Chairman's Desk

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

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on January 17, 2021.

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.