At the time I originally wrote this, the Senate had just confirmed “Mad Dog” Mattis, the first time since George Marshall at the end of the Second World War that a non-civilian has gotten a waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense. Two days before that, Donald Trump got in front of a crowd to crudely berate two news agencies and to announce that unlike every president in modern history, he would not be separating himself from his business interests. A week before that, congressional Republicans tried to eliminate the only independent ethics committee that oversees the legislature as the very first act of the new session.
Failing that, they scheduled more cabinet confirmation hearings in less time than ever before, hoping to railroad a slate of candidates who are, with little exaggeration, bent on destroying their respective departments. Late last month, North Carolina Republicans, having lost the governorship, used the end of their lame duck session to divest the executive of its powers and invest them, in effect, in the Republican Party, leading the Electoral Integrity Project to categorize the state as having “deeply flawed, partly free democracy that is only slightly ahead of the failed democracies that constitute much of the developing world.” Not only that, but:
North Carolina does so poorly on the measures of legal framework and voter registration, that on those indicators we rank alongside Iran and Venezuela. When it comes to the integrity of the voting district boundaries no country has ever received as low a score as the 7/100 North Carolina received. North Carolina is not only the worst state in the USA for unfair districting but the worst entity in the world ever analyzed by the Electoral Integrity Project.
And since then, was either five months or five years ago, this past January, God, some other stuff has happened: the President’s hired both his son in law and his daughter to be the right and left hand people of his administration; he’s taken advantage of a year-long stall on the part of the Republicans and installed a conservative justice in Merrick Garland’s seat; he’s put two different avowed white supremacists in office in Gorka and Steve Bannon and a much more effective, subtler one in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Virtually every member of the Administration has lied to the Congress or the Senate about conniving with the Russians, he’s fired FBI director James Comey, while Comey was investigating him and then told Lester Holt that that’s why he fired him.
Something is up, guys.
What’s important about everything I just mentioned, though, or at least it was when I first wrote this, and is still unfortunately true except for all the perjury stuff and maybe the nepotism with Trump’s kids, is that none of it’s illegal.
What those actions, the ones that weren’t clearly illegal, transgressed were norms, not laws.
Alright, let me establish something right now. The Trump Administration is breaking the law and doing stuff that, while Jeff Sessions will continue to defend it, is pretty clearly immoral at best, like flouting the emoluments clause, hiring his kids, and covering up something related to Russia. But the Trump Administration is also and at the same time messing with norms, and I’m going to try to get at why that’s important too.
This was all a little more straightforward before Trump got into office and blew by pretty much every estimate we had in the first week and a half.
A norm is “a standard or pattern, especially of social behavior, that is typical or expected of a group,” that is, it’s any non-legal (though not necessarily unwritten) rule of behavior. A norm of American business, for example, is that you show up to meetings early, whereas a norm of Mexican business is, generally, that you don’t. A norm of American stores is that you get into and don’t cut into line. A norm of American presidential elections is that you don’t do pretty much everything that our current president did, from insulting the press to engaging with white supremacists on Twitter.
I think the best writing about this on the internet has gone down at The Sift in the Countdown to Augustus series of posts, and if you take anything from this particular post, it’s that you ought to go read The Sift at weeklysift.com, and that link will be on the page for this show, this Monday and every Monday. The guy who writes the Sift, Doug Muder, makes the point that the last hundred years before the Roman Republic broke down and became the Roman Empire weren’t characterized by a breakdown in the rule of law, per se, but in the norms that had, up to that point, governed Roman society.
What the Founding Fathers of this republic understood, and what’s become more difficult to understand for us—fifteen decades out from the Civil War—is that democracy and republicanism have been, historically, the least stable forms of government. A rotating group of leaders beholden to popular pressure getting voted into and out of office every few years by an electorate that may or may not be well informed (or informed at all, or kind of oppositely-informed, as the right was during this election) is just not as stable as a long-lived monarchy. And when Jefferson and Madison and all the rest sat down to figure out what our constitution and form of government were going to look like, they had a wealth of historical examples to study, all of which had either been conquered or devolved into tyranny or both.
Those guys were working off of what was in effect a classical education in political science, one that, from Plato to Polybius, had understood any given government to be engaged in a historical cycle that moved from monarchy to dictatorship to aristocracy to oligarchy to democracy to demagogy to tyranny (the terms and the order depend on which Greek you’re reading) and around again. The cycle was pronounced enough, apparently, that Polybius could write in his Histories:
In the case of those Greek states which have often risen to greatness and have often experienced a complete change of fortune, it is an easy matter both to describe their past and to pronounce as to their future. For there is no difficulty in reporting the known facts, and it is not hard to foretell the future by inference from the past.
The decision to create a republic—where the people elect representatives to rule them—rather than a direct democracy, was a response to that history. The Athenian experiment with direct democracy was short-lived, and devolved very quickly into aggressive empire and into the first totally-destructive total war. The Roman Republic, which worked through a combination of aristocracy and representative democracy, by contrast, lasted a good sight longer than ours has yet.
