Given the daily headlines highlighting the incompetence and corruption of the Trump Administration, an assertion that America will not and cannot “go back” to a normal Presidency isn’t exactly welcome.
But that was the premise of an essay in Politico Magazine a couple of weeks ago.
President Donald Trump has spent three years incinerating a group of practices commonly lumped together under the nebulous category of “norms and traditions,” causing the chattering class to worry that he’ll “destroy the presidency,” “undermine American democracy,” “erode” our institutions with each break with precedent or decorum. There are also those, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, who insist that things can go back to normal when Trump is gone. Either in January 2021 or January 2025, these optimists hope, America will experience a restoration of these timeless customs.
Here’s the problem: Many of these “presidential norms and traditions” that Trump has left by the wayside aren’t timeless at all; they’re actually quite new. They grew up alongside and in reaction to the expansion of both the federal state and the presidency—a process that began in the early 20th century but gained steam from the 1930s onward. With the growth of what Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called the “imperial presidency,” each occupant of the Oval Office has left his imprimatur on the development of what we think of as normative presidential conduct.
In other words, these norms emerged as a response to America’s changing needs.
Noting that America has changed dramatically over the 200+ years of its existence, and that those changes require corresponding adjustments in governance is the sort of otherwise obvious observation that gives self-styled “originalists” fits. They like to believe that “living constitutionalism” is just judge-made law, unmoored from constitutional foundations. In reality, living constitutionalism is the rational application of “original intent,” because it requires safeguarding the original values that animated our Constitution and Bill of Rights in situations that the Founders could never have anticipated.
Our challenge is to decide which of the numerous norms being trashed by Trump are needed to protect those foundational values, and thus must be restored.
The article points out that many of the behaviors we think of as long-established– congressional oversight mechanisms and restrictions on FBI and CIA political activity, for example–are relatively new, prompted by the criminal abuses of the Nixon Administration.
All of which is to say, the idea of independent agencies staffed by nonpartisan career public servants, free of political interference, is a very recent development. Once unraveled, it is not certain to be reassembled.
New, however, is not the same thing as unimportant.
The takeaway is not that certain traditions lack value. On the contrary, it’s pretty reasonable to expect that presidents not misdirect law enforcement and civilian officials to do their political bidding, that presidents be transparent with the media, and that courts remain free of political influence. The point, rather, is that these norms were not timeless features of our system. They emerged over 50 or so years in response to excesses that accompanied the growth of the federal state and in response to a popular sense that citizens required greater visibility into, and accountability from, federal officeholders whose purview grew enormously in the modern era.
As I read through the article, I was anticipating some sort of prescription for how we might re-institute the norms that have clearly proved their importance. I didn’t get it. The article ended by noting that “broken eggs can’t be mended.”
Perhaps we can’t fix broken eggs, but we can–and must–fix America’s federal government.
Once Trump is gone–and I fervently hope that departure occurs sooner rather than later–we need to take a step back and decide what rules, systems, and cultural expectations are essential to advancing–and perhaps finally beginning to live up to– American values and ideals.