When people complain about Trump breaking norms, rather than laws, what they mean is that Trump is doing things that predecessors would have been ashamed to do. But Trump often doesn’t know his civics well enough to recognize his violations, and he doesn’t have any shame. Shame is a concern for other people’s opinions, and his is limited. Throughout his career he’s done things that other people might not have, because they wanted to avoid public disapprobation—breaking a promise to save friezes from the old Bonwit Teller building, stiffing contractors, even lying to federal and state regulators—on the assumption that the consequences would be minor. That assumption was generally right. It also meant “grabbing [women] by the pussy,” recognizing—again, correctly—that he was unlikely to face serious consequences.
Naturally, this approach carried over into the presidential campaign, where Trump was willing to say things that other candidates were not. Other Republicans had been happy to play on voters’ racism and xenophobia, as long as it was hidden behind enough euphemism. Trump was willing to state it plainly, and Republican voters rewarded him for it. As the general election progressed, Trump recognized that many voters were turned off or even appalled by his gaucheness. “If you really like Donald Trump, that’s great, but if you don’t, you have to vote for me anyway,” he said. “You know why? Supreme Court judges, Supreme Court judges. Have no choice, sorry, sorry, sorry. You have no choice.”
In effect, Trump wagered that actions were more important than words. He won. Even though 60 percent of voters had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and a similar number said he was not qualified to be president, according to exit polls, enough of them voted for Trump for him to win an Electoral College victory with a minority of the vote. The president has stuck with this approach post-election, adopting a base-centered strategy and making little serious attempt to mitigate his consistently dismal approval rating.
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When Trump was elected, many of his critics feared that he would create acute constitutional crises by doing things like defying federal-court orders. As president, he’s been heavily involved in litigation—both as a defendant, in challenges to executive moves, and as a plaintiff, challenging House Democrats’ oversight—but he has not dared defy a court. The consequences could be too grave.
The field of foreign policy, however, has fewer restrictions on what a president can do. Neither a court nor Congress is likely to intervene. Trump has been happy to fight rhetorical battles around the globe. But when confrontations threaten to have irreversible consequences, he has often backed down. When it became clear that verbal pressure alone would not dislodge the Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, Trump lost interest in that conflict. When he realized that 150 people might die, Trump canceled an air strike on Iran.