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How the Trump administration weaponizes norms

Some thoughts about norms, values and power

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on May 13. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)
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A president of the United States stands accused of violating some political norms. I speak, of course, of Barack Obama.

This month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Obama had crossed a line when he criticized the Trump administration’s response to the novel coronavirus in a phone call with former staffers. According to CNN’s Donald Judd and Paul LeBlanc, during a Trump campaign live-stream event McConnell said, “I think it’s a little bit classless, frankly, to critique an administration that comes after you. You had your shot. You were there for eight years. I think the tradition that the Bushes set up — of not critiquing the president who comes after you — is a good tradition.”

Obama’s shattering of political norms has not stopped there. NBC News’s Carol E. Lee reports that the 44th president has also decided not to go to the White House for the unveiling of his official portrait as long as President Trump occupies the White House.

Trump also weighed in Tuesday on his predecessor’s norm-busting:

Elected GOP officials have been so focused on the 44th president’s alleged norm violations that they have neglected to comment on the 45th president’s reckless disregard for anything resembling a norm.

Trump violating norms is nothing new — Trump has been violating norms ever since his entrance on the political scene. In the past week alone, however, he has stepped it up a notch. Trump has threatened states with economic sanctions for sending out absentee ballot applications, claimed that Democrats are rigging the November election against him, fired inspectors general without cause, installed replacements with absurd conflicts of interest, and falsely accused MSNBC host Joe Scarborough of murder without a scintilla of evidence.

I may be just a small-town political scientist, but I reckon that Trump’s norm violations Tuesday were far more egregious than anything Obama did over the past month. Or year. Why have Republicans been so focused on the 44th president rather than the 45th?

This is not a mystery. Elected GOP officials decided that they will rise and fall with Trump, and so they are weaponizing norms as quickly as they can. Republicans want norms to bind the behavior of powerful Democrats. If Trump violates a norm, however, that just shows his disruptive leadership, either blowing up antiquated modes of behavior or rejecting the constrictions of political correctness.

Over at Mischiefs of Faction, Julia Azari noted that the Trump administration’s relationship with norms:

Alongside faithful service to long-standing hierarchies, Trump’s political project has been nourished by a politics of transgression.... 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.

This would seem to leave Trump’s opponents in a double bind. If they violate norms, they get called out on it. If Trump does it, that just demonstrates his power.

Azari’s way forward is for Trump’s opponents to focus less on norms and more on political values: “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. … Norms are useful, but rarely intrinsically valuable. The core values underlying them are what matter.”

This sounds right to me. Obama’s oblique criticisms of his successor and Trump’s wanton disregard for the truth might both be norm violations but they are not equal in kind. Values matter more.

But it is also worth emphasizing the danger that comes from the continued erosion of norms. As Azari well knows, and as Trump’s presidency has taught us, norms had heretofore functioned as important constraints on executive power. A key lesson of observing the Toddler in Chief for the past three-plus years is that without those norms, the president has too much power compared to every other actor in Washington. Either some of these norms need to be codified into laws, or future presidents need to resurrect these informal institutions. Otherwise the federal government will begin to resemble an elected monarchy.