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Oblivious to norms, Trump has fundamentally weakened the presidency and the United States

The first two weeks of 2021 feel like they have been fifty-two.

In those opening days, the world bore witness to an attack on the seat of American democracy — an attack without parallel, in times of peace or conflict, since the War of 1812.

A crazed mob of citizens was instigated, cajoled and sanctioned by the president. They stormed the U.S. Capitol, threatening harm to lawmakers and demanding a stop to that sacred rite of America’s democracy: a peaceful transition of power.

Then this week, we bore witness to another first: an American president being impeached for a second time; a moment weighty with significance and symbolism if nothing else. No Mount Rushmore for you, Donald.

In three days, another first. President-elect Biden will be sworn in without crowds, without fanfare and most notably, without his predecessor. And while few expected better of the spoiled brat who currently occupies 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it will nonetheless do irreparable harm to the harmony and vitality of American democracy.

In just three weeks, we have learned so much about America and her contradictions. We have observed the resilience of her democratic institutions even as we’ve witnessed the inadequacy of their defences. We’ve enjoyed rare glimpses of co-operation in the wake of the insurrection, only to see a return to the partisan back-and-forth of impeachment. And perhaps most striking of all, we saw the state of Georgia elect its first ever Black and Jewish senators — a result certified on the same day that Confederate flags stained the halls of the very Capitol building where those two senators will work. “Two Americas” indeed.

Amidst all the intensity of the high drama and nonsense, it is easy to see things in isolation. But that is, I think, a mistake. It is more important to understand how these things are connected and what got us to this place.

Over four years, Donald Trump, his sycophants and enablers have eroded the norms by which American democracy remains civil, productive and peaceful.

At their most basic, norms are like table manners; the WD-40 of interactions. Norms are unspoken traditions that facilitate the processes of healthy civil society. They tell us how we can expect others to behave toward us and how we are expected to behave toward them.

In North America, we introduce ourselves to new neighbours to reinforce the notion that our neighbourhood is a safe community where we can depend on one another. We hold doors for strangers as a way to peacefully and considerately share public space.

In politics and in government, norms become something more: a means to reinforce productive and democratic behaviour without impeding the authority of leaders. In the United States particularly, they are also a crucial way to insulate the integrity and long-term legitimacy of the presidency from partisanship. Even before he debased the presidential debate stage and undermined the 2020 election, Trump has wilfully attacked these standards.

To be more precise, Trump turned that all upside down.

The Washington Post has identified at least 20 significant norms that Trump has contravened, from hiding his tax returns to abusing his pardon power.

At their most basic, norms are like table manners; the WD-40 of interactions. Norms are unspoken traditions that facilitate the processes of healthy civil society. They tell us how we can expect others to behave toward us and how we are expected to behave toward them.

In North America, we introduce ourselves to new neighbours to reinforce the notion that our neighbourhood is a safe community where we can depend on one another. We hold doors for strangers as a way to peacefully and considerately share public space.

In politics and in government, norms become something more: a means to reinforce productive and democratic behaviour without impeding the authority of leaders. In the United States particularly, they are also a crucial way to insulate the integrity and long-term legitimacy of the presidency from partisanship. Even before he debased the presidential debate stage and undermined the 2020 election, Trump has wilfully attacked these standards.

To be more precise, Trump turned that all upside down.

The Washington Post has identified at least 20 significant norms that Trump has contravened, from hiding his tax returns to abusing his pardon power.

By criticizing the judiciary, contradicting American intelligence services and using the White House and other symbols of the presidency as campaign props, Trump has asserted his own importance over that of the office he holds. It’s no wonder his followers believe his continued status as “Mr. President” is more important than the democratic legitimacy of the office itself.

Understanding Joe Biden’s reverence for democratic traditions, I expect his term will be a master-class in attempting to revive the norms that Trump has debased. But norms are a fragile thing, and whoever follows Biden may not be so inclined to protect the presidency. Sadly, much like the “impervious” defences on Capitol Hill, the whole institution may prove to be far more fragile than it appears.

Accountability is crucial, but public shamings only make things worse

As the pandemic explodes into the new year, the roller-coaster of emotions we all are experiencing continues.

We have been afraid as we confronted an unknown virus, and we continue to be afraid. We have felt guilty as we wondered what more we could do to help friends, colleagues or neighbours get through these difficult times, and we continue to feel guilty. We have clung to hope that a vaccine will be our answer, and we cling to that hope still.

