Tag Archives: Donald Trump

The Visibility of Violated Norms

It’s now easier to notice a population on edge, disappointed, and even enraged by the behavior of others.

A friend returning from a trip to South America recently commented on her impression of returning to what seemed like a very angry country. Being away in a culture with a more courtly pace reset her expectations. Coming home sharpened her impression that people here seemed on edge and unusually short-tempered. Indeed, many Americans also recognize the same dynamic of a nation disappointed and even enraged by the behavior of other Americans. You can pick your issue: people refusing or faking COVID vaccinations, narratives of magical thinking about government intentions, a coup attempt by a former President who fanaticizes that he is still in power, or more tentative medical recommendations than our binary thinking usually tolerates. This national stance of annoyance is sometimes directed to self-promoting “professionals” who have used social media to offer fantasy solutions to problems already on their way to being managed.  Think of self-styled health experts on the margins of mainstream medicine getting more media attention than their views warrant. Established standards of competence and credibility no long seem to apply to the noisiest and most opportunistic.

Writing in roller-coaster 1960s, the sharp-eyed Joan Didion noted that our national convulsions over Vietnam and racial violence meant that “the center will not hold.” The years of the Trump interregnum have similarly soured the nation on many within it. Too many seem to have strayed far from the norms of institutions they represent. Consider the former Secretary of Education’s outrageous preference for private over public schools, or the lies the Attorney General now admits he told to placate the President, or the President’s own dissembling regarding the pandemic or the 2020 election. And then there are the everyday norm violations that traditionally fill our news sites: instances of sexual predation from religious, business and school officials, violence against innocents by deranged and armed people beyond the reach of limited social services, or police who pose a threat to those they are supposed to protect.  All feed the threatening rhetoric of armchair revolutionaries broadcasting their weirdness on social media sites. Even seditionists are sometimes normed, like the 18-members of the Texas congressional delegation who have paid no price for trying to nullify the votes of citizens in four other states.

Some of these forms of violated social norms have gained more traction not because they are new, though some are, but because we now more aware of them. And the costs seem greater for kids forced to attend school without long established and nominal protections against an endemic virus; for voters who once had a high degree of trust in reliable systems of election security; or for African American communities again facing state legislators determined to discourage widespread electoral participation. We can add parents or nativist school boards intent on undermining various best practices that have evolved as part of the American curriculum, Supreme Court decisions that have trashed carefully enacted voter protections, and the wealthy who have escaped the requirement to to pay their fair share of taxes. The effects are real for a country that physically self-segregates, even while it finds common ground in sharing media reports about our apparent dystopia.

Social Norm Deviates Undermine Confidence

All of these factors and more undermine faith in the fairness of the “system” and the idea that everyone needs adhere to the glue of the social contract that holds a society together. The contract is real:  for example, when we agree not to run red lights, or promptly pay others what we owe. Most of us also act on the contract when we share our wealth with others who cannot manage on their own. These routines are still strong, but almost never news. Because of more varied routes for taking the national pulse, we see more social norm deviates.  Their visibility makes us angrier and less confident about the nation’s foundational principles.

Showhorses and Workhorses

The mistaken goal of being seen strays far from what someone elected to public office should want. It says “showhorse” and “phony” at the same time.

The inescapable hothouse of national politics that has consumed many Americans for the last five years may finally be getting more fresh air.  The election brought on a dramatic shift in power that has made it possible to witness the refreshing sight of some “workhorses” replacing “showhorses” who mostly just feigned administrative competence.

The equestrian reference is an old canard about politics repeated by practitioners and observers alike.  A showhorse is an individual who is primarily a self-promoter. Interest in working with deliberative and administrative processes is limited or non-existent. It’s been said about many senators that you could be run over if you accidently came between a specific member and a group of reporters. In contrast, a workhorse is someone who seeks progress on specific policy or oversight goals, not requiring the limelight to be motivated.

This second breed is less common. Fewer people who offer themselves up to be leaders or legislators at the federal level are interested in the hard work required to build coalitions and find routes to compromise. They do exist. But their very anonymity in our media makes it even harder to notice their hard work. For example, there is a group of seven women in the House of Representatives who are trying to put together a package of immigration reforms.  Representative Linda Sanchez describes all of them as “not doing it for the glory or for the credit,” but to repair a broken system. Their names– Lofgren, Roybal-Allard, Velázquez, Chu, Clarke and Bass–are mostly unfamiliar. Members like these are content to broker solutions without using them as springboards to fame.

We are in a prolonged period where more leaders are attracted to federal electoral offices for the performance chances they offer. Cameras and interviews mean celebrity recognition and a puffed-up sense of self-importance. These people who want to be known as “players” see their chances for power mostly in their ability to build their own “brand” and maybe shape public opinion.

 

For Trump, being the President was far more interesting than functioning as a President.

President Donald Trump’s pleasure at playing to the crowd was so obvious that it at times its unintended humor was better than what the comics at SNL could think up.  And remember the crowd that had to be gassed and removed so he could walk across the street from the White House to be photographed in front of a church clutching a bible like an Olympic medal? He craved media coverage. The same distorted priority was revealed on January 6 in his unwillingness to call the National Guard to stop his minions from braking into the Capitol. He was reportedly immobilized and delighted by the spectacle of the rioters with flags bearing his name. Eventually it fell to Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi to summon more protection against the mob.

Consider one more case. Seemingly unaware of how far afield he drifted from the job he sought, North Carolina Representative Madison Cawthorn (R) was quoted recently in Time Magazine noting he has built his office staff just for communications “rather than legislation.”  That’s a departure from most congressional offices that have people to research issues and help craft bills that members will promote.  But Mr. Cawthorn is apparently using the public’s money to run his own self-marketing agency. Refusing the work of legislating is like going into business to create swimsuits that can’t get wet, or making wedding cakes from plaster. Such an emphasis on appearances strays so far from what someone elected to a deliberative body should want.

Perhaps this is how American leadership will wither and die: at the hands of people more interested in media appearances than in helping constituents desperate for governmental action.