President Trump’s approach to governance is unlike that of his recent predecessors, but it is also not without antecedents. The groundwork for some of this dysfunction was laid in the decades before Trump’s emergence as a political figure. Nowhere is that more true than in the disappearance of the norms of American politics.
Norms are defined as “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group.” They are how a person is supposed to behave in a given social setting. We don’t fully appreciate the power of norms until they are violated on a regular basis. And the breaching of norms often produces a cascading effect: As one person breaks with tradition and expectation, behavior previously considered inappropriate is normalized and taken up by others. Donald Trump is the Normless President, and his ascendancy threatens to inspire a new wave of norm-breaking.
This would be bad enough if he were entirely a one-off, an amoral figure who suddenly burst onto the scene and took advantage of widespread discontent and an electoral system that tilts outcomes in the direction of his politics. But Trumpism has long been in gestation. His own party, sometimes consciously, sometimes not, has been undercutting the norms of American politics for decades. As the traditionalist conservative Rod Dreher has written, “Trump didn’t come from nowhere. George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and movement conservatism bulldozed the field for Trump without even knowing what they were doing.”
The United States has to hope that in the long run, more Republicans will join the ranks of the conservatives who already understand the damage Trump’s indifference to informal ethical benchmarks is inflicting on our political system. But to do so effectively, they will, as Dreher suggests, have to reexamine their own past and the deterioration in the standards of political behavior that took root in their party. And this will only happen if Republican officials come to see altering the course of the modern conservative movement as a political imperative.
Parties, from the beginning of the Republic, have been a central force in American politics, clarifying the policy choices available to American voters. They provide the basis for organizing elections and political power in the institutions of government even as they compete constantly for loyalty and fealty with the institutions themselves. Members of Congress loyal to the president’s party sometimes reflexively follow his lead, denying or papering over his failings and failures. At other moments—driven by personal beliefs or constituency interests, by electoral imperatives, and sometimes, at least, by faithfulness to the public interest and the fundamentals of the Constitution—they keep their distance from him. And members of the party opposed to the president often challenge his positions.
But during some periods of divided government, when one party controls the White House and the other has a majority in the House, the Senate, or both chambers, cross-party coalitions where parties share responsibility for governance have thrived. As political scientist David Mayhew showed, divided government during the decades following World War II produced significant legislative achievements—and arguably did so as or more often than when a single party held all the reins of power.
Strong Democratic majorities in Congress in the 1930s voted for sweeping New Deal legislation—but many Democrats joined with Republicans to block Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to enlarge the Supreme Court. Republicans in the majority in 1947-48 vigorously opposed most of Harry Truman’s agenda—leading to his famous campaign in 1948 against the “Do-Nothing Republican Congress.” But the same Congress joined with Truman to enact the Marshall Plan, as well as a historic and (to this point, at least) enduring reorganization of the national-security apparatus that created the National Security Council and made it easier to coordinate defense and foreign policies. Most Democrats in the Reagan era opposed his initial plans to slash government and cut taxes, but conservative Democrats provided enough votes for Reagan to enact an early package. Then, in subsequent years, Democrats bargained with him to increase taxes to combat the burgeoning deficit his program produced and to stave off further spending cuts.
So what happened? Parties have certainly become more polarized, shaped by the great ideological and geographical sorting that began in the 1960s. The South, realigned by Lyndon Johnson’s commitment to civil rights, lost its status as nearly uniformly Democratic and gradually became the GOP’s most important power center. New England and the West Coast had once been strongholds of an often-moderate brand of Republicanism. They became bastions of Democratic strength. A repolarized partisanship solidified by the 1990s and became even more pronounced after 2008.
Polarized parties encouraged polarized policymaking, but room still existed for occasional cross-party cooperation. The State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP), which covered almost 9 million children in 2016, would never have been enacted without the odd-couple partnership between the loyally liberal Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and the faithfully conservative Senator Orrin Hatch from Utah. Over four decades in Congress, from 1975 to 2015, Representative Henry Waxman, a staunch liberal, found common ground for compromise with conservative Republicans—including Reagan. The results: groundbreaking policies in health care and the environment. Waxman also conducted bipartisan investigations during the Bush administration in cooperation with Republican Representative Tom Davis of Virginia.
The norms inculcated over many decades led to an elaborate language of respect (“my distinguished colleague”) toward fellow legislators that often seemed out of place during particularly emotional and intense debates. They could also lead to amusing understatement. In the 1960s, House Speaker John McCormack of Massachusetts would express his distress over the behavior of a Republican on the floor by saying: “I hold the distinguished gentleman in minimum high regard.”
