Even his biggest fans would probably agree that President Donald Trump is the most incivil president in our history. The almost daily outpouring of venom, spleen and gaucherie from the White House is both beyond dispute and unprecedented. Whether it be commenting on a news anchor’s supposed bleeding from plastic surgery, elbowing one world leader aside to get to the front of a photograph, refusing to shake another’s hand or publicly threatening a witness in a congressional inquiry – to choose just a few examples – Trump and his team are clearly on a rudeness campaign that differs in both kind and degree from anything we have seen before.
No doubt there are psychological explanations, about which a rich if speculative literature has already sprung up. And commentators have been quick to point out as well that Trump’s offensive offensive may ultimately prove self-defeating, threatening his legislative priorities and indeed the survival of his presidency. But the survival of the presidency as an institution is of greater concern.
In the shorter term, a kind of rationale for the rudeness has emerged.
At first, there was a spate of pundit commentary marveling that Trump’s policies were bound to hurt, disproportionately, the very electorate which had put him in office. For instance, the health care agenda would result in the white working class being thrown off insurance but Trump seemed not to be paying a price in popularity among these potential victims. More recently, it has been said that for Trump voters it was never truly about the policies, but about tribal animosities, and that by being so offensive towards media, liberals, gays, blacks, Muslim and Latino immigrants and foreign dignitaries, Trump was producing feelings of delight in his voters that overwhelmed mere self-interest.
But just as manners are a set of unwritten and largely unwriteable taboos, so too are the customs and constraints of the presidency. And these are being affected on a daily basis. Take the attacks on and humiliations of the White House press corps. These started at the very outset of the administration, when Sean Spicer gave his first press conference accusing the media of underreporting the size of the crowd at the inauguration the previous day, which he called “shameful and wrong” and announcing the administration’s determination to hold the press accountable. In fact, the media had accurately reported on attendance, so the press was effectively on notice that accurate reporting would be called lies and that reporters would be publicly singled out as liars for reporting the truth.
Since then, the administration has seemingly lost no opportunity to belittle the White House press corps, be it Trump’s failing to attend the corps’ annual dinner; telling CNN’s Jim Acosta to his face in a February press conference that he was a purveyor of “fake news”; almost not holding solo presidential press conferences; or tweeting a video showing himself wrestling CNN to the ground and pummeling it. Or it can be his team banning live coverage of press briefings, diminishing the time devoted to “gaggles,” or diminishing the stature of the established press at briefings, in contravention of long-standing precedent, by calling first on representatives of non-mainstream media and even on ones who are not present in the pressroom, in so-called “Skype seats.”
None of this seems to violate formal rules. The White House press corps is a self-governing association, and there is an absence of formal protocols forbidding anything just mentioned. It is lawful to demean the journalists who cover the president, diminish their access to information, and disrupt the unwritten customs that establish precedence and credibility among them.
It’s just never been done before, and so no one thought to put the rules in writing.
Setting a precedent
Yet once unwritten rules are broken, the damage can last. The George W. Bush administration laid down a “marker” in its pursuit of whistleblowers, by almost unprecedently using the 1917 Espionage Act as a basis for investigations of those who publicized American violations of national and international law with its warrantless wiretaps and interrogations under torture. Once the informal immunity of leakers under that law was breached, the Obama administration surged through the hole in precedent and charged more leakers under that statute than all previous administrations combined. The Obama administration also set records for deportations (usually a heartless and heedless act of any government) but built on the precedents laid down by Bush administration, which saw deportations increase in every year but one among its eight years in office.
Among those who dislike Trump, Obama is seen as an archetypal “good guy,” but his example suggests that bad precedents can lead good guys to do bad things. So there is good reason to fear that Trump’s discourtesies may pave the way for more of the same by his successors.
In days gone by, the presidency derived much power from acting in a non-coercive and non-abusive fashion: appealing to and harnessing disparate branches of government and constituencies in the electorate. This kind of power, in the context of nations, has been called “soft power.”
But presidents had soft power, too. Showing respect, even when it was merely ceremonial, was a vital part of it. Speaking temperately enabled presidents to avoid diplomatic gaffes, keep friends from turning into enemies, create wiggle room for compromises, avoid inciting demagoguery, and encourage national unity at times of crisis and grief. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, could never have been passed, had President Lyndon B. Johnson, though notorious for his capacity for coercion, not also been able to have respectful dialogues with congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle.
We may find in future, however, that trash talking at the White House is like negative campaigning, impossible to abstain from once the other guy has made it possible.
Maybe not. We don’t know yet. We’re in uncharted waters. And it looks as if we’re due to sail them for three-and-a-half more years, because Trump and his staff show no signs of letting up. There are no rules that say they can’t act like jerks. And so, it seems certain, jerks they’ll be.
It will be up to the next crew in the White House to reset the norms to what they had been, if it can.
Jack L.B. Gohn is a partner with Gohn, Hankey, Stichel and Berlage LLP. The views expressed here are solely his own. See a longer version, with links to his authorities, at www.thebigpictureandthecloseup.com.