The first century and a half of US history was in a sense a century and a half of movement away from that same kind of aristocratic, representative republicanism and towards a more centralized and more direct democracy. We used to elect the senate indirectly, now directly. The electoral college used to be able to vote its conscience, now representatives are bound by law to vote with their voters. The Civil War decided that it would be the federal government and not the states that would have the final legal say. Stretching the 150 years, US foreign policy up to the end of the Second World War was almost entirely the province of the State Department bureaucracy; now it’s centered in the White House and responds to the electorate.
I don’t know if that change has been mostly good or mostly bad, but in putting more power into the hands of the people more often, it has made the system less stable in the most literal way—more subject to change.
The story of the last half-century in the US has likewise been the story of the erosion of norms in our politics in all sorts of ways, not all of which are obvious to those of us who grew up in the same period.
The end of WWII was also the end of a United States without a standing army and the beginning of a US with a kind of shadow government of military contractors and intelligence agencies, unbeholden to the public or even public servants. Rob and I got into this a lot during our last conversation.
ince the Tonkin Gulf Resolution under Johnson, we’ve moved from a model in which the public, by way of the Congress, had to declare a war, into one in which a president can do so acting alone. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have pushed that ‘imperial presidency’ further, Bush by unilateral warmaking and signing statements and Obama by way of executive orders and drone strikes and assassination lists. Trump, well, it’s hard to see if there’s any real method there, but it seems to be heading in a Nixonian direction, and that fits the trend.
It’s easy to read history about Rome or Athens or wherever else and see the breakdowns in their democracies as short, visible events. We look back at Marius and Pompey and Caesar and think, ‘How could they not have seen what was going on? How could they not have know that what they were doing was destroying their Republic?’ But what we have to keep in mind is that the normative changes in those societies took place over decades or centuries. Every individual actor was only pushing things a little bit further, adding their bit to the pile of small social upheavals that eventually tipped the scale.
The founding fathers were aware of and trying to stave off the decline of their new republic in a way that’s become totally foreign to us. In his farewell address, Washington described how one cycle of normative destruction might play out, by way of political factions:
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Now, I think that we as a country are on our way towards our decline and fall. Every country on earth for all of history has declined and fallen, and I think that a big step towards delaying the eventual end is realizing that it’s out there and that we’re the only thing between it and us.
And as we stare down the barrel of a Trump presidency, it’s important that we realize that the things that might happen aren’t necessarily temporary hurts, things from which we can recover in four years.
I don’t just mean legal changes, like repealing the ACA. I mean normative ones. Things like eroding civilian control of the military, like going from our system of at least legal, manageable corruption by way of pork and lobbying to the out and out variety, like Trump flouting the emoluments clause and hiring his kids. I mean rewarding political supporters not just with European ambassadorships but with consequential cabinet posts. I mean bringing out and out racism back into public discourse. I mean destroying the moral authority of the both the GOP and the Senate by having them defend a President who’s fired the guy investigating him.
The thing about norms is that they’re self-reinforcing, both in strength and in weakness. When a substitute teacher comes into class and one kid raises their hand, everyone afterwards is more likely to do so. And when a sub comes in and somebody throws a paper airplane, the class is ever more likely to devolve into chaos.
When the GOP turned the filibuster from a relative rarity into a given, they made it easier for the Democrats to pull parliamentary shenanigans to get the ACA passed, which made it easier for the GOP to keep roadblocking and to turn a government shutdown from something totally unthinkable into a regular threat. The Democrats are looking at minorities in the House and the Senate, and it’s more than a little likely we’ll be seeing them head down the same road that their colleagues have tread for the last eight years. So far, the GOP’s had a hard time getting anything done, but we’ll see how the hardball gets played once we run up against budget deadlines and debt ceilings. We know that McConnell waited no time at all to blow away the filibuster to get his Supreme Court Seat. If Trump feels it’s alright to hold onto his businesses this time, the next president might find it’s alright to hold onto them and govern expressly in their interests.
So we’ve got to decide what it is we want. For everybody, liberals and conservatives alike, it’s easier and quicker to get what we want by trespassing the norms that keep our society and politics slow and steady and stable. It was easier for the Gracchus brothers to become Tribunes of the Plebs, easier for Sulla to be a dictator for just a little while, easier for Caesar to march on Rome. But every norm we leave behind us is part of what kept the ship of state on course for the last two hundred years.
We’re all becoming fatalists and millenarians, and members of every group from Bernie bros to preppers to the God Kings of Silicon Valley like to salivate over the idea of societal collapse. Tear the whole thing down and build anew. It’s an attractive idea, especially given the things I get into in my podcast. But we have to realize that the death of a small state is a tragedy, and the death of an empire is a holocaust.
For all of history, slow and steady has won the race, and me, for the things I want—addressing climate change and racism and structural sexism and money in politics and the size of the military—I’d much rather plug away at them year after year than wipe it all out and hope that the collapse of this empire is the one in all of history that’ll go well for its citizens and neighbors.
That way we can stave off what Edward Gibbon, in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, called a “memorable series of revolutions, which…gradually undermined, and at length destroyed, the solid fabric of human greatness.”