The word is everywhere, often preceded by “democratic” or “constitutional.” In the Dec. 22 issue of The New York Review of Books, Mark Danner said, “Donald Trump has been the shatterer of norms.” After the election, my Bloomberg View colleague Francis Wilkinson lamented “the erosion of democratic norms.” Their deterioration also alarms law professors and pollsters. Even some conservatives have been distressed at the way Trump flouts norms.
The term refers to unwritten rules saying that politicians in a democratic system should seek to win yet still engage in fair play. These guideposts tell political victors to practice self-restraint.
Norms aren’t enforceable by law, yet they’re spoken of in almost sacred tones because they are seen as buttressing American governance.
Trump has thumbed his nose at all that, and has signaled he will continue to do so as president. Before the election, he came to political prominence by questioning President Barack Obama’s citizenship, fanning a conspiracy even after Hawaiian authorities authenticated Obama’s birth certificate.
In his campaign, Trump also questioned whether a judge’s ethnicity allowed him to be fair in the courtroom, an aspersion that House Speaker Paul Ryan said was “like the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Trump refused to release his tax returns even though every nominee since 1976 has done so. And on and on.
After winning, the president-elect ignored decades of past practice in interactions with foreign leaders. He spread unsubstantiated rumors via Twitter. He sided with Russia over U.S. intelligence agencies on Russia’s interference in the election. He refuses to place his assets in a blind trust, as the last five presidents have done.
Sean Wilentz, a Princeton history professor who was a fervent supporter of Hillary Clinton, summed it up this way in an e-mail: “We have just elevated to the presidency a man whose apparent indifference to constitutional norms is outweighed only by what appear to be his authoritarian instincts.”
To Trump’s supporters, that sounds like sour grapes. Much of his appeal, after all, was his norm-bashing. His voters loved that he took on the very elites — academics, think tankers, columnists — who decide what our norms are. To which Wilentz objects: “There seems to be no check on the new president, internationally or domestically, in politics or in the press, and that makes the situation all the more ominous.”
Trump may be the biggest transgressor, but he is not unique. When tea party Republicans refused to lift the debt ceiling in 2011, for example, they caused the U.S.’s credit rating to decline, for partisan purposes. Senate Republicans likewise ignored norms this year by refusing to give Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing, thereby saving (some call it stealing) the vacant slot for Trump.
Democrats disregard constitutional norms when they refuse to accept Trump as the duly elected president just because he lost by almost 3 million popular votes. In 2004, John Kerry sought to undermine the legitimacy of George W. Bush’s win by blaming rigged voting machines in Ohio for his own loss.
You can find norm-breaking at many points in American history. The internment of Japanese-Americans in World War II violated constitutional norms. Until Franklin Roosevelt, every president honored the unwritten rule that two terms were enough. After FDR won his fourth term, Congress and the states turned the norm into the 22nd Amendment. Richard Nixon’s enemies list violated the unofficial rule that says presidents don’t use the government’s vast powers to punish political rivals.
One party’s trashing of norms often leads to a ratcheting up by the other side. One example is the Senate filibuster. It began as a way to protect minority views: As long as a senator spoke while on the floor, no vote could be taken unless a super-majority of colleagues voted to shut the speaker down. Now the filibuster requires only 60 votes to shut off debate, down from 67, and senators don’t actually have to deliver marathon speeches anymore. But doing almost anything in the Senate now requires 60 votes because of the ease of the virtual filibuster.
In 2013, when Democrats were last in control, they fiddled even more with the rules so that Obama’s nominees (not including Supreme Court picks) only required 51 votes. That decision may come back to haunt them in January, when Republicans will control the Senate and the White House and can get Trump’s nominees through without a single Democratic vote.
What can be done to prevent further erosion, or at least to restore norms to pre-Trump status? One option for the media is not to normalize Trump’s behavior by treating his antics as “Trump being Trump.” Civil servants can refuse to carry out orders that violate norms and complain publicly when they are pressured to do so.
Congressional Republicans, however, are the only real check on Trump. It falls to them to scrutinize his appointments and actions. It means vigorously exercising their legal duty to conduct oversight. They must intervene if the president is accused of violating the Constitution’s ban on accepting payment from a foreign government. (That would apply to the commander in chief’s company as well.)
At the very least, Congress could tighten disclosure rules by requiring future presidential nominees to release their tax returns. While they’re at it, lawmakers could close the loophole in conflict-of-interest laws by applying them to the president.
No, lawmakers generally don’t act against someone in their own party unless they think voters might penalize them. So it’s up to Republican voters to hold lawmakers accountable when Trump steps on norms. Even if they don’t care about those unwritten rules of American democracy when Republicans are in charge, they should consider this: When a Democrat takes the White House again (and eventually one will), he or she will have little incentive to obey norms — or what’s left of them.
People on both sides can always charge their opponents with hypocrisy in the hue and cry over the erosion of norms. But at some point everyone will look up and realize that something important has been lost. What do we do then?