This piece will be appearing in newspapers in my conservative congressional district (VA-06)
In both word and deed, Donald Trump is a most unusual political figure, and the usual journalistic habits for covering politicians have proved a poor guide for how the news media should cover him.
So, as the media struggle to figure our how to cover our new president, let me propose a part of an answer: Focus on what in what Trump says and does that differs from what’s normal in American politics.
Actually, reporting the extraordinary is the general practice in news reporting. The safe take-offs and landings of thousands of planes don’t make the news, or should they. It’s the plane that crashes that needs to be reported. As the old adage says, “Man bites dog,” being unusual, is bigger news than the more normal “Dog bites man.”
Perhaps more than any major figure in American political history, Trump specializes in demonstrating that he is not constrained by the norms of American politics.
- No one has ever treated his political rivals as he did.
- No presidential candidate has refused to release his income tax, or put his wealth into a blind trust.
- No one has ever just made stuff up as frequently or brazenly has he has.
- No President-Elect has refused to attend intelligence briefings as he has.
- No President-Elect has chosen – to head government agencies – people who have been so hostile to the missions of those agencies.
The list could be expanded at length. Almost every day, Trump does or says things the likes of which we Americans have never seen at center stage of our politics. And he will likely continue, as president, to defy American customs regarding political conduct.
The violation of norms is no small thing. Although we are governed by the Constitution, and are “a nation of laws,” the complex web of norms — non-binding rules of conduct — surrounding those structures also governs how power is used. Every time a prominent person gets away with violating a norm, the nation itself is changed.
It behooves us Americans, therefore, to observe and evaluate how the nation is being changed – for better or for worse – by a new president who doesn’t feel bound by the customary norms.
So that’s a big part of the media’s job now– to call our attention to every violation of a long-standing norm of presidential conduct, and to explore what it means for America and its political culture for that norm to be ignored or attacked.
The media should help the citizenry to think through: Is this a norm that should be swept aside, because it gets in the way of our doing the nation’s business at it needs to be done? Or is this a norm that serves the nation well?
Addressing these questions regarding this extraordinary political figure will enable the us Americans to evaluate for ourselves whether the man who is our new president is “making America great again,” or whether he is tearing down what’s good about America.
It used to be that we as a nation could depend upon America’s conservatives to be protectors of the norms.
That cultural norms are of vital importance has historically been a fundamental part of the conservative creed. Societies cannot just be “engineered” by laws and bureaucratic structures, conservatives have long argued, because so much of the heart and soul of a society lie in the customs and norms built up over generations.
Conservatives have long been the guardians of tradition, and norms are an essential part of a nation’s tradition. But in these times, it’s the conservatives who have given us a new president who is adamant about not being restrained by norms.
So the media must now step up and fill the void left by this new indifference of our conservatives to the preservation of our political traditions. As our political norms are being dismantled, transforming America into something different from what we have historically been, the media need to help us citizens decide what kind of nation we want to be.
Andy Schmookler — who was the Democratic nominee for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District in 2012 — is the author most recently of WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How We Can Defeat It.