Every country’s politics function within the bounds of both written rules and a set of unwritten norms. Most often, the difference between democracy and authoritarianism, or between national greatness and a failed state, lies not with the quality of its written constitution, but with the quality of its political culture.
Among the catastrophes America has suffered under Trump is the systematic dismantling of a political culture built up over two centuries. A political culture doesn’t determine the legal rights and prerogatives enjoyed by public officials, but it sets normative limits on how those rights and prerogatives should be exercised, and expectations for behavior within the scope of their official functions. For example, our political culture developed norms to distinguish between the behavior of a president acting as Head of State, where he/she is entitled to our patriotic support as the representative of all Americans, and the behavior required by a head of government, functioning in the hurly-burly of day-to-day politics. Our political culture establishes norms such as the non-interference by the President in criminal investigations by the Department of Justice, notwithstanding that the department ultimately falls under his/her authority. It includes acknowledgement of the fundamental importance of an independent and unfettered press, no matter how annoying or even irresponsible an individual practitioner. It includes all sorts of standards arising out of separation of powers, including special respect for the independence of the judiciary. It establishes institutional government, where the authority of the President is exercised within the context of a vast executive branch in which policies are vetted and analyzed, most decisions are taken below the level of the Oval Office, and distilled high-quality advice is provided to the chief executive. It sets standards for behavior, including at least the veneer of respect, when politicians deal with each other in their official capacities. It includes the principle that “politics stop at the border” and many others.
It’s not news that Trump frequently violates virtually all of these norms, and indeed, harbors an instinctive hostility to any political culture that constrains his egocentric, impulsive, ill-informed, “I alone,” no-advice decision making style, or that requires him to recognize limits on executive power, distinguish between government and politics, or make policy based on anything other than the personal (Chairman Kim and I “like each other”) or transactional (everything, and that means everything, is a “deal”). What is news, I think, is that American government stripped of the political culture that made it the envy of the world, is the new normal. Its violation – or more precisely, its absence – no longer gets a mention by the mainstream press, or by ordinary Americans reviewing the day’s events around the water cooler.
Today the President, in his capacity as Head of State, is on a state visit to the United Kingdom, where he will meet the Queen as an equal. In a single pre-arrival tweet, he violated not only the norms of American political culture, but the norms of international diplomacy and universal standards of personal behavior, by calling the Muslim mayor of his host city a “stone cold loser,” adding “Kahn reminds me very much of our very dumb and incompetent Mayor of NYC, de Blasio, who has also done a terrible job” and then, descending to the inevitable school-yard taunt, added that Kahn is “only half his [de Blasio’s] height.”
But that’s not the terrifying thing. I listened to the reports on several of the major network radio news shows this morning, the sort of thing millions of Americans are listening to while driving to work. Trump’s words were reported as matter-of-factly as if he had tweeted something about his administration’s policy approach to the coming trade negotiations. There was not a word of surprise or context. Not even an inflection signaling that something out of the ordinary had occurred. And why? It hadn’t. It’s the new normal. (Here’s a thought experiment: picture Walter Cronkite telling the nation of JFK’s assassination and the moon landing. Now try to picture how he would have reported this morning’s tweet.)
Following this incident, the Queen should have refused to meet with Trump. We know she finds him abhorrent. The Prime Minister should publicly demand an apology for the gratuitous insult to London’s mayor. Congress, including Congressional Republicans, should censure the President for his conduct while representing America abroad as Head of State. John McCain spoke up following Trump’s appalling summit with Putin, calling it "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory." Does no GOP Senator wish to claim McCain’s mantle? Is the self-proclaimed party of patriotism and values really bereft of a single person willing to stand up for America and decency?
250,000 Britons, about the same number as took to the streets during his previous visit, are expected to demonstrate against Trump. On one hand, this is welcome and inspiring news. On the other, it is mortifying. Since the Women’s March, no group of Americans that large has assembled to protest Trump.