There are a lot of people responsible for how Trump gets away with breaking norms, but among the most responsible are the political elites who use norms to limit debate on public issues. That is true of both the broader political elites and the center-right political elites. To those who feel excluded by the political debate, Trump’s vices can seem like the lesser evil. I don’t believe that, but I can understand the feeling.
Take the center-right political elites first. Outside of the paleocon Paul family, Republican presidential candidates in 2008, 2012, and 2016 cycles decided to take it easy on Bush in Iraq. Some candidates would note, if asked, that they now disagreed with Bush’s decision to invade. John McCain was admirably forthright about some of the Bush administration’s tactical mistakes during the 2003–6 occupation.
What was lacking was any sort of accounting for the overall costs of Bush’s decision. There were the thousands of Americans killed and the thousands more wounded. There was the creation of a fragile state that would split into an Iranian puppet and a Sunni radical haven in the absence of a large, expensive, and drawn-out American presence. There were the political costs of Bush’s mistakes that undermined the consensus necessary to maintain such an American presence. The Republican candidates were intelligent people who must have known these costs — even if some of them thought the Iraq War was the right choice given the information available at the time it began.
The Republicans went through the 2008 and 2012 cycles with the mainstream Republican candidates avoiding talking about that tally. If it hadn’t been for Trump, the 2016 cycle might have ended the same way. There were a lot of Republican voters who were disgusted and angry with how the Bush administration handled Iraq but who were uncomfortable with the libertarianism of the Paul family.
When Trump condemned the Iraq War, it seemed like finally someone on the stage (other than a Paul) was stating the obvious. He was also violating the unspoken norm that Republican commentary on Iraq should be easy on Bush and tough on Obama.
Because it was Trump, there was plenty of other — less defensible — norm-breaking. There was the nonsense about Bush having lied. There was Trump’s lying about having opposed the war from the beginning. There was Trump’s insane (and hopefully rhetorical) obsession with somehow stealing Iraq’s oil. God, it’s even worse than I remember.
But here is the problem: Having tried and failed to limit debate with an unspoken norm against harshly criticizing Bush, Republicans were in a poor position to attack Trump for violating other, more explicit norms in the course of talking about Iraq. It just made it look like the mainstream Republicans were looking for another excuse to shut down debate on Iraq (when that debate didn’t focus on Obama’s failures). That didn’t mean that Republican voters who supported Trump wanted to steal Iraq’s oil or see Bush impeached. It did mean that they forgave Trump those excesses because he was finally able to say some of what those voters had been feeling about George W. Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War.
A similar thing happened on immigration. The great and the good of both parties agreed on an immigration plan that included, among its components, an incredibly unpopular increase in future immigration. The media coverage of the plan tended to avoid this point.
What is even worse is how critics of the plan were treated. It isn’t that they were demonized exactly. Senator Mike Lee was a measured, civil, and constructive opponent of Washington-style immigration reform. Lee is also a conservative who takes an interest in the prospects of wage-earners in contexts other than immigration.
For his trouble, only the most hardcore political junkies remember Mike Lee’s immigration interventions. Everyone remembers what Donald Trump said about immigration — both about a country needing a border and about Mexico sending its rapists.
That gets to our present bind regarding norms. The political elites ignored public opinion and marginalized their decent critics, and now they whine that a hostile demagogue is riling the people. You follow the norms of civility like Mike Lee and you get ignored. You break the norms like Trump and suddenly you are a jerk who should be ignored (even as the political world hangs on your every tweet.)
It is this sense that the game is rigged — that norms are made for suckers by the connected — that fuels Trump. In this context, appealing to norms of civility (whether by Republicans who were reticent to discuss the downsides of Iraq or by elites of both parties who wanted comprehensive immigration reform without a lot of lip from the plebes) sounds like what Martin Gurri called “cries of anguish from a broken monopoly startled and unnerved by the success of a politician who had slipped the leash.”
That is too bad, because norms of honesty and civility do matter. The first step in reestablishing norms is not to demand that Trump follow the hypocritical and self-serving norms of 2015. The first step is for the rest of our political elites — the ones so scandalized by Trump — to produce a better, more open set of norms and then live by them. Those who want to heal our political culture could start by healing themselves.