Denigrating the norms of our political system

This past week President Trump continued to ignore the norms of how a functioning democratic government works by finding ways to make changes without seeking approval from congress.

His latest maneuver was to pull his nomination of Anthony Tata from the GOP-controlled Senate, when it became obvious that they were not going to appoint him as the new undersecretary of defense for policy. Instead Trump circumvented Congress by appointing him as “the official performing those duties.”

Many of Trump’s appointees, reflect his own behavior of acting outside the norms of how public officials respect each other regardless of their political differences. They are treated as enemies of the public.

Conservative columnist David Brooks describes this trend as moving our political norms from emphasizing our common humanity to politics that emphasizes having a common enemy. He points to Trump as the lead offender saying, “Donald Trump has smashed through the behavior standards that once governed public life.”

Tata called former president Barack Obama a ‘terrorist leader,’ and suggested that former CIA director John Brennan should prepare for execution or suck ‘on a pistol.’ He was simply following Trump’s approach, when the President in an interview with the conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, claimed that Obama was “the founder of ISIS” the terrorist organization that we have been fighting and he thought the same of Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s disdain for adhering to the norms of decency, goes beyond demonizing other politicians. To paraphrase Emily Bazelon of NYT Magazine, norms are imprecise, and ambient. “They lay out what ought to be, according to unwritten social expectations” of what is expected under the law. Normally those in powerful positions do not use their power to attack individual citizens for a perceived insult. That is not true of Trump’s behavior. Bazelon provided this example:

An eighteen-year-old college student, Lauren Batchelder at a New Hampshire forum in Oct 2015, asked him if he as a “friend of women” while asking about equal pay and female autonomy. Trump twitted the next day that Batchelder was “arrogant” and her manner was “nasty”, resulting in violent threats to her from his supporters.

Republican Senators have felt uncomfortable publicly confirming some of Trump’s appointees. As a result, Trump has ignored the Senate process of review and comment, by appointing many “Acting” officials to key positions in government. In 3 years of his presidency, Trump has had his acting officials serve more than three times the amount of time as Obama’s “acting” appointees did in his eight years in office.

Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, says Trump’s practice of appointing acting executive positions is an end-around of the Senate, which under the U.S. Constitution has a role to advise and consent to the president’s appointments to provide for a public review and vetting.

Although a number of Republicans in congress have expressed their displeasure with Trump’s demeaning tweets, and his ignoring their traditional powers, they have not acted in any coordinated fashion. As Trump has extended his executive powers, they have remained largely silent since his policies, like his large corporate tax cut, have served the nation’s economic elites, which have mostly supported Republican candidates.

This may sound like a throw-away line, but a study released by the Cambridge University Press in 2014, showed that a Multivariate analysis measuring 1,779 policy issues indicated that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

The Republican Party’s silence is shortsighted. They do not comprehend how denigrating the norms of a society’s political system will undermine its longevity. It can happen even to the greatest and strongest of republics. The Roman republic lasted well over 400 years before it was transformed into a dictatorship in all but name. You can see how it happened through incremental adjustments, like those we are seeing now.

Although the Rome was not a democracy, it was a republic in which its oligarchy and its common citizens abided to a single set of political norms. Rome’s republic did not collapse overnight. As economic wealth concentrated in its oligarchy, which controlled the senate, any leader in the role of a consul or tribune, who sought to distribute some of Rome’s increasingly concentrated wealth to other citizens, felt it was necessary to bend or ignore the rules to get around the senate’s obstruction. They were not only stopped but killed, including the last one — Julius Caesar.

One example of how dysfunctional their government became is when Caesar was elected as proconsul along with Lucius Balbus. Two pro-consuls ruled the government for one-year terms functioning through the Senate’s authority. Caesar introduced a land reform bill that compensated Roman soldiers who had served. It provided them some public lands and allowed them to purchase small private estates at market rate.

He followed the custom of referring the bill to the Senate for comment, where he was accused of misusing his office by introducing such radical legislation. In return Caesar submitted it directly to the more public Assembly, which the oligarchs generally headed as the tribunes. They too rejected it.

Next, troops aligned with Caesar entered the Senate and physically intimidated them. The bill passed but the co-proconsul Balbus exercised an ancient rite that either proconsul could stop all official actions until he saw a sign from the heavens that approved moving forward. He announced in advance that he did not intend to see such a sign. Furthermore, he would not give the required consent of the co-proconsul to summon the senate.

Both proconsuls were stretching and ultimately ignoring the norms for governing an institution that had depended on those norms for hundreds of years. Their actions were a continuation of even greater violations of the norms that the immediate prior Roman leaders had undertaken. And, those violations continued until the republic was no longer a republic.

An insight that Jack Goldsmith, Harvard law professor who served in George W. Bush’s Justice Dept, wrote on the blog Lawfare captures the danger posed when that pattern unfolds in any society. He warned that a “downward spiral of tit-for-tat norm violations” undermines institutional legitimacy in general.

In other words, if the leaders ignore or continue to distort the norms of acceptable political activity, eventually those that exercise the most brute force will assume power, but the institution as a democracy or republic will be unrecognizable.

President Trump is not the first president to challenge our political norms. Most recently President Barak Obama, faced a congress controlled by those who wanted him to fail, as Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel was reported to have told his caucus. Consequentially he exercised his executive authority to by-pass congress to enact climate regulation, health care reforms and provisional legal status to about half the immigrant population who had not registered to enter the country.

Still the number of Trump’s executive orders has set a new record, averaging more on a per year basis, than Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush or Barak Obama, whom he has surpassed by over 30 percent. Trump’s behavior has disturbed traditional conservatives, like columnist Ross Douthat who believes that “Trump’s most serious power grab to date: the effort to use a “national emergency” declaration to build the border fencing that Democrats and his own political impotence have denied him.”

Most recently, Trump has suggested that he might accept the Republican Party’s nomination as its presidential candidate on the White House grounds. While prior presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan did announce their candidacy from the White House, those announcements were not political party events.

Allowing a political party to hold its private gathering to announce their candidate for president, violates the decorum of respecting the nation’s most revered public property by having it be treated as a free rental for a political gathering.

Senate Republican Whip John Thune (S.D.) questioned the legality of Trump accepting his party’s nomination for a second term on White House grounds, given that the Hatch Act prohibits partisan political activity by a federal employee in a government building occupied in the discharge of official duties — that would be the White House.

Our republic is in need of a leader who understands how a democracy works. It is not just by writing laws, but also by exhibiting adherence to our traditional norm of respecting the opposition and not pursuing personal political gains as Trump did in the Ukraine. Otherwise, we are headed down a path that concentrates ever more political power in the office of the president, who then can distribute public resources to whom they select, with ever fewer constraints.

Nick Licata is author of Becoming A Citizen Activist, and has served 5 terms on the Seattle City Council, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials.

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