The first and most conventional way that Trump is changing the way things are done in D.C. is through his very conservative Cabinet appointments. Whether it is Betsy DeVos as education secretary or Tom Price as health and human services secretary or Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Trump is “assembling what looks to be the most conservative presidential Cabinet in memory,” in the words of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the Week. He goes on to note:
Strangely, Trump has been freed to pursue such a conservative Cabinet because of his other scandals. Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio may have felt constricted by the media’s Eye of Sauron focusing intently on their Cabinet choices. But with the media devoting so much attention to stories about Russian hacking, or the anticipation of Trump’s personal financial corruption, or whatever the president-elect just tweeted, Trump has mostly gotten a pass on assembling a truly hard-right Cabinet.
Most presidents-elect offer up a Cabinet that has a patina of political inclusiveness — members of the opposition party, moderates from their own party, etc. Not Trump. Despite campaigning as a moderate, he looks set to govern as a severe conservative of the Sam Brownback variety.
This is a norm violation but not an egregious one. Trump won — he gets to pick the Cabinet members he wants provided that they are qualified. With a few exceptions — *COUGH* Ben Carson *COUGH* — the very conservative choices are not unqualified to be Cabinet heads. This is also the most straightforward political conflict, as #NeverTrump conservatives are delighted by these choices and will embrace them. Given the composition of the Senate, those who oppose Trump will lose most of these confirmation battles. My advice would be not to apply the “this is not normal” rhetoric here, but rather to focus on what has happened in the states that have tried to implement these policies.
The second set of norm violations are … let’s call them Trump’s “unpresidented” actions as president-elect: His continued use of Twitter to taunt his foreign and domestic critics. His post-campaign political rallies. His decision to lean on generals and chief executives to staff the foreign policy portions of his Cabinet. His various attacks or praise of individual corporations. Ivanka Trump becoming the de facto first lady. As my Washington Post colleague Greg Sargent noted last week:
The simple truth is that Trump’s transition process has been a logical continuation of the campaign he ran: a total disregard for the established methods and the rules governing those methods. If you back Trump, you are undoubtedly thrilled with these moves, believing that he promised radical change in a broken Washington and is delivering on it. If you oppose Trump, you see his flouting of the established order as not only risky, but also deeply dangerous.
Most of the American public either doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the norms that Trump is breaching. Indeed, since Trump promised to change the way things are done in Washington, it will be easy for his loyal acolytes and toadies to embrace these transgressions as positive change.
Every time Trump violates a diplomatic or political norm, I think about another story in which a crass, vulgar real estate mogul bulldozed his way through an uptight set of martinets:
Remember, Rodney Dangerfield is the hero in that movie. Ted Knight is the uptight, corrupt villain. A good rule for Trump’s critics to follow: avoid looking like Ted Knight in “Caddyshack.”
The natural response to Trump’s norm violations here is some variant of “these things are just not done this way!” We are in an era in which that will not work as a political attack. Critics will have to explain why these norm violations will be bad. Those criticisms may fall on deaf ears right now, because Trump isn’t president yet. Think of them as down payments on future fiascoes that the Trump administration will inevitably muck up.
The final set of violations are the ones where Trump is taking steps that run afoul of deeper norms, some of which are even enshrined in the Constitution: His refusal to properly divest from his company, which set up massive conflicts of interest in foreign policy. The possible violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution. Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn occupying positions of power in the White House. His reliance on his family as close advisers to the point where they are sitting in on meetings they should not be attending. His desire to make his staff sign nondisclosure agreements. His open war with the intelligence community. His laying the groundwork for his own private security force.
These are the areas in which Trump is not only eviscerating existing norms, but creating a new set of arrangements that seem like a breeding ground of corruption, favoritism and the further erosion of trust in the political system. These are the areas in which even Trump supporters might be a bit squeamish, and where #NeverTrumpers on the right will continue to be #NeverTrumpers. These are the norms that should be the primary focus while Trump is president-elect.
Of course, the tricky thing about these categories is that one person’s serious norm violation is another person’s “Caddyshack” tomfoolery. And, intentionally or not, Trump’s norm violations have smashed the Overton Window of political discourse. The boundaries of the politically possible have been expanded for good and ill.
The key rule of thumb for Trump’s critics — myself included — is to avoid looking like Ted Knight. And the past month has highlighted just how difficult that will be.