But these past weeks have been dominated by a singular and all-too-familiar emotional dynamic: Shame.

Long before we began our ongoing witch-hunt against any politician or public figure who has stepped foot outside the country during the pandemic, there were previous instances of public shaming over the course of COVID-19.

Recall the Toronto Sun cover (T.O.’s COVIDIOTS) shaming the summertime gathering of youths in Trinity Bellwoods. Or the case of a doctor in Nova Scotia who travelled over the border to Quebec to retrieve his daughter, and faced horrifically racist recriminations when he returned and inadvertently infected a patient.

Never mind the fact that the day in the park caused no discernable spike in cases, or the fact that the doctor was told by authorities to return to work in the first place — the public shaming came just the same.

The longer that all this wears on, the more tempting it becomes to resort to this crude form of social pressure. We are in a strict lockdown but the number of cases continues to rise. Therefore, many have concluded, people must be breaking the rules — and rulebreakers deserve to be named and shamed.

What’s more, we have new tools for that shaming. Where once we shamed people in the public square, in newspapers or on television, we now take to social media, where the cycle of recriminations has been turbocharged.

So we must ask ourselves: in a pandemic, is shame a useful form of public pressure? Some observers say yes — merely the possibility of a public shaming is enough to dissuade undesirable behaviour.

But if we are truly to allow ourselves to be guided by the science, and if the academic research is to be believed, the answer is a sturdy no. In study after study of pandemics or epidemics past — from obesity to fetal alcohol syndrome — researchers have found shaming tactics or techniques result in health outcomes that are WORSE.

As a gay man who survived the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s, I am well-versed in these arguments and rationales. How long did it take us to learn that to stigmatize those with HIV only dissuades potential cases from getting tested and, if positive, from making responsible choices about their status? Shame serves to drive the virus further underground, and that makes it harder to monitor and treat.

But shaming carriers of contagious disease has a long history (going all the way back to Typhoid Mary), and the impulses behind it are not so easy to wrestle down with logic. It’s simple enough now to explain why shaming HIV-positive people is counterproductive, but with COVID-19, the epidemiology of the virus has been in a constant state of flux. The rules and recommendations protecting us against it are vague and necessarily iterative.

The bottom line is that it is easier to shame individuals for perceived lapses or shortcomings than it is to really grapple with this uncertainty, or to rise above it. We resort to shame because it is easier to point the finger than to offer a solution or extend a hand.

Ten months of trying to harass individual people into compliance has clearly failed. By now, we must understand that infection is not a moral failure, and that all individuals will make their own risk calculations under the guidelines and regulations set forward by governments.

Disagreements abound, but there is a better way. Expert epidemiologists say that condemnations should be reserved for broad categories of behaviour — mass indoor gatherings, say, or mid-winter tropical vacations, and not individuals who may transgress. In short, as we look ahead to the end of this wretched pandemic, we need to learn to hate the sin, and not the sinner.

We may yet be thankful for ‘Premier Scrooge’

Last week, Ontario’s Financial Accountability Officer came out with another report, this one finding $12 billion in COVID funds apparently unspent by the province. This latest report, which looked at the second quarter, follows on a previous first-quarter FAO report that found the province had $6.7 billion in unspent pandemic funds.

Both reports predictably spawned days, even weeks of breathless sound bites on radio and television, tut tut editorials in newspapers and smart-ass quips on social media.

“MPPs should be staying at the legislature and working to use the $12 billion in COVID funding Doug Ford has been withholding from the people of Ontario,” tweeted Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath, before Queen’s Park rose for the holiday break.

Bereft of an imagination and resorting to the most tiresome cliché, the Liberals shared a graphic that labelled Doug Ford “Premier Scrooge.” Steven del Duca, their leader, charged that the premier had “hoarded $12 billion in funding that should have been used to save lives,” and asked, “How can Doug Ford justify this callous budgeting to families who’ve lost a parent or grandparent to COVID-19?”

The problem with this criticism of the Ford government’s pandemic response spending is that it is both short-sighted and fiscally reckless. Would Horwath and Del Duca prefer the government to have spent the entire envelope in the first leg of what everyone knows will be a marathon journey?

Surely no Ontario family that spent all of their reserve funds within the first or second quarter of the pandemic would be applauding themselves for responsible financial management. And they certainly wouldn’t be applauding a government that did the same.

