We Are Already Struggling to Keep Outrage Alive in the Age of Trump
I wanted to open this column by writing “It’s been a banner week for Donald Trump.” So I went and googled his name, then restricted the search to the past week to refresh my memory of which particular outrageous remarks had originated in the last seven days.
As it happened, the ones that popped up were the ones I’d been thinking about. First, his tweet dismissing Judge Jason L. Robart, the Washington State judge who put a temporary halt to his executive order banning immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, as a “so-called judge.” Judge Robart is, of course, so called because he is in fact a federal judge, appointed to the U.S. District Court by George Bush in 2004. This was a wildly inappropriate thing for the president to say about a duly appointed judge. At best, it is a further erosion of civic norms of the type that had become too prevalent on both sides of the aisle; at its most dangerous, this blatant disrespect for a co-equal branch of government raises the fear that Trump will attempt extra-constitutional actions that courts will be forced to thwart, and then undermine or openly defy the judicial system.
Yes, I’m aware that Barack Obama broke norms when he attacked the Supreme Court during his State of the Union speech in 2010. I thought then -- and still do -- that this was outrageous. But Trump’s remarks are worse. Suggesting that a judge who rules against the president lacks legitimacy in his judicial function profoundly undermines not only the Constitution, but the centuries of common-law tradition that preceded it. Anyone who wants to defend Trump by reference to Obama’s transgressions may imagine me saying, in your mother’s voice, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Such things cannot be written off by saying that I’m taking this too seriously, because it’s just a tweet, or that’s just how he is. It’s not all right that our president casually tosses off egregious violations of our constitutional tradition, and if he cannot refrain from doing so on his Twitter account, then he should have his phone taken away until he learns to be more responsible.
Equally troubling in a different way is his attack on Nordstrom for deciding not to carry Ivanka Trump’s line of clothes. I don’t know whether Nordstrom made this decision for political reasons, or because -- well, I ask you. And what’s more, I don’t care. It is beneath the dignity of the president to start brawling with a privately owned retailer over their merchandising choices.
As with his remarks about the judge, defenders may point to earlier, subtler breaches of the norm against using government for private enrichment -- politicians’ kids sure do seem to find it easy to get extremely well-paid jobs, especially in sectors that hover in governmental orbit. And how did LBJ get so rich, anyway?
But as with the above, it matters a great deal that this is naked and open. Minor private corruption of the market is plenty bad enough. Open public bullying communicates that the enrichment of his children is a function of the presidency, establishing a new, and horrid, public custom more in line with a banana republic. It does so even if Nordstrom resists the bullying, because other companies may think twice about crossing the president.
It also matters that it’s happening in the first month of his presidency, when he’s supposed to be busy figuring out how to run the country. If he’s this openly shilling for his kid’s business now, what will things look like in a year or two, when he’s had time to settle into the job?
I’m concerned that voters won’t agree with me -- that they’ll see a good Dad, fighting for his kids, a strong president, fighting for his prerogatives, rather than a president who is already starting to abuse the immense power of his bully pulpit. Americans have a sort of privilege, a blindness to how wrong things can go in a country, because we live in one of the oldest constitutional republics in the world. Two centuries of largely peaceful proceduralism have enabled us to forget just how precious our civic norms are. They are precious, and they need to be maintained by active work. Instead, both sides of the political spectrum are increasingly looking to tear them down, always justifying their disastrous rending of our political fabric by the twin excuses of the splendid aims they mean to achieve, and the big holes that have already been ripped by those louses in the other party.
I’m also concerned that those of us whose job it is to point this out won’t be up to that job. I’m already tired of writing the “Trump had done something outrageous” column, because how many times can I point out that the man keeps acting in a distressingly unpresidential manner? And even if I write it, how long are readers going to be willing to read the same thing, over and over, with only the details changed for variety?
That’s what liberals worry about when they talk about “normalizing Trump”: that the sheer repetitiveness of his offenses against liberal democracy will make them ordinary and banal, that we will lose our ability to understand that each new outrage is, in fact, outrageous, and must be treated as such if we are to retain the precious legacy bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers, and two centuries of successors who painstakingly built the liberty we now enjoy. When his supporters dismiss criticisms as hysteria, saying “It’s not that bad,” in some sense, they’re right: So far, he has not openly defied the courts, a la Andrew Jackson, nor explicitly threatened people who threaten his business interests. The problem is that the way you get to “that bad” is often through a long succession of “At least he hasn’t …” until finally, he does, and you find that the permission granted for earlier transgressions has created a blanket hall pass for gross abuses of power.
No, liberals are right to worry, and in fact, I don’t think they worry enough. Because the biggest risk is that even if we keep shouting “This is not normal!”, voters who have heard that a thousand times before will eventually yawn and say “No, actually it is.”
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Megan McArdle at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Mike Nizza at email@example.com