Josh Heath | The Importance of Norms, Plus the Rule of Law

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One of the common arguments in defense of President Trump is to point to the legality of his actions. Whether one is discussing the Muslim Ban, the recent government shutdown, or child separations at the border, his supporters will always say he is operating within the law, and therefore cannot be the authoritarian threat that Democrats see him as.

These folks miss, however, an important aspect of our current political climate: Trump may take actions that are technically legal but still do great harm to our system of government and way of life. That’s because our democracy is not just based on staying within the law but obeying certain norms; indeed it is the latter that gives the former any real meaning and effectiveness. 

For example, we have the legal right to a free press, but in order for that to mean anything, journalists must be treated as credible professionals, who, while fallible, play a vital role in uncovering the truth. That’s the notion our most revered presidents, from FDR to Kennedy and Reagan, have rightfully subscribed to. 

When Trump continuously batters the media, proclaiming them to be a gang of propagandists and liars out to get him, this norm is ripped to shreds. As a result, he greatly weakens the capacity of the press, though their rights are guaranteed by law, to have a meaningful impact in our day-to-day lives.

Take the ongoing investigations of the president by state and federal authorities in New York. It is entirely possible that these efforts will produce evidence proving a litany of crimes, from campaign finance violations to money laundering, nonprofit fraud and more. With the recent raft of documents unveiled by Trump’s ex-attorney Michael Cohen, indeed it is certain that at least some of these offenses will be described by authorities.

When the time comes, journalists will break down and explain any uncovered wrongdoing by the president. But there’s only one issue: Trump’s war on the press has been so effective only 11 percent of his supporters trust the media, according to a poll from CBS news. By contrast 91 percent said they turned to the White House for accurate information.

The conclusions here are chilling: Our justice system could prove to the American people that we have a felon in the oval office — a circumstance that most reasonable folks would say should lead to impeachment — and it may not have any impact. Because grassroots conservatives simply won’t believe the reporting and instead decide to imbibe whatever narrative the White House trots out. 

As a result, Senate Republicans will have no incentive to vote to remove a man from office who their supporters still stand by. Our legal right to a free press, intended to serve as a check on authority and give citizens the information they need to make informed judgements, will have no impact in reality, because our president refused to abide by the norm that calls for treating journalists with respect.

This is how at once a leader can largely follow the law and still profoundly threaten our most cherished institutions. 

The same point can be affirmed in Trump’s decision to shut down the government over a border wall. His actions were profoundly destructive of the basic norm that in a democracy, policymakers are expected to legislate based on evidence. When it comes to the notion of an immigration crisis, there is none, as the Department of Homeland Security’s own data shows illegal border crossings are at record lows.

So when Trump goes the other way and pretends that this issue is so bad the apocalypse is near, and gets large swaths of the country to agree with him, our nation is one step closer to ruin. A republic cannot function unless its leaders use their power with wisdom, and don’t try to persuade their constituents to chase paranoid delusions.

You cannot pass good public policy if the country has no accurate sense of reality, and is conned into supporting charlatans and frauds. Because societies that become consumed by made-up problems will inevitably neglect the real ones.

Think of our political system like a marriage. Being happily married requires more than simply having the legal certificate stating you are with your spouse. It also entails following those sets of practices that make the relationship work: love, respect, mutual care for one another and more.

Norms, plus the law. 

For some reason, Americans chose Trump to be their partner for four years. And he has responded by beating the body politic with right hook after right hook and staying out late carousing with the Russians. 

Are we technically married to this man? Sure. But can anyone really argue it’s a love worth fighting for?

Joshua Heath is a Valencia resident and a political science student at UCLA. He has served two terms as a delegate to the California Democratic Party. Democratic Voices runs every Tuesday in The Signal and rotates among several local Democrats.

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