An Example of Eroding Mutual Forbearance

Recently, I notedNYT piece concerning the troubling erosion of democratic norms in the US in the current era.  In that piece, the co-authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt noted the following:

To function well, democratic constitutions must be reinforced by two basic norms, or unwritten rules. The first is mutual toleration, according to which politicians accept their opponents as legitimate. When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.

Yesterday, the President of the United States displayed an example of violating this norm.  Speaking in Ohio he said the following:

“Even on positive news — really positive news, like that — they were like death and un-American. Un-American,” Trump complained. “Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

“Un-American.”

“Treasonous.”

“[T]hey certainly don’t seem to love our country very much.”

These are all stark attacks on political opponents for the dire crime of not clapping for the president at the SOTU.

These are words that are aimed at delegitimizing the opposition party and, again, because they did not give praise to him at a speech.

Look, I can agree in the abstract that the political theater (which is bipartisan in nature, and in longstanding) at the SOTU wherein the applause are typically partisan in motivation is more than a bit absurd (but then again, I think that the SOTU is more than a little absurd).  If a president wants to call out that absurdity, that’s fair.  But to denigrate the opposition party with these types of descriptions, especially at an event that was practically a campaign rally, is inappropriate, unpresidential, and even dangerous. At a minimum, the political theater in question is historically quite American.

I also recognize that one can make the argument that he was more or less joking about the treason comment.  But, crimes, especially political crimes that are capital offenses, aren’t especially good subjects for humor.  This would seem to be obviously true when the “joke” is deployed as public criticism of the opposition party for their crime of lack of adulation for the dear leader.

Even if his supporters wish to deploy the “just joking” defense about treason, he was clearly not joking about the “un-American” nature of lack of the lack of applause nor was he joking asserting that the Democrats “don’t seem to love our country very much.”  I would note that Levitsky and  Ziblatt states the following in their definition of mutual forebearance: “When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.”  As political scientists, I suspect that they both heard that speech and were pleased to have direct evidence in support of their argument.  As citizens of the US, I suspect that they were saddened and concerned.

Trump’s words were that of stereotypical tinpot dictators, not those of a President of the United States.  They should be called out and criticized; they certainly do not deserve defense.

One might react to all of this by saying it is not a big deal.  But I think it is because it is part of a broader problem of the erosion of basic norms needed to govern ourselves.  Further, in the context of growing polarization, these types of words are damaging.  The President is supposed to be the symbolic head of the country, and therefore should not be trying to tear Americans apart.  Sure, argue and criticize over policy, but don’t call opponents un-American for a public expression of their political opinions.

The video is here, if one prefers to hear the words directly from Trump:

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Donald Trump, Steven Taylor, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    What’s really funny about this, is that the good news he was talking about was his claim that he had anything to do with record low black unemployment.
    So he is actually saying that because Democrats refused to endorse his lies and fantasies, they are treasonous.
    Sad!!!

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ric Wilson-

    You may have noticed by now, but I’m not one to pull any punches on Donald Trump. As a conservative, I see him as a statist abomination, a plump, be-wattled authoritarian-wannabe man-baby with the intellectual horsepower of a toaster oven.

    One thing we’ve learned in the last two years is that no legal, moral or cultural strictures bind Trump and that he is immune to the better angels of human nature. The moral event horizon around him consumes the good in anyone who becomes one of his vassals. There is no better version of Trump, ever. He can only degrade and destroy everything he touches, but today was remarkable, even for him.

    Monday’s simpering, prissy, self-indulgent performance in Ohio was just another raree-show with our Kentucky Fried Nero fiddling while the stock market burned. Then came the moment where he broke another seal, and cracked another seam in the foundation of our Republic.

    That was when Trump, in his typical sneering, sniggling, purse-lipped way said of the Democrats watching his State of the Union speech: “They were like death. And un-American. Un-American. Somebody said ‘treasonous.’ I mean, yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

    Even for Trump, on an endless quest to define American decency down, this was a new low. His followers and Congressional cheering section will love it, of course. A few Republicans in Congress may furrow a brow or intone some anodyne statement like, “I wouldn’t have put it that way, but…”

    Trump lacks the mental capacity to see where this very slippery slope leads, but the political arsonists around him do. With that, prepare to reap the whirlwind.

    More at the link.

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  3. Not the IT Dept. says:

    In order for someone to make a joke, they have to possess a sense of humor. Simply being a joke is not the same as understanding one.

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  4. CSK says:

    Trump doesn’t give a damn about the country. He’s angry because they didn’t applaud him.

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  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: He thinks he is to the USA as Putin is to Russia.

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  6. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    L’etat c’est moi.

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  7. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    “Even on positive news — really positive news, like that — they were like death and un-American. Un-American...Somebody said treasonous. Yeah, I guess, why not? Can we call that treason? Why not? I mean, they certainly didn’t seem to love our country very much.”

    It’s un-American to march in lockstep with the President and agree with everything he says.

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  8. Matt Bernius says:

    It’s telling to compare President Obama’s public handling of Joe Wilson’s “You Lie” outburst from 2009’s SotU to Trump’s comments.

    http://www.nbcnews.com/id/32767813/ns/politics-health_care_reform/t/obama-accepts-apology-wilson-outburst/#.Wnm6fSBG2Uk

    It’s also worth noting (as was done at the time of the Wilson outburst) that opposition reactions (including boo’ing) during the SotU happened during Clinton (1993) and GW (2005) as well.

