After the election of President Donald Trump, Dartmouth professor of government Brendan Nyhan warned of the possible erosion of democratic norms. Now, as we reach the 100-day mark of the Trump Administration, VPR is checking back in with Nyhan for his thoughts on how the administration is faring so far.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full interview above.
Have your concerns about an erosion of political norms been eased, or have they increased?
“I would say there's good news and bad news. Certainly some of the most extreme fears haven't been realized, and that's of course welcome.
“But I think in some ways those fears have been caricatured. There was a whole Wall Street Journal editorial that basically said, ‘Trump isn’t Hitler, therefore everyone's worries about him are invalid.’
“And I think that's both the wrong comparison, and we're at far too early a stage to draw any final conclusions about where we are or what damage may be done.”
What are some norms that you've seen recently that you feel might be endangered at this point?
“I think we should be concerned about the attacks we're seeing on the legitimacy of the judiciary and its role in our democracy.
“We're a nation of laws. That's an important constraint on the actions of people in power, and we depend on politicians and people in government to respect the decisions of judges — even when they disagree with them.
“And that pattern of over-the-top attacks on other institutions of government continued Tuesday night, when the office of the press secretary of the White House issued a statement saying that city officials in so-called sanctuary cities quote ‘have the blood of dead Americans on their hands,’ and describing the judicial ruling against the Trump administration as quote ‘a gift to the criminal gang and cartel element.’
“That kind of language is very dangerous and raises questions about this administration's respect for the rule of law. This kind of language, just like calling the media the 'enemy the people,' challenges the legitimacy of fundamental parts of our democracy.
“We depend on a free press and an independent judicial system as part of our constitutional democracy, and those are being attacked in a way we haven't seen before.
What about the president's business dealings. Is this still a problem in your view?
“It is. The norms against self-dealing while in office are not as enforceable, I think, as people realized. There's a lot you can get away with within the law. And we've seen, for instance, that you can refuse to release your tax returns. You can refuse to put your assets into a blind trust. You can fly almost every weekend to your country club or visit other properties you own while in office.
“There is no formal prohibition against any of those specific actions. Now, there is a lawsuit being brought against the administration and we'll see where the legal case goes. But in the meantime, these were never even questions that were seriously considered before this administration in the contemporary period.
“Now we're seeing the Trump brand being in a position to benefit from him serving in office. That is damaging to the kinds of norms that we hold in a liberal democracy where we would like public officials to be insulated from conflicts of interest that could distort their judgments."
A recent poll taken among voters in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania shows a majority of Republicans think that Trump exaggerates or intentionally lies on a regular basis, but they don't care. They still support him and the inclination might be to say that's a big problem. But would you consider that maybe these voters see something that matters more to them than traditional political norms?
“I think we're all good at rationalizing behavior by people with whom we share values or share a partisan identity. Lots of Democrats went through these internal contortions to try to justify their support of Bill Clinton. They downplayed his behavior and minimized the questions that were raised about his conduct in the workplace, regardless of the merits of the impeachment case.
“I think we're seeing something similar now. It's become harder to deny that what Trump says is false or unsupported. On a very regular basis — often multiple times in a single interview — he will say something that is false or unsupported.
“And so what we've seen is people retreat to a position of instead defending the president by saying, 'He's doing that intentionally to mess with the media, to promote his interests, to argue for the cause that I share with him.'
“There's no right answer as to who which candidate people should support or whether they should approve of Trump's performance in office. I do think it is troublesome when a party is forced into the position of defending systematic misinformation in this way. Every president lies and distorts information, but the frequency with which Trump is doing is putting his supporters in the public — and in Congress — in a very awkward position.
“And I do hope we can restore those norms, because we need both parties defending them. It can't be a partisan issue in the way that it is now. Long-term, that's a terrible position for us to be in as a democracy.”