Trump's Unusual Transition: Dartmouth Professor Tracks Continued Erosion Of Norms

Jan 20, 2017

Donald J. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States on Friday. A Dartmouth professor has been arguing that Trump's candidacy and presidential campaign have steadily eroded the political norms that provide a solid foundation for American democracy.

Prior to the inauguration, VPR checked in with Brendan Nyhan, a professor in the department of government at Dartmouth College, to get his take on the transition period before Donald Trump officially takes office.  

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Listen to the full audio above.

VPR: When we first spoke, you talked about the things Trump did during the primaries and general election campaign that you felt were violating political norms, not laws. In the months since then, has President-elect Trump eased any of your fears about whether he is continuing to erode political norms?

Nyhan: "Not as much as I would like, unfortunately. I think there are areas where his behavior has been less extreme than his rhetoric would have suggested during the campaign, but there are still a number of concerns where President-elect Trump just isn't respecting the norms that previous administrations on either side of the aisle have honored."

One of the big events that happened since the last time you and I talked was his first press conference as president-elect. It was pretty raucous to say the least. But presidents throughout history have had a mostly contentious relationship with the press, so is the relationship that Trump has with the press any different?

"The press and the president are always at least partially antagonistic. But what we've seen with Trump so far suggests he might take that relationship to a new level of hostility. He's directly attacked the press, he refused to hold a press conference for an unprecedented amount of time in terms of what presidents in recent decades have done after winning the election.

"When he finally did hold that press conference, there were people from his staff cheering him. I certainly don't recall press conferences with a supporting audience cheering on the president-elect as he jabs at the press.

"I certainly don't recall press conferences with a supporting [staff] audience cheering on the president-elect as he jabs at the press." — Professor Brendan Nyhan

"The whole event had a very stunt-like feel. There were piles of folders that allegedly documented steps that the president-elect and his team had taken to address the unprecedented conflicts of interest that his business entanglements and financial investments pose — but those were not shown to anyone. They were simply put up there as props, kind of performance of disclosure without the actual fact.

"Every ethics expert who was independent of the administration and nonpartisan has said that the steps that have been taken are insufficient to address the conflicts of interest that he's going to create on day one.

"There are already conflicts arising with, for instance, the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., where the inauguration is taking place. It just banned reporters from its premises. This is a building owned by the federal government and controlled by the president-elect's organization, [which is] banning the press from its premises, where presumably newsworthy events could be happening. Already we're seeing very troubling signs of how these entanglements can create problems."

In your latest column on the New York Times' Upshot, you write that Trump is able to deflect attention of any possible one scandal by the confluence of other big news stories happening at the same time, or by distractions on Twitter. Do you think he's doing these things on purpose or is this just an example of our incessant 24-hour news cycle working to his advantage?

"You know, that's a hard question to answer. We can't know what the president-elect's intentions or mindset are any more than any other politician. We can only judge them by their words and their actions.

"By all accounts, the president-elect has a very short attention span. It's not surprising that he would be talking and tweeting about different issues, and he has a platform on social media that has the effect of distracting the press to whatever he's talking about in any given moment.

"I do worry that we've become numb to these sorts of developments, and started to take them for granted and assume that they'll happen. They don't have to happen, and in some cases they shouldn't happen. We as citizens have to recognize that distinction." — Professor Brendan Nyhan

"So I'm not sure quite how Machiavellian the strategy is, but it has the effect of diverting our attention. It's great for the media. There's story after story that will attract clicks and audience attention. But the risk is that we miss the more important stories going on in the background, and we fail to devote sustained attention to these very serious governing issues that are going to be in place on day one."

What do you make of his unfavorable poll numbers, which are said to be among the lowest in modern history for any president entering the White House? Do those numbers indicate that maybe people are watching him more closely and will hold him to a very high standard once he does get in the Oval Office?

"It's an important point to make. When I say that Trump's tweets have the ability to distract us, they might distract us from any specific controversy. But the overall impression that this transition is unusually controversial is getting through to the American people.

"Trump is also suffering from the fact that he lost the popular vote, and he had the highest unfavorable ratings of any presidential candidate in history. So the combination of those two facts means you're not going to be a very popular president going in. He is not a master manipulator in the sense that he's going to suddenly generate 80 percent approval for himself.

"At the same time, it's important to recognize that his floor may not be very low, just as we saw during the campaign. There were all sorts of revelations that came out that had relatively little effect among his core base of support. We may see that same sort of low-ceiling, high-floor effect during his time in office."

Trump's blunt language, his propensity to boast about himself, get into those feuds on Twitter — isn't that what so many millions of people who voted for him like about him? Is the Trump phenomenon a dawning of a new set of norms?

"Certainly the American people heard and saw who Trump was and the folks who voted for him knew what he was like. My concern is more with the way a president can speak in a manner that violates our expectations of the boundaries that president-elect will respect.

"Going after the press from the White House is different from going after the press as a reality show star."

"Going after the press from the White House is different from going after the press as a reality show star. That may have the function of chilling the necessary criticism and negative coverage that's an inherent part of a functioning democracy.

"I'm not so much worried about the reality-show aspects of Trump per se. It's those lines he might cross that are more fundamental to what the boundaries we expect our political leaders to respect."

Your biggest warning has been of a slow erosion of norms, rather than one big event to prove Trump's detractors right or even force him from office. If that's the case, how do you identify the signs of that erosion, and what can people who want them restored do about it?

"That's a hard question. It doesn't lend itself to a simple answer. I've certainly tried to speak out when I see these norms being violated, and there are some folks in elected office and in civil society and in the press who are who are trying to draw attention to these norms violations when they happen. Again, each one is not necessarily the end of American democracy, but the accretion of these can add up to something significant.

"To just give your listeners one additional example, the president-elect recently suggested that he would be having major military parades in large American cities of the sort that haven't been customary in our recent political life.  

"There's a certainly pageantry and military flyovers at football games, but we haven't marched our military down the boulevards of our major cities the way that many authoritarian regimes do, and that's what the president-elect was suggesting he might do.

"Now, who knows if he'll follow through on this. It's not a decisive event, but it's suggestive of transgressing these boundaries that so many other presidents have respected.

"I do worry that we've become numb to these sorts of developments, and started to take them for granted and assume that they’ll happen. They don't have to happen, and in some cases they shouldn't happen. We as citizens have to recognize that distinction."