Albert Hunt: The Age of Trump Is ‘Defining Deviancy Down’
When the president seems inept or corrupt, we shrug. If he ever fumbles through adequately, he is praised.
Pat Moynihan, the great politician-intellectual, warned about the dangers of “defining deviancy down,” in which worse and
worse behavior comes to be accepted as the norm.
The late New York senator’s essay, almost a quarter century ago, was about crime and family structure. Today it applies to the Trump presidency: the danger that chronic lying, ignorance of history and policy, petty invective, racial demagoguery and personal greed fall within the realm of the norm.
If President Donald Trump gives a speech that is reasonably coherent or takes a sensible action, suddenly even some critics treat it as a momentous occurrence. But wait a moment. That’s actually what presidents are supposed to do.
When he commits one of his especially egregious acts, the news media world too often fall into one flawed approach or another. Either they downshift into partisan mode — in which those who constantly attack him continue to do so, and those who critique his critics continue their barrage — or they pursue a misbegotten mission for “balance.”
The sudden firing of the FBI director, James Comey, last week gave us a perfect example. The move was shocking because Comey was leading the investigation into whether any Trump operatives colluded with the Kremlin to affect the American presidential election.
Virtually everything the White House said for two days was untrue: that the action had nothing to do with the Russian probe; that the president fired Comey only because of the recommendation of the attorney general, who supposedly was recusing himself from the matter, and the deputy attorney general; that the president was shocked at “atrocities” Comey committed in an earlier investigation of Hillary Clinton; and that morale was terrible at the FBI. It isn’t clear whether White House aides, and Vice President Mike Pence, lied or whether they were lied to by the president.
It gets worse. Roger Stone, a longtime dirty trickster who has been close to Trump starting three decades ago courtesy of the nefarious Roy Cohn, boasted that he advised the president to fire Comey. Stone, who last year predicted it “soon will be (John) Podesta’s time in the barrel” seven weeks before the Russian-spawned leak of the Clinton chairman’s emails, is a prime suspect in the investigation.
There is one clear truth: Trump fired Comey to stifle the Russia investigation. One reason the bureau considers it a “significant investigation” is a pattern of Trump associates caught in lies about their Russian connections: foreign policy adviser Carter Page, the administration’s initial national security adviser Michael Flynn and the attorney general Jeff Sessions.
Duplicity is the norm for Trump. As a candidate he repeatedly lied. As president he has persistently peddled fiction like the crazed charge that the Obama administration wiretapped Trump Tower and baseless claims of widespread illegal voting.
But it is not the president alone who is defining deviancy down. It’s also how people react to his actions.
When Trump fired missiles at a Syrian airbase, the usually sensible Fareed Zakaria declared “He became President of the United States” with that action. To be president is to have a coherent policy and to pursue it. Can this administration articulate a policy on Syria or North Korea or Russia?
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After Trump’s first address to Congress, the liberal commentator Van Jones gushed over his honoring the widow of a Navy Seal, calling it “one of the most extraordinary moments” in American politics. It was a nice touch, but not as memorable Ronald Reagan honoring the doomed Challenger space crew, or George W. Bush with a bullhorn at Ground Zero after 9/11 or Barack Obama singing “Amazing Grace” at a Charleston church after a white supremacist killed nine African-Americans at a Bible study.
(Actually one of the few memorable lines that evening was Trump’s call that “the time for trivial fights is over.” What a thought. In a tweet a few days ago, the president of the United States renewed his bickering with Rosie O’Donnell.)
This president has so lowered our expectations that he is given effusive credit if he ever performs a routine function even adequately.
James M. Perry, a great Wall Street Journal political reporter, used to worry about any would-be president who didn’t know much about history. Trump keeps demonstrating that he knows almost no history. On ethics, he and his family seems to view 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as a no-risk hedge fund to enrich themselves.
Imagine what Pat Moynihan would say.