Either story, in any other administration, would be devastating for the president, but these reports barely registered. News organizations moved right along, focusing on Ukraine, Syria and other political matters, while Trump’s approval rating barely budged. That’s because the president has a way of making any story seem like it’s something we already knew about him. Nothing feels revelatory, or like a shock to the public consciousness.
But this is not Trump’s genius at work — it’s a function of our own cognitive biases. We measure people against what we perceive to be their baseline behavior. If, as evidenced by his history, we believe that Trump is a bad-faith actor with no moral compass (a belief that even some Republicans have expressed), malfeasance is to be expected. We react little to behaviors that in absolute terms are horrifying but that conform to the norm. We’re moved only by deviations from our expectations.
So it would be less surprising if a notorious criminal were guilty of a number of crimes than if an upstanding citizen were guilty of a misdemeanor: Each has set a standard of behavior against which their subsequent actions are measured. In Trump’s case, he stiffed contractors and drove his own business into bankruptcy six times; lenders stopped loaning him money. He has treated women horribly, with some of that behavior documented by women he’s been horrible to, including his ex-wife Ivana, who claimed in a deposition that he raped her. (Trump denies this, and she later said that she did not want her words to be taken in “a literal or criminal” sense.) Before he ever ran for president, Trump had a long history of lying on the record about his business success, his personal life, his intelligence and the time of day (according to an acquaintance). Even his persona on “The Apprentice” was cutthroat, selfish and oblivious to the needs of others. The consistent through-line: Trump views ethics as dispensable features of the middle and lower classes, who have to consider the lives of other people because they lack the power or money that enables contemptuous disregard.
In 2016, it seemed that it might behoove Trump to clean up that image as he went on the campaign trail. Yet when asked about his taxes, he admitted he didn’t pay them, which supposedly made him “smart.” And when an “Access Hollywood” video featuring him bragging about sexual assault became public, he displayed no embarrassment or remorse beyond a pro forma statement: “I apologize if anyone was offended,” he said, while in the same breath dismissing his comments as “locker room banter.” Polling showed that the tape’s revelations did not change people’s opinions of Trump: Both before and after its release, 59 percent of the public said they thought that Trump did not respect women, according to HuffPost. Today, after scandals such as the payoffs to Stormy Daniels, and after E. Jean Carroll’s essay alleging that Trump raped her, that figure has somehow fallen to 51 percent. In 2016, 44 percent of Americans said that if the allegations of sexual assault were true, they should disqualify Trump from the presidency; today, only 40 percent would consider them disqualifying.
Years into his presidency, why would anyone be jolted by additional women coming forward, or by the growing paper trail pointing to financial malfeasance? He has long since admitted to both, in public. Trump has made being openly terrible an asset, at least in terms of weathering blowback from additional misdeeds. When Politico/Morning Consult asked voters in May their opinions of Trump as a businessman, after a New York Times report that he had lost more than $1 billion in the 1980s and 1990s, they were evenly split: Forty-three percent said he’d succeeded in business, and 41 percent said he’d been unsuccessful.
The baseline effect is so strong that when Trump does minor things that you’d expect any decent human being to do, like expressing sympathy for hurricane victims and not immediately smearing an alleged sexual assault victim as a liar, the public applauds him. People see a deviation from his normal behavior and take it as a vast improvement, declaring that he seems more “presidential.” This defines “presidential” downward to about the altitude of Dante’s eighth circle of hell (which is where fraudsters go).
It also explains why scandals from people who produce fewer of them are blown out of proportion. When Hillary Clinton uses a private server for government business, she has to weather endless investigations, but when senior White House advisers Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner do it, Democrats shrug because they’re unsurprised, and Republicans attribute it to all manner of good-faith negligence (they’re naive; they mean well; how can they be expected to know these things?). Conservatives accuse Joe Biden of allowing his son to grift his way through Ukraine as a beneficiary of nepotism, while Trump installs his daughter in the White House in an official capacity and his sons gleefully utilize the presidency to enhance the Trump Organization, all while pocketing millions of dollars from his golf courses.
In my day job, we create messaging for political candidates and conduct polls. Over and over, messages about Trump’s corruption land with a thud. The reality is that voters have a hard time buying the idea that such misconduct affects them in any way at all. They might think it’s unfair, but they also overwhelmingly think everything that happens in Washington is corrupt, and that all elites in politics and business are corrupted on some level. They view Trump as a data point on a continuum of corruption, not as an outlier. (Here the baseline is defined by perceptions of elites as a class: selfish cheaters who deceive nonelites all the time to get what they want.)
That appears to be changing incrementally with the impeachment inquiry. So many of Trump’s recent misdeeds are wholly unprecedented — including soliciting help from foreign adversaries in damaging his political enemies, openly, publicly and live on television. It’s hard not to notice them. A civic education process has begun: If most Americans didn’t know that it’s illegal to solicit foreign interference in an election, because the issue hadn’t come up in their lifetimes, they’re learning that now. We’re primed as humans to register danger in terms of severity, magnitude and immediacy of threat, and Trump’s impeachable offenses affect the whole country. The potential removal of a president has profound implications for all Americans.
In this case, it’s important — for ourselves as individuals and for the sake of our democracy — to rethink our baseline expectations. Do we want a Trump presidency that is, to invoke a metaphor from the president’s favorite and most expensive hobby, par for the course? Or do we want occupants of the Oval Office to respect its gravity, and to understand that they are public servants who exist to serve the office and not the other way around? Our expectations for Trump may be reasonable in the context of his historical behavior, but we cannot conflate our baseline for Trump with our baseline for the American presidency. They are not the same.