One of the keys to Donald Trump’s political success has been his willingness and ability to upset political norms. Before he began his campaign, it was almost unimaginable that a presidential campaign could occur, let alone succeed, without consultants or strategists and with the main form of communication being the candidate’s own slightly batty and often hurtful use of Twitter. During the campaign Trump regularly said things, frequently about ethnic and racial minorities, that had previously been considered off-limits even for candidates whose campaigns included a heavily racist subtext. Other campaign ploys such as using adolescent nicknames for his opponents or bringing women from Bill Clinton’s past to a debate to try to unnerve Hillary Clinton, were similarly without precedent in American politics.
A major reason this approach has worked so well is that many in the the political class, including journalists, pundits and other kibitzers, lack the language to describe, and remain focused on these issues. We saw this during the campaign when Moscow’s involvement, in what we now know was an effort to help Trump win, was initially not fully probed by the media because the usual pundits and journalists had never seen anything like this and could not quite believe it was real. We also saw this when white supremacists, textbook anti-Semitism and other expressions of racial hatred took a front and center role in Trump’s campaign. It was simply easier to view those things as side stories and focus on endless analysis of demographics and swing states, or to take comfort in Hillary Clinton’s certain victory.
Now that Trump’s transition is well under way and his presidency looms in the near future, this problem is even more significant. It has become most evident in recent weeks, as many in the media have continued to treat this transition as similar to any other. Thus stories of who comes to Trump Tower, speculation about will be named Trump’s spokesperson or the not so shocking news that a Republican President-elect has appointed a climate change denier as the head of the EPA continue to be receive a fair amount of overage. These stories are important and should be covered, but they are very far from being the most relevant things happening around our President-elect.
Ongoing revelations around the Russian involvement in our election, the President-elect’s use of Twitter to bully opponents including media and, in one case, a local labor leader, leading to threats against that man from Trump supporters, and the seemingly unending conflicts of interest that Donald Trump faces as he seems to be already leveraging the presidency to help his businesses are much more important stories. Any one of them would bring down a typical presidency, but the media and others in the political class seem lulled by the fun, gossipy and normal dynamics around a presidential transition. Perhaps this is due to collective wishful thinking, based on the belief that if we all treat Donald Trump like a normal president he will conduct himself as one, but that is not going to happen. It is also, however, due to an inability by many in the political class, even many who lean Democratic to accept what is glaringly obvious-Russia helped an authoritarian bigot win our election.
Treating Trump like any other President is exactly what is needed for Donald Trump to gain initial successes in his efforts to rollback American democracy, follow through on his threats to limit constitutional rights and to make sure nobody looks to hard at that Russia issue. However, to cover these, and other issues properly, journalists and others in the political class will need an entirely new way of thinking about politics. Understanding what terms like democratic elections, election fraud, international democratic standards, conflict of interest, kleptocracy and democratic rollback, semi-authoritarianism really mean, and what they look like in the American context is absolutely essential to understanding, and properly covering, the coming Trump presidency. These are the concepts that will provide the best guidance for understanding the Trump presidency.
The media and other political observers are new to many of these ideas because the issues that will dominate the Trump presidency, the undermining of American democracy, the promotion of aggressive white nationalist rhetoric, bullying of individual opponents and placing personal gain over national interests are new to the American presidency. There have, of course, been hints of many of these things in previous administrations-several Republican Presidents have used race to divide people and win voters, there has been financial corruption in previous administrations and Presidents are not always nice to their political opponents, but we are now encountering something of an entirely different scale. No president has mixed US foreign policy and personal financial interests, singled out ordinary Americans thus endangering their safety, or came to office with the help of interference by a foreign power. For political journalists and professional insider who have spent years, even decades, commenting on politics, schmoozing with politicians from both sides of the aisle and seen administrations come and go with little real impact on American democracy or stability, developing new habits and ways of thinking about American politics will be difficult, but if they do not they will miss the real story and all of us will be worse off because of that.
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