    None of those Presidents even engaged in this type of language for far more norm breaking outbursts. Regardless of whether or not this is a “joke”, it really is a major shift in what’s acceptable. It’s one thing to have a proxy or lower party figure make this type of comment publicly. This is the President, the defacto party leader — its wholly unacceptable.

    And they called Obama thin skinned.

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  9. Slugger says:

    Can we just ignore him? He is not a serious person.
    We need to study how nations found work-arounds for unqualified rulers. There must lots of precedents. Also, the electorate needs to administer a spanking to his party that will make its leaders rethink their selection process to prevent a recurrence which somehow needs to resonate with the other guys as well. A Trump-Hillzbeast contest was a true choice from Hell. I do think that HRC would have had a larger vocabulary for insults than calling people “little” on Twitter which is a point in her favor.

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  10. @Slugger:

    Can we just ignore him?

    He’s President of the United States and arguably the most powerful man in the world.

    So, no. We can’t.

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  11. @Slugger:

    We need to study how nations found work-arounds for unqualified rulers.

    BTW: you can forget such work-arounds when the unqualified ruler has support of a major political party (which he leads).

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  12. Kathy says:

    When a people care more for patriotic symbols than what those symbols represent, the principles and ideals get trampled by prejudice and personal ambitions.

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  13. al-Ameda says:

    Trump cares only about himself and his ‘brand.’ And we know from over 30 years of observing Trump in his role as real estate developer, salesman, con man, and grifter, Trump will say anything … absolutely anything … that he feels will advance his cause, his objective, to make a sale and close a deal.

    In this case, he’s looking ahead somewhat to the 2018 mid-terms, and more to his re-election in 2020 – he knows that his base loves this bullsh**, and many of them actually do believe that those who did not applaud the president are treasonous.

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  14. Gustopher says:

    “When mutual toleration exists, we recognize that our partisan rivals are loyal citizens who love our country just as we do.”

    I don’t think the far right loves our country the way liberals do.

    They love an idealized vision of what our country was, and are bothered when people bring up minor little picadillos like the lasting effects of slavery, or the destruction of the Native American cultures — that’s bashing America, and they really want to know “why do you hate America?” They love American heritage and want to protect it.

    Liberals tend to love an idealized version of what our country can become. We haven’t lived up to the lofty ideals about equality written by our slave holding founding fathers, but we get closer over time. They love the idea of America, and want to share it.

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  15. Gustopher says:

    Another thing… there’s an assumption that politics is a zero sum game, and a belief that if we winnthen, by definition, they lose. This has traditionally caused us to overlook the many areas where the two parties agree and focus on the differences.

    But, sometime during the Clinton presidency, this metastasized into something far worse on the right. Not just a belief that if they win then the Democrats must have lost (whether those Democrats realize it or not), but a belief that if the Democrats lose than the Republicans must somehow have won. The Republican Party’s main, driving vision has become spite.

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  16. KM says:

    @Gustopher:

    Indeed. Both liberals and conservatives are in love with a dream – the only difference is conservatism want a dream that never happened while liberal dreams are theoretically achievable. When I talk to people and they long for an illusionary day gone by, it’s interesting that they automatically assume they’d be on the good end of the scale. They’d be the wealthy noble, not the peasant grubbing in the dirt. You want unfettered free markets back? Well, be prepared to live in utter poverty and misery like the vast majority of the country. The middle class would have been the same as it was now: doctors, managers, engineers, and business owners – white collar workers that the majority of those wishes for these days are *not*. No one wishes to go back to the days of slavery and expects to be a slave.

    Liberals love future potential but understand potential doesn’t always translate to reality. Disappointing but true. Conservatives love a white-washed past that they can pretend would have elevated them. Things were always better then – they could have been a contender. Retro potential isn’t a thing and yet it’s the core of nostalgia.

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  17. Kathy says:

    How long before the base of either party decides people in the other party are not real citizens? How long before they decide people in the other party are “enemies of the country,” or traitors? How long before they decide they can use violence against them?

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  18. grumpy realist says:

    @KM: A.J.P. Taylor (the historian) commented once that the fact that his grandfather was a weaver had inoculated him from blindly falling in love with the past.

    I wonder how many people longing for a Downtown Abbey lifestyle assume that they’re going to be on the bottom end of the totem pole? Damn few, I suspect.

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  19. Mikey says:

    @Kathy: I’m pretty sure the last year has shown the GOP has decided all those things in the affirmative.

    Hell, it’s been the Republican position for years that liberals aren’t “real Americans.”

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  20. Moosebreath says:

    @Mikey:

    “I’m pretty sure the last year has shown the GOP has decided all those things in the affirmative.”

    Jon Chait does a good job of setting forth the case for your position. His concluding paragraph:

    “Against this chilling backdrop, the president’s frequently stated intent to make federal law enforcement a weapon to protect his party and investigate his opponents hardly even registers. Indeed, Trump’s routine authoritarian bluster nestles comfortably into a party where panic about unfriendly demographic changes has curdled into deep suspicion of the principle of majority rule. Trump as an individual is surely a grotesque outlier. But the overall direction of his presidency is an outgrowth of the party’s long-standing direction. Conservatives once feared Trump as a blunt instrument. Now they recognize and appreciate that the blunt instrument is a weapon of their cause.”

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  21. Ben Wolf says:

    “Un-American” and “treasonous” are words used regularly against people offering political critiques outside approved discourse. We once had a communist party, two socialist parties and a labor union called Industrial Workers of the World; look what happened to them.

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