Boston University

The Suffocation of Presidential Norms by Jarred Barlow @ Boston University

After Donald Trump’s latest Twitter-staged boxing match, this time with Republican Senator Bob Corker, it seems as though one more mound of soil has been dropped on the grave of presidential maturity.

It is no secret that Donald Trump has become increasingly divergent from the conventions of political norms. He is the first modern president who has refused to release tax returns. He has questionable corporate affiliations; instead of relinquishing his company fully, he transferred it to his son via a revocable trust. He runs rampant on Twitter by dumping random remarks on policy, people, and news in an immature manner that is reminiscent of a child on a playground. He belittles his opponents based on height and other physical characteristics. Petty arguments pile atop one another as many officials, both Democrat and Republican, grow tired of the unprofessionalism displayed by the White House.

His behavior, truly, is the opposite of presidential expectation.

This suffocation of presidential norms poses a dire threat to democracy. Norms are the unwritten rules, behavioral expectations, and constraints of politicians. They hold great importance in American politics—especially with respect to executive office. The Constitution itself has but one, solitary section (Article II, Section II) which lays out executive powers, and these powers are vague at best. Specifics of presidential power do not exist in the Constitution. Therefore, norms are a primary factor when it comes to preventing the misuse of power. Norms are what expect the president to respect to press, condemn violence, not appoint family members to White House positions, respect one’s campaign opponent, and more. All of these norms facilitate a healthy democracy—and all have been broken by Trump (at least once) during his presidency so far.

For democracy, the consistent violation of norms has a few major implications.

Firstly, Trump’s violation of norms (and those by other Members of Congress over time) have widened the partisan divide in Congress. The erosion of norms has resulted in the erosion of respect between members of opposite parties. Due to this internal breakdown of respect on top of severe party devotion, Members of Congress are incentivized to make decisions based on partisan bias. A gridlocked Congress, unable to pass legislation (and balance out executive power), is increasingly more likely. In short, norm violation is slowly tearing down our nation’s institutional authoritarian defense system.

Secondly, the president’s abandonment of norms jeopardizes the legitimacy of the American system. This is where Trump’s feud with Senator Bob Corker comes into the mix—a perfect example of the president’s childish social media tantrums. Trump, via Twitter, endorses and accuses candidates and spews a hateful rhetoric. He has become an enemy of rational discussion. As Corker himself put it in an interview with The New York Times, Trump has “…in several instances… hurt us as it relates to negotiations that were underway by tweeting things out.” This abnormal behavior of bullying candidates casually through the transparent medium of the internet reveals Trump’s pugnacious, spontaneous, and dangerous character. Remarkably, this is just part of his appeal for many of his supporters. According to the latest Gallup poll results, however, this approval is not held by the majority of the population. A historical lack of approval is evidence that Trump’s actions and breakage of norms do not resonate with the voice of the majority, as he claims. Instead, they indicate that the public’s faith in government is failing, trust in the White House is suffering, and thus, American democracy’s legitimacy is being questioned as a whole.

A government’s legitimacy hinges on trust, respect, and norms. To preserve ideal legitimacy, the public should believe that their system of government is the most efficient it could possibly be. This is a bit unrealistic, but, the populace must at least be contempt enough that they see the government’s monopolization of power over the state as justified. As Juan J. Linz makes clear in his book The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, “…a legitimate government is one considered to be the least evil of the forms of government. (Linz, p18),” and when there is a government official—no—a chief executive who readily breaks behavioral norms, much to the public’s dismay, trust is lost. Government institutions and the checks and balances system are strangled. Trump commands the public with his Twitter to believe that every institution of the free world besides himself is fake—the Democratic party, the press, anybody who opposes him, and the list may go on. This populist rhetoric derides the core values of democracy and rallies the public’s mistrust in either Trump, everything that doesn’t support Trump, and/or the American system as a whole.These are symptoms of an imperiled democracy, disease-ridden by frustration and public mistrust in a divided government intended to unify us.

Trump’s destruction of norms, disrespectful attitude, and ignorance of presidential behavior flies a blood-red flag above the White House.

1 Comment

  1. Rohan Joshi

    October 12, 2017 at 3:49 pm

    This was a great read! I totally agree with your conclusion that Trump’s unpresidential nature is evidence of democratic erosion, and if not that, at the very least telling of a threat to American democracy. I find it interesting that Trump’s supporters find his nature positive: in that his ignorance of presidentialism is telling of his ability to kick back and work against establishment politicians. Are his supporters stubborn or blind to the reality of the situation? I doubt we’ll ever get a real answer.

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