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The Rules Do Not Apply to Trump Because the Rules Never Existed

President Donald Trump is showing us how norms were always just guidelines.
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Republican members of Congress and Cabinet members in the Cabinet Room of the White House on June 20th, 2018.

President Donald Trump. 

A lot of the political analysis of the Trump presidency has been about whether or not the "rules" of politics apply to him. It's also possible, however, that Donald Trump is just revealing that the rules were never that iron-clad in the first place.

When Trump got nominated and then elected despite an array of scandals pretty much unheard of in modern campaign history, it seemed like he was defying gravity. Who would advise a city council candidate, no less a contender for the presidency, to run for office by insulting John McCain's war service, deriding Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers, openly courting hacking by a foreign power, or promising to jail his opponent upon his victory? How did he survive the revelation of a video in which he openly bragged about sexual assault just weeks before the election, and go on to win the Electoral College?

This propensity for scandal has continued in the White House. Nearly every day, he says or tweets something offensive or nonsensical that would have inspired days of hostile news coverage, or even congressional investigations, in previous presidencies. He openly profits from business ventures while shaping public policy, places close relatives into positions of influence for which they are unqualified, undermines alliances and encourages adversaries, dismisses intelligence assessments while preferring the meanderings of Fox News hosts, etc.

There is some evidence that Trump is paying a steep price for his behavior. He, his family, his close associates, and his business enterprises remain under multiple investigations, some of which have already led to arrests, prosecutions, and convictions. The special counsel's investigation looks likely to conclude shortly, producing a report that may well be damning, and providing evidence against him to House Democrats largely elected by voters expecting pushback or even impeachment.

On top of that, scandals are affecting Trump's popularity: His low-40s approval rating appears to be a ceiling for him, despite the sort of economic and international conditions usually associated with presidential approval ratings in the high 50s or low 60s. This unpopularity is consequential: It likely cost his party the House of Representatives last November. And it's entirely due to his own behavior and actions.

And yet, he remains in office and is gearing up for a second run. It's easy to get the impression that the rules just don't apply here, either because Trump is so rich and famous that he's above them, or because the system just doesn't know how to address so much lawlessness coming at it so quickly.

So is Trump impervious to the political laws? Or is he still subject to them and being punished for their violation?

There's a third possibility: Most of these "rules" were illusory in the first place.

When we think of the scandals that ended presidential bids over the past few decades, not only do they seem relatively mild compared to Trump's behavior, but they were also rarely put to the test. The 1988 Democratic presidential nomination contest offers a few interesting examples. Joe Biden abandoned his bid when evidence surfaced that he'd been plagiarizing his speeches. Gary Hart dropped out of that same contest amid a sex scandal. Both candidates made the calculation that they had no chance of winning at that point, that their donations would dry up, that no one would want to work for them, and so on. But what if they'd stayed in? Could they have survived those scandals as the political media eventually found something else to talk about? What if one of them had become the nominee? Would Democratic voters have rationalized the scandals away and backed them anyway?

Most politicians don't push this logic that far. Bill Clinton did in 1992 when he refused to bow out of the presidential race amid a series of scandals about womanizing, draft-dodging, and marijuana use. He went on to do better than expected in the New Hampshire primary and change his public perception from a scandal-tainted politician to the "comeback kid." And his party's voters stood by him in the November election.

More recently, in Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax remain in office despite widespread condemnation and demands for their resignation over, respectively, participating in a yearbook photo featuring blackface and a KKK costume, and multiple allegations of sexual assault. As these episodes demonstrate, it's quite difficult to force someone out of office who doesn't mind having their image torn apart every day.

Trump demonstrates, in many ways, this lack of shame drawn to its logical conclusion. He has shown that a lot of what we consider rigid rules of politics are little more than guidelines, and the teeth that back them up aren't particularly sharp. Yes, the price he pays in terms of public opinion is a steep one, and the chances of him finishing his first term in office—no less being rewarded with a second one—remain lower than they were for just about any other modern president at this point in their service. But a lot of what we've assumed to be career-ending moves for politicians really aren't; Trump has exposed most of these rules as phony.

All of this points to the importance of parties as screeners of candidates. Yes, parties should be looking for nominees who will champion their causes and win elections, but they also need to identify those who have, as Julia Azari suggested in FiveThirtyEight, a commitment to democratic values, and, relatedly, an aversion to shame. It's impractical to say that every nominee should be scandal-free, but they should want to be scandal-free, and to not want to drag their party or their country into a defense of their own indefensible behavior.

This is probably a lot to put on parties, who may not have the same sorts of screening tools they used to. But it's also arguably their main function in a democracy.


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