A Norm is just the guy sitting at the end of the bar

>> Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Commentary about Trump’s behavior has tended to assume that presidential norms, once broken, are hard if not impossible to restore. This can be true, but in Trump’s case isn’t. Presidents don’t embrace their predecessors’ norm entrepreneurship unless it brings political advantage, and Trump’s hasn’t. His successors are no more likely to replicate his self-destructive antics than they would be if he yelled at the first lady during a public dinner or gave a televised address from the White House Rose Garden in his bathrobe.

Another reason presidential norms will prove resilient is that Trump’s aberrant actions have been sweepingly condemned. He has been rebuked for his attacks on investigatory independence not just by his political opponents but by more-sympathetic voices in the Republican Party and on the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and even, implicitly, by his own Justice Department appointees, who have continued the Russia investigation despite his pushback. Trump’s response to the violent demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August produced a uniform outcry that will reinforce norms for future presidents about denouncing racism and racial violence. The majority of the other presidential norms that Trump has defied will similarly be strengthened by the reactions to his behavior, and will snap back in the next presidency.

The Atlantic, October, 2017.

Goldsmith's piece is worth reading in its entirety, and I think I agree with most of what he says.  But that passage bothered me and is one of the places where I don't quite agree.

I think he's right insofar as I don't expect the next president to contradict his own cabinet nearly as often, or to spend as much time on Twitter, or to be even half as dishonest, or to attempt to get loyalty oaths from Justice Department personnel, or to misbehave as much as Trump has.  But the problem isn't that the next President will act just as Trump has; the problem is that by establishing such a low bar, Trump has given future Presidents much greater latitude for misbehavior than they previously had, and that's what's hard to come back from.

When George W. Bush came into office, he didn't have to be terribly scrupulous about tiny little technicalities like truth, he simply had to not allow an intern to perform fellatio upon him and then not lie about receiving oral sex from said intern while under oath.  I don't think we can separate the Bush administration's willingness--and ability--to lie about the casus belli for the Iraq War from the fact that the Bush administration could take cover behind Bill Clinton's lapses in integrity.  And, for better or worse, the Obama administration surely received less scrutiny over targeted killings and drone strikes than they would have received had their predecessor administration not been such a shitshow of martial incompetence that the ethics of an assassination program were subordinate to plastering over the excesses and errors the Bush administration made in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In both of the last two administrations, at least some criticism could be deflected by an implicit, "Well, hey, you don't really want to go back to the previous guys, d'ya?"  (This effect declined over time and was far less true for both administrations in their second terms than in their first, I think.)

The point is, there's a consequence to lowering expectations.  It is very possible, though by no means certain, that the next President receives some level of praise and congratulation merely for not pissing on his own shoes, in much the same way one we are still afflicted with stories and editorials about how Trump might finally be becoming "presidential" if he manages to get through a meeting with a foreign leader without burning an intelligence source or gets through a speech without going off on a mad tangent about how he really won 111% of the popular vote when you factor out all the dead illegal aliens who voted eight times each or whatever the latest version is.

I want to be clear that I don't think the damage is necessarily permanent, just that it might be more permanent and subtle than Goldsmith is allowing for, and this is one of the things that's upsetting about the Trump presidency.  (Because, y'know, we were suffering from such a shortage of things to be distressed about regarding the Trump presidency, right?)  Things tend to ratchet mostly in one direction, and when they get pulled back, they often don't get pulled back to the original baseline.  The way we pull them back, of course, is to demand a higher level of accountability and to stomp our little feet and wave our tiny fists and demand that things go back to the way they ought to have been; a problem, meanwhile, being that we may have little choice in what we settle for in retracting ourselves from this mess.  Mike Pence, for example, would be a vast improvement over the current sitting President, notwithstanding the fact that Mike Pence is a man who would face such difficulties being elected President in his own right, his easiest route to the office actually is to attach himself, shamelessly and lamprey-like, to an incompetent buffoon who freakishly beats the odds and is elected to the presidency only to get impeached eighteen months into the first term.


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