him.

Start with that Times article about Trump’s taxes, which never would have been such a big story, at least not in 2020, if Trump had agreed to release his returns in 2016, as per an unwritten rule that other presidential candidates have obeyed for roughly 40 years.

The picture that emerged from the Times report was of a businessman who made highly aggressive, if arguably lawful, use of loopholes to avoid almost all tax in recent years, but who also made much more questionable claims: a deduction for large consulting fees paid to his daughter Ivanka, and a refund for all $72.9 million in federal income tax he had paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest.

Two nights after the tax story ran, Trump debated Biden, before a studio audience that included his family and aides who refused to wear face coverings, contrary to public health rules set by the Cleveland Clinic, a debate co-sponsor.

During the debate, Trump repeatedly and aggressively interrupted Biden, violating rules for the debate that he and his campaign had accepted in advance, not to mention the violation of basic decorum he committed by taking a shot at Biden’s son Hunter’s former drug addiction. Or his violation of a democratic norm by refusing to unequivocally urge his supporters to remain calm in the event of an extended count of votes after Nov. 3.

Finally, Trump tested positive for the coronavirus, as did several of his aides and Republican senators, possibly due to exposure during the Sept. 26 White House gatherings to announce Barrett’s nomination.

The day included both a seated Rose Garden event and indoor receptions for dozens of VIPs, during which the president and most of his guests did not cover their faces and did not observe social distancing, consistent with Trump’s resistance to mask-wearing and other rules that public health officials, including those of the president’s own administration, have asked Americans to follow during the pandemic.

For months, ordinary people have refrained from embracing their loved ones, out of respect for these rules, but there was plenty of hand-shaking and hugging at the White House celebration for Barrett.

Now that Trump has paid a price, by becoming ill, the Biden campaign has wisely resisted any temptation to cry “I told you so.”

Instead, Biden has suspended negative advertising and publicly wished the president well, in conformity with this basic rule of etiquette: Always express concern for the sick, even when it’s someone you oppose or, indeed, despise.

The contrast is clear, and it underscores Biden’s strongest selling point as a candidate: that, whatever else you can say about him, he is at least a normal, decent human being who would restore a sense of basic propriety to the highest office in the land.

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His lead in the polls seems to confirm that voters are eager to install someone with a more settled personality in the Oval Office.

Never underestimate, though, the degree to which Trump’s supporters like him because of his rule-breaking — not despite it. That, in turn, reflects widespread sentiment that the U.S. political and economic systems are “rigged” against people like them, and in favor of urban elites. Through Trump, they fight back.

This was the well of grievance that the president tapped to eke out a win in 2016, and which he is attempting to exploit again, running as an outsider who will arrest the country’s deterioration, not as an incumbent responsible for it.

It may be much harder for Trump to pull this off in 2020, now that the risks of his rule-breaking, even to himself and his own friends and family, are apparent for all to see.

Biden would be well advised to continue modeling a decent respect for sensible rules, which, when you think about it, is the essential condition for a stable democracy.

Read more from Charles Lane’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Eugene Robinson: Let’s hope Trump recovers — and that the GOP gets what it deserves

Michael Gerson: Trump’s character flaws have damaged the country. They will determine his political fate.

Henry Olsen: Trump has no one to blame but himself

Jennifer Rubin: Trump’s debate conduct and virus fiasco inflict more damage

Paul Waldman: Trump thought he could beat the virus with spin. That’s why he’s now infected.