Tribalism, which cast members of the opposing party not as worthy adversaries but as dangerous enemies, swept that respect away. The change began with Newt Gingrich, who came to Congress in 1979 determined to nationalize congressional elections and convince voters that Washington was so dreadful and corrupt that anything would be an improvement over the status quo. When he recruited candidates, he offered them a language of partisan militancy. “You’re fighting a war,” Gingrich characteristically told a group of college Republicans in 1978. “It is a war for power. … Don’t try to educate. That is not your job. What is the primary purpose of a political leader? To build a majority.” And he did, winning an extraordinary victory in 1994 that gave Republicans control of the House for the first time in 40 years. That heralded a period of intense competition for control of the House and Senate, which itself fueled the hyper-partisanship that came to characterize national politics more generally.
Gingrich transformed the Republican Party in Congress. His recruits came in believing what Gingrich had taught them. Although he had a deep interest in science, Gingrich launched an attack on the use of science and facts in public policy that would be picked up by other Republican politicians in the years to come. One of the more enduring norms of Congress was that evidence vetted by acknowledged experts would frame debate and deliberation. Lawmakers could differ sharply on policy solutions, but all would share facts curated by the experts. As speaker, Gingrich abolished the Office of Technology Assessment, a blue-ribbon congressional agency that had been established for scientists to offer objective analysis on issues ranging from defense and space to climate and energy. The new majority defended shuttering the office’s doors as a cost-saving measure, and it was part of Gingrich’s broader (and largely successful) effort to centralize power in the speaker’s office. But the move also sent a message that ideological commitments would trump evidence.
Although Gingrich’s tenure as speaker ended in 1998, the atmosphere he helped to create persisted and was amplified by his less colorful successor, Dennis Hastert. Goaded by his lieutenant Tom DeLay (who was, in many ways, the real leader of the House), Hastert and House Republicans culminated their sustained assault on the Clinton presidency by pushing for the impeachment of Bill Clinton, a move that most Americans saw as aggressively partisan.
And when George W. Bush succeeded Clinton, the Hastert-led House transformed itself into an arm of the executive, creating a custom that became known as the “Hastert Rule.” Closing off the option of broad bipartisan coalitions in support of legislation, the “Rule” declared that the House would now rely only on Republican votes to pass bills, and they would reach the floor only if they secured a “majority of the majority.” To promote the Bush agenda, Hastert also bent both the existing rules and customs of the House. There would be few amendments permitted; bills would be written not in committee but by party leaders; and open processes (such as conference committees to reconcile differences between bills passed in the House and the Senate) would be discouraged. In a particularly flagrant episode, Hastert and DeLay held open a roll-call vote to pass George W. Bush’s prescription-drug benefit under Medicare for three hours, rather than the customary 15 minutes, in order to avoid defeat. They secured the final vote for the bill, but DeLay was later admonished by the House Ethics Committee for offering to a retiring GOP House member an endorsement for his son, who was seeking to succeed the father, in an effort to secure his vote and get the bill passed.
The Republican Party’s disregard for political norms intensified further with President Obama’s election. Immediately after Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and his colleagues embarked on a deliberate strategy of obstruction across a broad range of policies. McConnell made his objective clear in a comment that came to epitomize his approach: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Republicans tried to cast their response as a reaction to purported aloofness and high-handedness on the part of Obama and his congressional allies. In fact, as Republican Senator George Voinovich explained, McConnell from the start had advised his colleagues of Obama, “If he was for it, we had to be against it.”
McConnell bent the norms of the Senate to a degree the body had never seen before in his use—and misuse—of the filibuster. Cloture to end a filibuster (an imperfect but helpful measure of how often the filibuster was used to block Senate business) were filed rarely in the 1970s—in some years, they averaged less than one per month. During the Obama era, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid took to filing for cloture more than once a week. And in 2013, when a frustrated Reid decided to eliminate the filibuster for all presidential nominations except for the Supreme Court, a Congressional Research Service study showed how dramatic the abuse had become. In all of American history, it found 168 cloture motions had been filed on presidential nominations—and nearly half of them, 82, happened during Obama’s presidency.
Reid did not take this action lightly. It came only after another threat, when McConnell made clear that no matter whom President Obama nominated to fill the three vacancies on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, Republicans would filibuster the nominees through the entire Obama term to preserve the Court’s conservative majority.
But there was no better example of extreme partisanship than McConnell’s refusal to consider any nominee Obama put forward to replace Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia after Scalia’s sudden death in February 2016. McConnell argued that the “American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice” and that “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” This was a radical departure. Supreme Court nominees had been rejected before, but except for those who withdrew, none in recent memory had been denied both a hearing and a vote. That it was justified with a risible claim to being democratic, as if the American people hadn’t reelected Obama for a full four-year second term, showed just how far McConnell was willing to go. And nearly all of McConnell’s colleagues overwhelmingly supported this strategy, one by one announcing that they, too, would seek to delay hearings and a vote on a nominee until Obama had left the White House. This even included Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who had once praised Garland as a “consensus nominee.”
