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What Trump’s Trashing of American Norms Means for 2020

No matter the outcome, he leaves behind a brutally polarized nation.

Crawford Kilian 8 Nov

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

In the fall of 1948, at age 7, I toted a sandwich board for Harry Truman down Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood. But I thought the political conventions were boring and unfair since they pre-empted my favourite kids’ radio programs.

Ever since, I’ve followed U.S. presidential elections, though I voted in only one, for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. By 1968 I was in Canada, and after becoming a citizen in 1973 I’ve voted every time I could — from federal to municipal elections.

Still, U.S. presidential elections have held a morbid fascination for me. The contest is rarely between good and evil; more often, it’s someone terrible like Nixon running against someone well-meaning but compromised like Hubert Humphrey or George McGovern. The choice in most elections is for the lesser evil.

For all the rhetoric, presidential campaigns (and politics in generally) have followed widely understood rules — what commentator James Fallows recently called norms. Norms are so familiar as to be taken for granted. Failure to meet a norm could cost a candidate the election (or even the nomination). An elected politician who violated a norm could expect defeat if he ran again.

Still, politicians sometimes test those norms. John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism breached the norm of being some safe kind of Protestant. If he hadn’t won in 1960, no Catholic could have been nominated for another decade or more. In 1964, Barry Goldwater’s “Extremism in the defence of liberty is no vice” breached the norm of keeping policy in the middle of the road. The far right was excluded until Ronald Reagan repackaged it.

Progressive normalization

Some violations of the norm might cause a scandal, even influence a presidential election, but eventually they become normalized, so to speak. Catholicism is no longer an issue. A black candidate is no longer an issue, or a woman. This kind of normalization is literally progressive, engaging more people in the political process.

Sometimes a norm is violated so wildly that it seems impossible anyone would dare try it again. Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks were tolerable until the Watergate break-in. The resulting upheaval led to his resignation. The moral seemed clear: you can’t steal the U.S.A.

Some drew another lesson: Stealing the U.S.A. takes more skill than Dick Nixon had. Hence the disputed 2000 election and all that followed, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that continue to this day.

But by 2000 the norms of political procedure, as well as campaigning, had already been repeatedly violated. When Republicans controlled Congress in the 1990s, they began to resist almost any action by the Clinton administration. Budgets were rejected until the government ran out of money. Appointees for high offices were stalled. Kennedy had happily womanized right in the White House without a whisper in the media; Bill Clinton’s stupid little affair became not just public but the pretext for an impeachment.

As president, George W. Bush violated still more norms under the guise of anti-terrorism and the Iraq war. Congressional Republicans since 2008 have resumed their resistance to Obama’s White House. The norm in American politics had been noisy quarrels ending in compromises and deals. Now the norm is noisy guerrilla warfare and endless stalemate.

Going from strength to strength

Donald Trump has taken norm violation to heights (or depths) undreamed of in 20th-century presidential campaigns. Any single violation would have killed previous candidates’ chances on the spot; Trump only went from strength to strength, leaving a large field of defeated Republican rivals in his wake.

Whether intentionally or not, Trump had identified a serious weakness of normal politics. A sensible politician never answers a question directly unless he thinks it will play well with a lot of voters. Otherwise it’s a long-winded non-answer phrased in the media’s favourite dialect, journalese. Voters understand that very well, and take it as an insult, but politicians don’t dare change.

Trump shattered that norm beyond repair, calling it mere “political correctness.” Call Mexicans rapists and “bad hombres,” and a large, alienated part of the electorate thinks you’re a breath of fresh air. You’re speaking their language, always a reliable way to build trust.

Even more importantly, you’re saying out loud what they’ve been muttering to one another for years, and thereby legitimizing their views. Now their racism and xenophobia are part of the political discourse, and the norm-respecting authorities are both shocked and forced off balance. Both responses legitimize the alienated and accept them into the discourse.

A chicken come home to roost

In some ways, this is a healthy development. The norm respecters, Democrats and Republicans alike, have blithely accepted the hollowing-out of American manufacturing in exchange for cheap Chinese imports. They’ve tolerated the rise of entertainment and celebrity worship as a substitute for political conversation, enabling the rise of Donald Trump. Now he’s their chicken come home to roost.

But in the process, Trump has brutally polarized the country. American norms now include legislative gridlock and racial and ethnic abuse. Angry old white guys may be a fading demographic, but they still pack a lot of firepower. When they sensed their own weakening in the 1960s South, they responded with church bombings and assassinations — good old-fashioned American terrorism, owing nothing to ISIS or Al-Qaeda.

So can we expect a new wave of domestic American terrorism between now and the presidential election of 2020?

Under a Trump administration, probably not. The establishment is still powerful, and the judicial system would be the default recourse of the American centre and left.

Under a Clinton administration, very likely. Extremism in the defence of its own liberty knows no limits. We’ve seen any number of militias since the 1990s, not to mention the occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife refuge who were recently found not guilty.

This gun culture still lives in the race war of the 18th and 19th centuries, when armed white men stole the country from its owners. Cultures die very hard, and the gun culture will take a lot of its enemies down with it.

This suggests that millions of Americans (and many Canadians) were untouched by the progressive transformation of the last 60 years. All the effort and suffering of the civil rights movement and the struggle to end the horror of residential schools simply didn’t register with them, except as a threat to themselves. They are unlikely to catch up on a century or more of backwardness by 2020.

Some politicians will inevitably see them as a potential means to steal the country again. So the presidential candidates in 2020 (and the prime ministerial candidates in 2019) will have two choices: Go high when they go low, as Michelle Obama put it, or just go as low as possible.

If Donald Trump could grab them by the pussy and still win scores of millions of votes, the candidates in 2020 may have to strive to match or exceed his performance. A serious fraction of voters will support the greater demagogue. If that person can also attract (or drive out) enough civilized voters, he or she will take power in January 2021.

When you can violate the norms and get away with it, the laws soon go down the drain as well, as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has shown in his state-terror campaign to slaughter drug traffickers and addicts with fine impartiality. Meanwhile Turkish president Tayyip Recip Erdogan is staging a rolling counter-coup against soldiers, judges, journalists, and professors (and opposition politicians).

Successes like these throw doubt on the whole idea of progressive, democratic politics. The task of progressive democratic voters and politicians will be to anticipate and neutralize the future Trumps and Dutertes who would happily throw out our hard-won norms.  [Tyee]

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