One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.
In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.
Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.
But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.
“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.
As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.
But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.
He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”
What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.
Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.
I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.