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?