Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Limitations of “Norm” Talk

Against dumb presidents, against dumb norms.
January 21, 2022
The Limitations of “Norm” Talk
Supporters cheer as US President Donald Trump arrives to address a "Keep America Great" rally in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on February 20, 2020. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)

A lot of my pals in the dwindling Trump-hostile right make an argument that goes something like this: Never Trumpers are inconsistent or worse, grifters, if they do not lambaste all of Joe Biden’s various proposals that shred our sacred democratic norms, such as ending the filibuster, reviewing the size of SCOTUS, and [insert other Beltway totem here]. They claim that after years spent shouting Norm(s)! every time Trump fired up his Twitter machine, we Never Trumpers are required to defend in perpetuity every silly procedure and archaic policy our government has cooked up over the centuries.

It’s worth picking apart this critique.

First things first: My opposition to Trump is based on the fact that he is an incompetent, racist, dangerous, perfidious, megalomaniacal, degenerate corned beef face syrup wearing wankstain. It is not because he looked askance at the parliamentarian’s rulings or declined to adhere to Robert’s Rules of Order, for which I maintain no special attachment. It is unclear why my opposition to that witless cocksplat means I have to give full-throated support to the current Senate cloture rules lest I run afoul of the pundit-consistency mandate.

Yes, Donald Trump flouted norms that exist for good reason and that ought to be maintained. On the whole, it is good that presidential candidates release their tax returns, and it was bad that Trump did not. It is good that there is a norm against staffing the federal government with “acting” officials to bypass the Senate confirmation process, and it was bad that the Trump administration had more bad “acting” in it than a cheesy telenovela.

It was bad that he broke the norm that made all the other presidents decide it was imprudent to make their unqualified son-in-law shadow president or force the vice president to stay at their gaudy-ass golf club—and on and on and on. You can find various lists of Trump transgressions, like this Washington Post list of “the 20 most important norms he broke”; with some exceptions, I’d agree that most of the norms on that list are worth protecting.

But some talk of norms is just dodgy—a way of pretending that power politics has some basis in principle or precedent. Following the deaths of Supreme Court Justices Scalia and Ginsburg, we heard a lot about the so-called norms regarding whether a president in the last year of a term can fill a vacancy. If I rightly remember Mitch McConnell’s contortuplicated explanations, a president in the final year of their term cannot appoint someone to the Supreme Court unless that president’s own party controls the Senate, in which case the president must be allowed to do so, if and only if Jupiter is in the house of Mercury, or else a longstanding norm invented by a blogger with an angry baseball avatar is at risk of being violated.

Moreover, the Trump presidency should have awakened us to how our norms can be abused by people who don’t give a rip. Many political norms actually contributed to Trump’s rise and allowed him to abuse the system at the expense of competitors who were coloring inside the lines—as when he bullied debate moderators and levied the types of personal attacks that would have made WASPy George H.W. Bush clutch Barbara’s pearls.

On a whole spate of issues I have long-held anti-normie views. Among them:

  • The State of the Union as currently practiced is stupid and should be cancelled. The annual foofaraw is a big waste of time, and it’s only made worse by the inevitably inane “responses” from the other party. Presidents ought to revert to the old practice of sending written messages. A courteous and brief annual email should suffice. Even a DM slide would be preferable.
  • The degree of power a minority party can wield in our system is too great, so we should look at ways to rebalance it. Sure, some sort of filibuster reform might be part of that. (More on that in a moment.) But there is no shortage of other ideas suggested by good-government groups over the last decade that could help to revitalize our government.
  • The manner in which we design congressional districts is an embarrassment. Some states have already instituted reasonable reforms; I’d be open to a more radical redesign.
  • The imperial presidency has ballooned, and while it should probably be rolled back—I’d totes be fine with eliminating at least one of the three departments Rick Perry wanted to get rid of, dealer’s choice—the easier path to rebalancing our government would be to strengthen Congress. In fact, a few years ago, before Sen. Mike Lee became a pathetic Trump truckler, he was pushing just such a plan.

And although this isn’t strictly speaking a norm, since it’s written right into the Constitution, I’d add that a lesson of the Trump era is that one tradition we should revisit is the two-and-a-half-month lame duck presidency. The lame duck period was originally about seventeen weeks, with inauguration day on March 4, until the ratification of the Twentieth Amendment in 1933 reined it in to about eleven weeks, with inauguration day on Jan. 20. Even so, that’s still clearly too long, seeing as it allowed for the organization of a multi-week pro-coup bus tour with multiple media partners livestreaming insurrection across the globe, something I don’t think the Founders saw coming. The Brits turn over the keys to 10 Downing Street in just a few days. The Canadians take a couple of weeks. Seems like something we should look into.

While I’m at it, I also believe we should expand the NCAA football playoffs and pay the athletes. Reduce the number of NBA regular season games and replace it with a mid-season tournament. Bring relegation stateside. Men should wear pearls! Women should wear suits. Cohabitation before marriage should be encouraged. Eat your food as soon as it comes to the table. And for God’s sakes, make Daylight Savings Time year-round at long last!

Norms are like much else in life: strikes and gutters, ups and downs. Some are good. Some could use some revisiting. Some are so outdated as to be actively harmful. In a healthy country with two functioning political parties, we could judge our political norms on a case-by-case basis as issues come up. Stupid rules and customs shouldn’t be protected out of some anemoia and a reflexive desire to oppose norm-breaking bampots like Donald Trump.

There are plenty of big structural changes the Democrats are proposing that I don’t love. Frankly, I think that simply nuking the filibuster is likely to backfire (it did last time); if I had my druthers, we’d bring back the talkie. The left’s plans for campaign finance reform will almost certainly make things worse rather than better. And that’s without even getting into the problems arising from the vast power of the administrative state; the notion that President Biden could have the CDC tell landlords when they can accept rent payments was preposterous from the get-go.

But none of that has anything at all to do with Donald Trump or blind loyalty to precious norms.

Adults of good will can both detest our raging cockwomble of a former president and debate the workings of our politics and government without any contradiction or hypocrisy. Hell, all normal people should feel a duty to do both.

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.