Thursday, April 26, 2018

Trump Is About Norms, Not Vulgarity

Recently I was listening to a fun podcast called Filbluster by two political scientists named Tyler Hughes and Larry Becker about national politics. They were having an interesting debate sparked by the recent death of former first lady Barbara Bush about what to make of her and her husband's era of politics. And of course the Trump era we are living in now, and I thought brought into sharp focus some of my own thinking about Trump.

The debate was one of those classic ones that will probably never go away, about to what degree society keeps changing and to what degree "the more things change, the more they stay the same." What struck me as being really interesting is that while George Herbert Walker Bush and Donald Trump are in many ways completely different people, there is a strong case they they were quite similar in some ways when it came to their engagement with electoral politics.

I don't want to belabor the point because I see Bush The Elder as a fairly mediocre president (other's think he's better but I don't really see it), and Trump seems to be on track to being one of the worst in American history. But thinking about it in terms of electoral or media politics I see a lot of similarities. For example:
  • Trump's use of racial demagoguery is pretty obvious, but Bush used it too in his campaigns quite a bit, most notably in the infamous "Willie Horton Ad"
  • On the campaign trail, Trump surrounds himself with a whole Royal Court of pretty fairly awful people, most notably Steve Bannon. Bush of course had as his campaign manager in 88' Lee Atwater, a man Democratic political people used to call the "Boogie Man."  Among Lee's greatest hits were using a hired person pretending to be a journalist in a press conference to ask a question about a candidate's mental health so Lee could bring up the fact the man had been suicidal as a teen and had received ECT treatment,  "got hooked up to jumper cables" in Lee's words. Also Lee on how to win over mythical "white working class" should be mentioned as well. In other words Atwater's life and times reminds me of Trump's style and substance quite a bit, and while Bush didn't give Atwater a job in the White House, he did make him head of the RNC. 
  • Trump of course lives and breathes Fox News, there's good evidence in fact he uses Fox pundits as part of forming White House rhetoric and policy. Fox News got founded in the late 90's of course and its chief architect was Roger Ailes. Who was one of Bush The Elder's major media guru's on the 88' campaign as well the man who according to Richard Ben Cramer's "What It Takes" once told the Vice President after he wore a tie and a short sleeve dress shirt at a speaking engagement on a hot summer day, "Don't ever wear that shirt again!...You look like a fucking CLERK." Bush rarely did that again and Ailes would be Bush's major media buyer through much of the 88' primaries as well.
My point here isn't to say the George H.W. Bush is the same as Donald Trump. Far from it. George H.W. Bush was a man born of great wealth and privileged to an old money American family, who was a war hero and college athletic star, who then moved to another part of the country to make his own very large fortune, and who dedicated his life to politics and public service, and who cared deeply about forging an international system that would preserve global peace and advance American interests. Donald Trump is none of those things.

So what's the point of this blog post? Well the point is that I think the Filibluster debate focused too much on political actions when the big thing is political norms. 

In other words Trump shreds political norms wherever he goes, from big things like calling for his political opponents to be imprisoned, to little things like refusing to invite any Democrat to his state dinner with the President of France. But George H.W. Bush, whatever he was willing to do in his campaigns and rise to power, at least worked to try and uphold those political norms he had trampled on.

In other words Bush's campaign may have focuses on racial demagoguery at some times, but he's also a president who signed the 1991 Civil Rights Act (admittedly he vetoed the stronger 1990 bill). Likewise after stoking the flames of racial animosity in his campaign, when the LA Riots happened, he gave a president address where he was very "Law And Order" in the beginning. But then talked about what happened to Rodney King, "I felt anger, I felt pain, I felt how can I explain this to my grandchildren? Civil rights leaders and just plain citizens fearful of and sometimes victimized by police brutality were deeply hurt."

Just try to imagine Trump saying something like that. Now try to imagine him saying it in the midst of a riot in America's second largest city.

My big point is this: Becker and Hughes are asking the wrong questions. Politics has always been nasty, even the narrative of the "Good Old Days" of post war congressional congeniality in Congress are probably more PR than anything else, and don't get me started about how the Founders' views of each other. But trying to maintain the norms used to be something Republican Presidents like George Herbert Walker Bush cared about. Now under Trump this seems to be gone.

I'll make no predictions about the future, after all I really did think there was a way Trump could win the GOP nomination. But I do think Barbara Bush is a woman from another era, a era where democratic norms mattered, and while Trump is the oldest president in a long time, his shattering of norms seems to be a big thing for the future.

We'll see what happens.

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