Forget ‘norms’ and ‘guardrails.’ Only laws can constrain presidents.

Forget ‘norms’ and ‘guardrails.’ Only laws can constrain presidents. December 5, 2020
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Rose (Katharine Hepburn) appeals to Charlie (Humphrey Bogart) in a scene from the 1951 classic film “The African Queen,” the name of Charlie’s boat. Rose was appealing to Charlie to follow the norms of Western civilized society in their day, where drunkenness (Charlie’s hobby) was reviled and godly Christian sobriety was prized. (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I’m bone weary.

My eyes glaze over now and my head starts to droop every time I listen to Americans who have ostensible power or authority — renowned mainstream media pundits, elected lawmakers, the so-called “intellectual elite,” etc. — whine about how President Trump and his minions constantly and egregiously violate the nation’s time-honored cultural “norms,” and how there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Especially when even U.S. Republican senators won’t demand it of their party’s authoritarian “grand dragon.”

The reason these leading lights are so impotent in the face of these transgressions is that norms aren’t laws, that they lack the legally codified requirements and, especially, consequences, that laws demand.

But more fundamental to how a society’s traditional norms differ from laws is that their authority is derived solely from unwritten public consensus over long time and the voluntary acceptance of a dominant majority of the populace. For norms to be effective controllers of behavior, the citizenry as a whole must believe that they are, in effect, sacrosanct and must be strictly honored because they perpetuate the best of a nation’s ethos and protect citizens from their worst our impulses.

But what if a leader without shame, like Donald Trump, just simply chooses to ignore these cultural signposts — and the potential rigorous public shaming that gives them authority? What then? At the moment, apparently, nothing can stop such predatory cultural destruction short of the ballot box.

Such fundamental ethical values (largely derived from the Christian Bible), which for centuries were primal norms in American cultural life before Donald Trump’s political advent, include:

  • Honesty: in private, public and political behavior. The “my word is my bond” ethos.
  • Integrity: personal ethical reliability and responsibility, even in difficult circumstances. As the refined spinster Rose Sayer said to her blue-collar companion, Charlie Allnut, after he’d fallen off the wagon with his drinking in the classic movie The African Queen (1951): “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.”
  • Separation of church and state: Adherence to the principle that freedom of religion is a core American right for every citizen but that religion should be fully sequestered from government and the tax-funded public square, as the Founding Fathers intended. Third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, in a famous letter to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association, wrote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” [Jefferson was referring to Congress and not state legislatures, but U.S. courts have ruled that the separation applies also to state legislative bodies.]

  • Lawfulness: expected of all citizens, but especially the president of the United States, who serves as a behavioral role model for all Americans and who is constitutionally required to abide by the nation’s laws.
  • Compassion: of all Christian virtues, kindness and mercy are surely among the most historically important, as is caring for the suffering, struggling and disadvantaged. Americans, even non-religious ones, have long proudly honored these merciful, charitable virtues.
  • Generosity: despite often grasping capitalism being the economic engine of our republic, the winners are supposed to embody a sense of noblesse oblige, “the inferred responsibility of privileged people to act with generosity and nobility toward those less privileged.” A cultural generosity of spirit also inspires Americans lacking such status and privilege, as in people who will “give you the shirt of their back” to someone without even if it’s their only one. The cliché is proof of the norm.
  • Grace: not like Hollywood hoofer Fred Astaire’s but like Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Elie Wiesel (1928-2016). With passionate but soft-spoken eloquence and perseverance, Wiesel for decades continuously reminded the world of the existential dangers to world peace still posed by sectarian bigotry and hate institutionalized by Nazi Germany in the 20th
  • Truth: this not only regards personal truth-telling but also a wider acceptance of objective facts as the essential goal of inquiry; in the 21st century, this means acceptance over subjective opinion and private bias of materially confirmed and reconfirmed discoveries of science.
  • Faith: this favoring of religious belief instinctively acknowledges that faith, particularly that of the major monotheistic world religions, honors the best of human virtue, those nurturing and caring behaviors that improve life for all.

My point in all this lead-up is that the current president of our democratic American republic has violated every one of these norms — carelessly, flagrantly, egregiously and chronically.

Look them up (he has rarely tried to hide the amoral, unethical injuries and mendacities he has heaped on the American people). He merely denies culpability despite obvious evidence to the contrary. Like that he actually won the 2020 presidential election (he didn’t) because of rampant electoral fraud (there wasn’t any).

Note that, whereas he may have committed actual crimes (and manifestly has, including abuse of power), most of his most obvious transgressions have been of norms — cultural and political “guardrails” that ensure proper, efficient and honorable exercise of government. But norms are toothless, and violators generally cannot be formally indicted in courts of law.

For example, the president has violated tenets of compassion by separating immigrant children from parents at the southern border; violated generosity by withholding federal funds from the needy; violated faith by aggressively trying to embed evangelical Christianity and policies in the federal government and enforce them on the nation; violated essential honesty and fealty to truth by publicly uttering or tweeting more than 20,000 bald-faced, fact-checked lies and misrepresentations in his four years in office; and utterly failed to conduct himself with respectable grace and honor as the so-called “leader of the free world,” by embracing adversaries, denouncing allies, junking multinational treaties, trashing the World Health Organization and denouncing NATO, all for sophomoric reasons. Not to mention exploiting his office to enrich himself and his businesses and friends in million-dollar-plus emoluments (formally ill-gotten gains). Or congratulating U.S. neo-Nazis as “very good people.” Or bribing the president of the Ukraine to investigate Trump’s arch-nemesis, Joe Biden, purely for political gain.

Yet, it appears nothing can be done besides voting him out of office — a fraught and perilously lengthy process, under the urgent circumstances?

Why doesn’t this fall under the constitutional requirement that presidents must “faithfully execute” their public office and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”?

With a new administration starting in 2021, we have a chance to enact new laws to replace flaccid norms that currently only expect our presidents to voluntarily behave with rational fidelity to objective truth and law, honesty, compassion, generosity, separation of church and state, and the inherent saving grace necessary to nobly represent American values in the nation and world.

At least 80 million Americans are bone tired of watching the honor of our amazing nation continuously fouled by a leader who infects everything good about us with selfish, cynical, callous bigotry. Let’s make it much, much harder — even impossible — for future presidents to so embarrass and endanger us.


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