Political observers during the Trump era have spilled a lot of ink asking where the red line is. I’d like to spill a bit on what happens if we’ve already crossed it.
Some backstory: A few years ago, I attended a talk with a very well-educated, ideologically mixed group of people about the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan. Someone made the comment that even if invading Afghanistan looked like a bad idea at the time, President Bush simply had to do it, because if he hadn’t, “the American people wouldn’t have stood for it.” The audience nodded in agreement.
My sense is that this is an assumption we make quite a bit in American politics. There are certain things politicians do simply because if they don’t, the American people wouldn’t stand for it, as though the American people exert some mysterious or paranormal constraint over elected officials. Politicians will resign office when a sex scandal surfaces based on the assumption that the people wouldn’t tolerate such behavior. Government shutdowns end because politicians are fearful of angering the people for too long.
In a recent podcast, Ezra Klein interviewed Yascha Mounk about Donald Trump’s illiberalism. A good deal of the conversation centered on their mutual belief that many of the things Trump has done in office would have been considered unthinkable a year or two ago. Or rather, it would have been unthinkable that the president could do these things and go unpunished. These would include such presidential actions as:
- Disclosing classified Israeli intelligence to Russian officials in the Oval Office
- Retaining a financial stake in his hotels and encouraging people interested in currying his favor to pay to stay in those hotels
- Hiring his children for top government positions and having one of them sit in for him during a G20 summit
- Continually and baselessly disparaging the US intelligence community and disputing its findings that Russia interfered in the 2016 election
- Referring to the media as “the enemy of the American people”
The list goes on. Notably, most of these actions are not illegal, but rather are violations of longstanding American political norms. Those norms, as Julia Azari and Jennifer Smith note, are vital to the healthy functioning of American political institutions. (Indeed, as Mounk notes, they often are part of those institutions — that there are nine Supreme Court justices is a norm, not a constitutional rule.) While the judicial system, including special counsels, exists to find and punish violations of the law, we operate under the assumption that norm violations will also be punished in order to protect the political system. Which is why, like Klein and Mounk, many of us would have said last year that the American people would not stand for these sorts of violations.
Klein seemed to be saying in the interview that maybe the red line lies further down this path than we’d originally thought. But what exactly does it mean to say that the American people will not stand for this? What if we’ve already passed the red line and this is what the response looks like? After all, Trump has an approval rating in the mid- to high 30s despite a booming economy, relative peace, low crime rates and gas prices, etc. Perhaps this is how the American people register their disapproval — not with pitchforks or guns, but by telling pollsters they’re dissatisfied.
This is not to dismiss the other ways Americans have registered their dissatisfaction in 2017. There have been a great many marches — the rallies on January 21 alone included roughly 1 percent of all Americans — and far more people are calling their members of Congress and the White House and attending town hall meetings than we usually see. A record number of Democrats are challenging Republican members of Congress for 2018. These actions generally send the message that the American people are not satisfied with the actions of the president.
And with most politicians, that would be sufficient. As a species, politicians almost invariably want to be liked. Presidents, in particular, know that the success of their agenda depends on how popular they are. The success of their party in the next congressional and state legislative elections is also a function of their approval rating.
Presidents will often make gestures to democratic norms, or even refrain from violating them, to avoid harsh evaluations from voters for these reasons. But this doesn’t seem to constrain Trump, who doesn’t mind when voters disapprove of him, takes it as a measure of accomplishment when he’s managed to offend people who disagree with him, or has so insulated himself that he’s convinced himself he truly is popular and the polls saying otherwise are fake news.
In this kind of situation, the harsh judgment of the American people seems rather anemic.
It’s hardly the same situation, but Bill Clinton pushed a bit along these lines in early 1992 when three simultaneous scandals (womanizing, pot smoking, and draft dodging) plagued his nascent presidential campaign shortly before the New Hampshire primary. Political observers across the country declared that the American people wouldn’t stand for it, and the suspension of his campaign was expected within days or hours. He simply decided not to suspend his campaign. It turned out that you could survive a scandal simply by not surrendering.
So here we are in a situation where the American people have said they disapprove of the president’s behavior and are not standing for it, and yet the presidency continues. What exactly is supposed to happen?
The Constitution affords the American people little recourse in such a situation. There’s no such thing as a presidential recall, and at least there’s no explicit mechanism for redoing an election. They can put pressure, as they’ve been doing, on their members of Congress, but those members also don’t have a great many methods for punishing Trump. Actually impeaching and removing the president from office is a very blunt tool, has never been done, and seems unlikely to happen given party polarization. Yes, we’ve seen recent efforts by Congress to constrain Trump somewhat, preventing him from making recess appointments and stopping his health reform efforts, but what if the president doesn’t actually have concrete policy goals? How do these efforts punish his norm violations?
The disturbing conclusion is that Trump crossed many red lines some time ago, is currently being punished for these transgressions, and is nonetheless undeterred. The political system may well have more significant punishments for him further down the road, including his party’s loss of control of Congress and his own failure to be reelected, but those outcomes are hardly guaranteed and may well be determined by other factors outside of Trump’s control.
All this is a reminder of the lessons that Chris Achen and Larry Bartels offered us in their recent book Democracy for Realists: The American voters are actually not great at this job we expect them to hold. Political leaders and the institutions they’ve constructed, particularly America’s venerated political parties, need to do the hard work of vetting candidates and preventing inappropriate ones from achieving office. To just sit back and let the people decide and mete out justice is both irresponsible and dangerous.