I’ve found a lot of the discussion about Trump’s contempt for democratic norms frustrating. These discussions can sidetracked into various objections — most notably, the point raised by the anti-anti-Trump or Trump-complacent left that of course democracy is in part about the contestation of norms. This is both true and beside the point; evidently, nobody thinks that all norms are equally central to democracy or that any violation of a longstanding norm is bad.
Anyway, one advantage to procrastinating is that sometimes an argument you’ve been pondering will be made better than you would have by a smarter person. And this happened here, as Julia Azari gets at this distinction perfectly:
This principle turns out to be especially applicable to presidential politics. Presidential power is vaguely defined in the Constitution, and the office is designed in a way that allows for very broad use of power. Presidents can make decisions about how to conduct foreign policy, fire executive branch officials who don’t do what they want, and make policy by executive order.
Because the executive branch concentrates substantial power and influence in a single person, there are plenty of opportunities for those powers to become political weapons — if they’re left unchecked. In “How Democracies Die,” Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe norms as guarding against just that, as preventing institutions from being used as “political weapons.” We have norms about when and how presidents use their “bully pulpit,” for example, as well as when they should use their power to fire executive branch officials.
In short, some norms are more cosmetic and about tradition and convention, and some norms are really about “democratic values.” We care about the latter.
How can we tell which is which? Three categories of norms about presidential behavior tap into crucial aspects of democracy: respecting the independence of other institutions, acknowledging that political conflict is part of the process, and keeping private profit separate from government operations.
Independence of other institutions — American politics depends on the independence of the three formal branches of the national government. So any action that erodes that independence is worth worrying about. Of course, autonomy across branches has been a tricky subject. Presidents obviously try to influence Congress and even sometimes congressional primaries. Members of Congress try to influence presidential elections. You might remember the Supreme Court getting involved in a presidential election. Because interbranch meddling has such a long history, norms may be a less powerful guideline than thinking about whether the president is trying to do something that will weaken the ability of other branches to challenge him.
Political conflict — Let’s see if we can thread this needle. First, the idea of legitimate opposition — that people can oppose and criticize the government without posing a threat to the nation — is a fundamental tenet of democracy. Trump’s violation of that norm has primarily taken the form of tweets about the media and about his Democratic opponents. Journalists and opposition party members have very different roles to play here, and the implications of presidential criticism is different for each. Efforts to delegitimize criticism of the president by the media are alarming (well, I might have a bit of a vested interest here), as are threats to jail opponents. Attacks on congressionalDemocrats, however nasty, may violate norms of civility but don’t necessarily threaten core democratic values.
After all, it’s the peaceful resolution of political disagreement — not the absence of dissenting views — that’s central to democracy. Corey Robin points out that sometimes norms are actually quite repressive, such as the informal rules and expectations that allowed American slavery to persist in the 19th century until the abolitionists “polarized society.” It’s the criminalizing of political dissent — either by attacking the opposition or denying its standing — that should be worrying.
Public and private — Since Trump won the 2016 election, there have been numerous examples of his family’s private business interests becoming intertwined with government operations. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway drew criticism for advertising Ivanka Trump’s clothing brand during a televised interview. The real estate dealings of the Trump Organizationacross the globe have made critics nervous. Trump’s hotels and resorts have become part of official state and government business, making it difficult to separate the president’s private business interests from the work of governing. These potential conflicts of interest have thus far attracted many questions and at least one lawsuit. This kind of behavior is constrained through a mix of formal and informal rules. Thus far, it’s proved difficult to rein in, despite widespread agreement that public officials should not profit from their positions.
Read the whole etc., but this is exactly why Trump’s authoritarian instricts and contempt for democratic norms matter. And that many of these anti-democratic assumptions are shared by other Republicans makes them more, not less, dangerous.