Far from sitting atop these funds like Smaug, as the Opposition would have you believe, the Ford government has already allocated 80 per cent of the funds in question through its budget. While these allocations might shift, as the pandemic elevates new priorities and presents new challenges, at least the province has delivered a budget. That’s more than can be said for the federal Liberals, who (like many other provincial governments) have relied on vague economic updates to outline their spending plans.

This partisan criticism of Ontario’s spending does us no favours. What we really need now, as a province and as a country, is an honest year-end conversation about the fiscal impact of COVID-19.

In that regard, FAO Peter Weltman is deserving of praise — his reports are insightful precisely because of their narrow focus. His conduct stands in stark contrast to the auditor general, whose mission creep and general inability to stay in her lane has been well-covered in the pages of this newspaper.

All public servants whose job it is to account for the expenditure of public funds will, appropriately, be under scrutiny in the time ahead. Statistically speaking, some degree of fraud, mismanagement, abuse or cronyism is inevitable. After all, in an astonishingly short window of time, COVID has resulted in the biggest outlays of government spending in memory. The province has spent (or plans to spend) some $45 billion on COVID-related issues, while the feds have spent more than $322 billion in related relief.

But even as Ford is condemned for underspending, the federal government is finding that as they go, they may have overspent or underprojected. Already the $322 billion sum is more than double the figure projected at the outset of the pandemic in March.

And just this week, the federal Parliamentary Budget Officer found that some of Ottawa’s signature COVID relief programs, such as the emergency wage subsidy, will turn out to be vastly more expensive than anticipated. In the fall economic update, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland predicted the subsidy would cost some $16.2 billion. The PBO has revised that number upwards to $85.5 billion.

This most recent episode helpfully illustrates the sensibility of the Ford government’s approach. After all, we do not yet know how dire things may become this winter. If a further lockdown is ultimately warranted, or the current regional lockdown is extended interminably, there may come a time when another round of emergency relief will be needed. And if that day comes, I bet we’ll be glad for Premier Scrooge and his long view of Ontario’s finances.

Vaccine arrival is a jab in the arm for political leaders

On Tuesday, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first patient outside of clinical trials to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, a few short days after the U.K. became the first country to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Keenan’s jab brought with it a collective sigh of relief from every corner of the world as the moment we have all impatiently awaited arrived at last.

Throughout the British Isles, the deepest sigh of relief came perhaps from Downing Street, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political fortunes were reversed with the prick of a needle.

After nine months of a gruelling, unrelenting and frequently mismanaged battle with the pandemic, Johnson’s Conservatives have finally delivered Britons their first victory. What’s more, the start of vaccinations gave British Tories an opportunity to champion the National Health Service — the crown jewel in the welfare state their party is so often accused of wanting to dismantle.

Indeed, Johnson wasted no time in appearing at a London vaccination centre in front of the NHS logo, celebrating his country’s status as the first nation to receive the vaccine. This is a distinction he is unlikely to allow his party, his voters or his opposition in Parliament to forget anytime soon.

The victory arrives in the nick of time. This weekend sees his other priority project — Brexit — sliding toward the cliff edge with no deal in sight.

But if Johnson is the poster child for politicians riding the high of a vaccine — perhaps all the way to a general election — he is certainly not the only one.

In capitals around the world, political leaders have, with varying degrees of success, pinned their own political fortunes to the arrival and successful rollout of a vaccine. Who can blame them? After almost a year of unrelenting bad news, what politician wouldn’t want to own the solution, regardless of their limited role in it?

In the United States, President Trump has for months promised to develop a vaccine at “warp speed.” To his credit, many laughed when he said we would have a vaccine by the holidays

This week, Trump was elated to emerge from his self-imposed confinement in the White House to posture in front of his “Operation Warp Speed” signs. While he celebrated his incredible, fantastic, amazing efforts to bring a vaccine to American shores —single-handedly, it seems — he stunningly ignored the news that the total number of infected Americans passed 15 million.

The video introducing the event was an opportunity for Trump and his team to manipulate and decontextualize the words of vaccine timeline skeptics, like Dr. Fauci. In mocking his naysayers among the country’s top public health officials, the president managed to further undermine respect and trust in the very people responsible for rolling out a vaccine in the coming months.

