The Feedback Loop of Doom for Democratic Norms

President Obama said he might break tradition and criticize his successor on “core questions” about ideals and values—in essence, promising to break one standard to try to save others.

Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Shortly before the election, an old letter from George H.W. Bush to Bill Clinton was widely circulated. The note was written on January 20, 1993, as Bush—whom Clinton had defeated in a sometimes tense presidential campaign—was preparing to leave the White House for the final time as president. It is, by any estimation, a model of grace, dignity, and civility, even for the man who had beaten him in a tough race.

That letter has continued to resurface in the days since the election, as many Americans wonder how a Trump presidency will change the nation, and about the relationship between Trump and the outgoing president. In recent memory, former presidents have worked to avoid criticizing their successors. This was true of Bush and Clinton, of Clinton and Bush’s son George W. Bush, and true of the younger Bush and Obama. (George W. Bush’s political toxicity in the years immediately following his departure made his sabbatical easier.) But Trump rose to political prominence with a racist campaign questioning Barack Obama’s legitimacy as a president and a citizen; Obama campaigned hard against Trump, flatly calling him unfit for the presidency. Such a letter from Obama to Trump seemed inconceivable.

That’s made the transition period particularly interesting to watch. Things started off with an outwardly cordial meeting between the two men. According to unnamed sources who spoke to The Wall Street Journal, however, Obama was concerned by Trump’s lack of preparation. “After meeting with Mr. Trump, the only person to be elected president without having held a government or military position, Mr. Obama realized the Republican needs more guidance,” the paper reported. “He plans to spend more time with his successor than presidents typically do, people familiar with the matter said.”

The anonymous sniping aside, that’s a sign of cooperation. But in a press conference Sunday in Peru, Obama was asked whether he would follow the tradition of not publicly criticizing his successor. He gave a typically Obamian answer—careful, lawyerly, and premised on parsing divisions not necessarily apparent to others.

“I want to be respectful of the office and give the president-elect an opportunity to put forward his platform and his arguments without somebody popping off in every instance,” he said.

Obama added: “As an American citizen who cares deeply about our country, if there are issues that have less to do with the specifics of some legislative proposal or battle, but go to core questions about our values and our ideals, and if I think that it's necessary or helpful for me to defend those ideals, then I'll examine it when it comes.”

His comments confirm press reports in recent days that Obama might seek to take a more active role in politics than his predecessors. Some of this is political exigency: The Democratic Party finds itself largely without leaders. With Hillary Clinton’s defeat, the Clinton dynasty is fading into the mists of history, and there’s no obvious successor. Without Obama on the stage, his party is bereft of a figurehead.

The line that Obama draws, between partisan politics on one hand and “core questions about our values and our ideals,” is a fine one, and it’s one that not everyone may recognize, or locate in the same place. As the Washington Free Beacon tartly points out, Obama has repeatedly used the phrase “not who we are” when assailing political concepts. To choose a specific example, the president has said that Trump’s plans to deport millions of immigrants are “not who we are as Americans.” Is that a question of politics, or of core values? Perhaps this is an obvious example of politics, a legislative push. But what about, say, ghosting on NATO? Where would that fall? Obama may know the line when he sees it, but there’s no guarantee that most other Americans will see it in the same place. Some people may see no difference between the two at all.

Thus the paradox: In his quest to defend the small-d democratic norms of the United States, Obama is suggesting that he will contravene a different, if more minor, norm. This is probably defensible. If Obama truly sees something that Trump is doing as perilous to the integrity of the American project, why should he keep quiet? But if the only way to protect norms is to destroy norms, the effect is a feedback doom-loop for norms in general.

The political scientist Brendan Nyhan has been sounding an alarm about the contours of the Trump transition so far, arguing that his actions—from refusing to set up the customary press pool to the blatant conflicts of interest posed by his business to his attempts to circumvent federal anti-nepotism laws—risk eroding the bedrock of democracy, and pushing the United States toward illiberalism and autocracy. Perhaps these warnings seem overwrought; perhaps Trump poses no serious threat to American democracy as such. But the way that Obama is already being tempted to abandon the detachment customary for former presidents shows the ways that norms are already fading. Even the establishment-minded president cannot avoid the centripetal force pulling him into the gyre.

Of course, some people just don’t like norms. It illuminates the challenge facing those who are deeply concerned about the preservation of these norms to realize that it is not just that Trump’s supporters tend to be unconcerned about preserving them. Tearing down the establishment was a major rallying cry for the Trump campaign. In one of the more intriguing, and concerning findings, some voters who felt that Trump was unqualified or temperamentally unfit to be president voted for him anyway, in part out of fury at a system they believed had failed. For these anti-establishment Trump backers, tearing down norms isn’t simply collateral damage of his ideological agenda. It is the ideological agenda. And if defenders of those norms like Barack Obama can be unwittingly or unwillingly enlisted, all the better.