Upon taking office, Trump quickly nominated Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals judge Neil Gorsuch to fill Scalia’s seat. Democrats moved to filibuster Gorsuch’s nomination, citing their opposition to Republican treatment of Garland and Gorsuch’s staunch conservative record. Immediately, McConnell invoked the “nuclear option,” as Reid had earlier, this time allowing Supreme Court nominations and not simply lower-court, cabinet, and subcabinet confirmations to be pushed through on a simple-majority vote. The Republicans succeeded, and Gorsuch was confirmed. But a line had been crossed. It became increasingly difficult to avoid seeing the Court itself as merely another partisan institution.
McConnell’s disregard for Senate norms was not limited to his use and abuse of filibusters. When the effort to repeal Obamacare came to the Senate in May 2017, McConnell created a process that had virtually no precedent when it came to considering a major policy change. He named a group of 13 Republican senators as a health-policy task force, bypassing the committees that have jurisdiction over the issues at stake. They met in complete secrecy. McConnell made clear that he would not bring Democrats into the process at all. He would not hold a single hearing. His plan was to rush the bill to passage with as little debate as possible, on the accurate assumption that the more the public knew about the details of the plan, the less likely it would be to pass. The gambit failed in its initial objective. A Congressional Budget Office estimate that the bill would throw 22 million Americans off the insurance rolls led to resistance among key Republican senators from states that had benefited from Obamacare. McConnell had to put off a quick vote and rewrite the proposal during the summer.
The contrast with the process by which Obamacare was considered and enacted—a process Republicans had assailed, in McConnell’s words, as “a disservice to the American people”—could not have been more stark. The New York Times’s Robert Pear noted that “in June and July 2009, with Democrats in charge, the Senate Health Committee spent nearly 60 hours over 13 days marking up the bill that became the Affordable Care Act.” The Senate Finance Committee, he wrote, had worked on the legislation for eight days, “its longest markup in two decades.” Before passing the Affordable Care Act on December 24, 2009, the Senate debated it for 25 days, “considered more than 130 amendments and held 79 roll-call votes.” That the Senate in the Trump years would set out to upend the American health-care system largely in secret was a dramatic and genuinely shocking example of how the decay of norms is not an abstract problem. It threatens the most basic commitments of our democracy.
House Republicans started the Obama years in the minority and without the weapons available to their counterparts in the Senate. But they took an equally deliberate approach to blocking, stalling, and discrediting the new president’s program. Led by Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy, and Paul Ryan—they called themselves the “Young Guns”—they sought and usually achieved perfect party discipline against every major Democratic initiative. This was of immense help to their campaign to delegitimize the president and his policies. They could refuse to vote for any Democratic bills—and then accuse Obama and the Democrats of governing in a partisan way.
The GOP base was already inflamed by Obama’s election, angry over the economic downturn that began under Bush, and convinced that Bush had failed because he had governed as a “big-government Republican.” The result was the Tea Party’s mobilization: a marriage of grassroots right-wing activism and the politics of money as Charles and David Koch and other large conservative contributors fueled and directed the anger on the ground. With the economy recovering sluggishly, Republicans won a landslide in the House in November 2010, picking up 63 seats and a new House majority.
Buoyed by their victory, Republicans pressed their strategy of delegitimizing Obama further. They used their newfound power to conduct repetitive hearings charging the administration with dark and scandalous behavior. Examples included allegations of corruption in the Troubled Asset Relief Program and in Afghanistan, and claims that the IRS had targeted conservatives. The latter led to an effort to impeach IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, something even many Senate Republicans saw as a dangerous overreach. The hearings typically produced no results beyond news stories critical of Democrats, but that was the point. One of their prime targets was Hillary Clinton. The party conducted eight different congressional inquiries into the Benghazi attack in Libya, without producing any truly damaging information (though the investigations did indirectly unearth the fact that Clinton had used a private email server). In his campaign, Trump only picked up on the demolition work begun long before in Congress.
Yet for Republicans, the strategy might be seen as having worked too well. The sense that government was broken deepened. So did the mistrust of elites. In 2016, Gallup found that trust in political leaders had hit a new low. Only 42 percent of American expressed a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in them, down 21 points since 2004. Donald Trump, the outsider’s outsider, would benefit immensely from his party’s spadework. When he declared, “What the hell do you have to lose?” he was talking about African Americans, who had little interest in his candidacy. But many other voters—frustrated with rising inequality, stagnant wages, shifting social dynamics, and gridlocked, divisive government—were ready to respond.
This article has been adapted from E.J. Dionne, Jr., Norm Ornstein, and Thomas E. Mann’s recently released book, One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.