Unsurprisingly, the people at Pfizer and Moderna — who we actually have to thank for the vaccine — declined the invitation to join Trump’s grotesque performance, which inevitably declined into bellyaching about the election that was stolen from him.

Befitting the spoiled brat he has proven to be, the president was unable for even an hour to recognize the struggles or celebrate the achievements of anyone but himself. So it goes.

If Johnson’s vaccine politicking constituted a shot across his opponents’ bow, Trump’s was a volley of cannons straight at their hull.

At home, it remains to be seen how our own political leaders will fare in their vaccine politics. Thus far, Trudeau and his cabinet seem reluctant to tie their fortunes to the successful rollout of a vaccine, except to say that every Canadian will be inoculated in due course.

After a confusing and rocky start, the Liberals seemed to get their sea legs this week with the news that Canada will become the third nation to begin inoculating its citizens. But the hard work of securing more doses and rolling them out has only just begun.

With a potential election looming just around the corner, Trudeau had better hope that his team sticks the landing — because there is no inoculation that can keep a minority government alive forever.

The true cost of Trump’s election shenanigans

Amid all the bluster of Donald Trump’s persistent, pathetic and frankly anticlimactic simulacrum of a power grab, it is easy to forget just how much is at stake.

For weeks, we’ve seen the president and his attorneys wheel out their sock puppets to show-and-tell the nation their conspiracy theories of election fraud — with all the rhetorical and legal prowess of a fourth-grade holiday pageant. Even though they have been tossed out of court after court, the freakish tragicomedy of it all is causing real, lasting damage.

What’s more, unlike the damage Trump has wrought on some of America’s more resilient institutions (the courts, the Justice Department, the intelligence community), this farce strikes at the heart of an already weakened facet of public life: faith in democracy.

At a time when so many Americans feel either disillusioned or entirely removed from the process by which their leaders are chosen, the president’s campaign has further undermined the most sacred aspect of secular life.

Every few years, in democracies around the world, citizens of every walk of life journey to community centres, places of worship and schools to participate in a ritual that binds us all. In doing so, they pay testament to their belief in the promise of modern democracy. They believe that their votes, cast in those musty halls and church basements, will be counted fairly, without fear or favour — and that our leaders will accept the result.

That promise is an article of faith. The very bedrock of our democracy.

Yes, many Americans have changed the channel on Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s noxious lies. But as they spin malignant fables about Dominion Voting Systems and a conspiracy among Georgia Republicans, remember: voters are watching. America is watching. Perhaps worst of all, the world is watching

First, voters. Prior to the 2020 election, which saw nearly unprecedented voting figures, the U.S. had fallen behind most developed democracies in voter turnout. This trend has been driven by a number of factors, not least of which being the determined efforts of state legislatures to disenfranchise and disillusion certain voting populations — especially in urban districts and among Black Americans.

This reality is troubling in itself, but it also points to an incredibly fragile democracy which is further imperiled by Trump’s efforts to convince Democrats and Republicans alike that the election game — like so many others in his alternate reality of America — is rigged against them.

Second, the nation as a whole. As the U.S. enters a year that could present even greater challenges and cause for division than 2020, it needs resolute leadership and a federal government that can genuinely work to unite Americans. That will be no easy task for Joe Biden’s administration, but it will be made even harder by the implications of Trump’s fraudulent claims of a “stolen” election.

Recent polling shows that upwards of 70 per cent of those people who voted for Donald Trump genuinely believe that Biden’s win is illegitimate; that the election was, indeed, stolen from Trump. If that’s the case, Biden’s aims of unity and reconciliation are dead even before he raises his hand and takes his oath of office. Those voters will simply never accept him as their president. It will be Obama redux, with the result being even less appetite for bipartisanship and even less getting done in Washington.

Finally, the rest of the world.

It will take years to mend the damage Trump has done to international relationships, global co-operation and general comity among allies.

Since Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, U.S. diplomatic strength has relied on a sense of exceptionalism rooted in the morality and stability of American democracy. Now that the president’s actions are more befitting a Kim than a Kennedy, it will be that much harder for the State department to scold Russia, Iran or the many despots whose actions it routinely condemns in the UN. “Look,” they will say, “you’re just like us.”

In the end, we can take comfort in the fact that Trump’s efforts will fail. But we cannot lose sight of the very real damage he will have inflicted — and the work it will take to clean up his mess.