'An Erosion of Democratic Norms in America'

The president-elect is testing the limits of political convention.

Mike Segar / Reuters

In the aftermath of the presidential election, Donald Trump has publicly criticized protesters and “the crooked media.” He appears unconcerned with past precedent as he interacts with foreign leaders, and has dismissed concerns that he may face potential conflicts of interest as president. The president-elect is already testing the limits of political convention. Should that be a cause for concern?

During the primary election, Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan described Trump’s rise as a candidate willing to endorse violence against political opponents as a failure of American institutions to safeguard political norms. Following the election, he has warned that institutions and elites have continued to tolerate illiberal behavior.

I recently spoke with Nyhan about the outcome of the election and the Trump transition so far. A lightly edited version of our conversation appears below.

Clare Foran: Following the election, Donald Trump has done things that seem unusual for a president-elect, including speaking out against protesters. You’ve suggested that there are parallels to past democratic breakdowns. How would you characterize what we’ve seen so far, and do you think we’re witnessing a breakdown in democratic norms?

Brendan Nyhan: The incoming administration hasn’t taken power yet so I don’t think there has been a breakdown of norms. However, the actions of the Trump administration-in-waiting suggest that they will be unconstrained by many of the previous norms that have limited the power of the executive branch. I think at the very least we are seeing an erosion of democratic norms in America.

Consider the evidence to date. The Trump hotel in Washington is pitching foreign diplomats on its services, which might violate a clause of the U.S. Constitution that is supposed to ensure that foreign governments can’t buy favor with federal officials. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who is set to head up his business enterprises, recently sat in on a meeting with Japanese officials. The president-elect has demanded that people who express concern about his policies apologize. And one of the president-elect’s top aides suggested that Harry Reid might be in legal jeopardy for criticizing Trump.

Trump is also violating norms about what sort of background is acceptable for people in positions of power. Jeff Sessions was rejected by the U.S. Senate in 1986 for a federal judgeship because his history on racial issues was considered to be disqualifying. He’s now in a position to be the Attorney General of the United States. Similarly, if you had told almost any American that Steve Bannon would be the chief strategist of the president-elect of the United States two years ago, they would have thought you were insane. And yet Republicans in Congress are not objecting to his appointment. It’s not a Senate-confirmed position, but I am still shocked to see someone with his background in such a prominent role.

I think people are making the mistake of thinking that there will be a dramatic moment when they should speak out. Growing tolerance for conflicts of interest in government, limitations on media access and accountability, and harsh treatment of minority groups can accumulate. Similarly, the slow disappearance of various norms can damage our democracy when we’re not paying attention. Hopefully the worst-case scenario never happens—no one is saying the U.S. government is disappearing overnight—but each norm that falls is one fewer safeguard against executive overreach than we had before. Even if we never become an authoritarian state, our governance will suffer as a result.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a partisan or ideological issue. Trump and the Republicans have every right to push their agenda, but they should honor the norms of American democracy as they do so.

Foran: Why should we consider democratic norms sacred in the first place? Isn’t it good to do away with norms in some cases? At one point in American history, the norm in most states was that only white male property owners were allowed to vote.

Nyhan: I would never say that every norm should be upheld. There are certainly norms that were abhorrent and should be done away with. I would also quibble with the question; many restrictions on voting were not norms but were codified in law. When I talk about political norms, I am referring to informal conventions or standards that are upheld without enforcement by law.

My argument is that the bipartisan political norms that restrain the conduct of the president and the executive branch and help ensure a fair electoral process should be sacred. As a society, we can re-evaluate our value judgments of appropriate norms for people in power, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. Neither party has seriously contested the norms that Trump is damaging. Former ethics lawyers for George W. Bush and Barack Obama are speaking out about the conflicts of interest he faces, for instance. There is likewise no partisan disagreement over whether it is okay to beat up protesters at rallies. So the norms that I’m saying should be upheld are ones that are fundamental to democracy and are not in question by any major group in our society.

Foran: Haven’t there been times in American history where norms have been transgressed and then subsequently restored and even formally enforced in a way they weren’t previously? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt won a fourth term despite the informal norm that presidents would not serve more than two terms. Following that, an amendment to the Constitution was passed to bar presidents from serving more than two terms. If Trump transgresses norms, couldn’t that lead to a backlash that ends up safeguarding these norms in a way they weren’t before?

Nyhan: It’s possible. After Richard Nixon left office, a series of reforms were passed to try to limit the power of the executive branch in areas where he engaged in unacceptable conduct, but that process took years. The post-Nixon era was also a time when partisanship was much lower than it is today. It’s not clear whether Republicans will have an appetite for investigating the Trump administration or be willing to pass reforms to address the issues that have been raised.

Foran: You’ve warned that our institutions and elites are accommodating illiberal behavior. Do you think that has the potential to get worse once Trump is president? And what about the opposite, is it possible that if the media and influential individuals forcefully point out abnormal behavior that could prevent norm violations from being legitimized in the eyes of the American public?

Nyhan: There is no certainty about what will happen, of course. If people continue to speak out, Trump’s conduct may continue to be seen as unusual. Unfortunately, the incentives to normalize are very strong. People have an instinctive deference to power. Elected officials have a political incentive to make nice with an incoming administration. Media organizations have an economic incentive to avoid antagonizing half of their audience and to cultivate sources within the administration. And many Americans are just exhausted by this election and want to move on. As a result, there are not many incentives for Trump to govern differently than he campaigned. The Republican Party has already fallen at his feet—why would he change his approach when he has been given no political reason to do so?

I want to be clear that some institutions and elites are doing important work. However, many others are failing to convey the seriousness of the concerns that some close observers have about the conduct of the incoming administration.

Of course, Trump could also be normalized if he acts like a normal politician. I would love nothing more than to see that happen. The concerns I’m expressing could turn out to be wrong. But until he changes his patterns of behavior, it’s important to explain why our defense system might be weaker than we think.

Foran: Where do you think we should go from here?

Nyhan: There’s no simple answer. Congress should scrutinize the appointments and actions of the incoming administration when it takes office. They could also change how presidential financial disclosure and conflict of interest regulations are handled. In addition, the media should continue to draw attention to actions that are abnormal. But ultimately there must be a political cost to breaching these norms or they will continue to be breached. A lot of this will come down to whether Republicans in Congress will exercise oversight over a Republican administration. I hope people will be brave enough to fulfill that role, which is part of how our system is supposed to work. For now, we should recognize the precedents that are already being set and try to prevent them from becoming the new normal.