Point Well Taken…

One of the websites I visit regularly is Talking Points Memo. Its editor, Josh Marshall, was a conventional journalist before establishing the online equivalent of a news site devoted to government and politics, and he employs staff reporters who are equally professional and credible.

In a recent column, Marshall reported on his participation in a CNN segment, and made a point about the accusation that this President routinely violates democratic norms–an issue that has certainly concerned me, and that has been a focus of criticisms leveled by numerous political scientists.

Marshall says we need to stop talking so much about norms.

But we need to stop talking so much about “norms”. And it’s not just CNN. The term has come up a number of times in our editorial conversations at TPM just today. I’ve talked about them. But we need to stop talking so much about norms. Because it doesn’t capture what is happening or the situation we’re in. In every kind of communication, clarity is the most important thing. By talking so much about “norms” and the violation of “norms” we’re confusing the situation and even confusing ourselves.

“Norms” aren’t laws for a reason. They are like bumpers on the roads of our civic and political life which are there to keep people of basically good faith from crossing lines they shouldn’t cross. They can also be warning posts so others can see when someone is either going down a bad path or needs to be brought back into line.

As Marshall says, that isn’t what ought to worry us.

But the problem with almost everything President Trump is doing today is not that he’s violating norms. The problem is that he is abusing his presidential powers to cover up his crimes and his associates’ crimes. Full stop. That’s the problem. The norms are just the orange rubber cones he knocked over when he drove out of his lane and headed for the crowded sidewalk.

He makes a similar point about transactions the press usually labels “conflicts of interest.”

What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption. It’s like “norms”. Defining “conflicts of interest” is meant to keep relatively honest people on the straight and narrow or create tripwires that allow others to see when people in power are crossing the line. Nothing like that is happening here. We have an increasingly open effort to make vast sums of money with the presidency. It’s happening in front of our eyes, albeit not quite as visibly as the coverup.

Marshall’s point is important. The use of terminology that may have been entirely appropriate when applied to less venal political actors only serves to muddy the waters when we are dealing with unambiguously criminal behavior.

I understand the reluctance; we’ve never had an administration ignore the law this blatantly and proudly. But that’s what we have now, and refusing to accurately label what is obvious to anyone who is looking is akin to aiding and abetting.


  1. Sorry Sheila and Josh, but this is akin to the argument about who’s more corrupt.

    Wall Street packaged and sold toxic collateral mortgage obligations to investors all over the world. Toxic because they knew it was only a matter of time before they exploded and boy, did they ever explode.

    The Democratic POTUS did nothing. In fact, he put Wall Street professionals who financed his campaign in charge of “cleaning up the mess.” Not a single banker went to jail. Not one.

    I could go on and on and on…but when the system is corrupt, what’s the point of pointing fingers at the players within the system?

    Here’s why I cringe when I hear or read someone discuss “democratic norms”…we don’t have a democracy. It’s a fraud. Look at Indiana’s redistricting, the electoral college, Citizens United, suppressing voters, etc. etc.

    Who gives a shit about “norms”? The real problem is we aren’t a democracy but we have military bases in over 150 countries. Doing what for whom?

    Does anybody truly believe they are defending us from “evil doers” or evil forces like Russia?

    When you step back and look, the USA has become the largest terrorist organization in the world and definitely the biggest threat. And our military certainly isn’t fighting for “democratic norms” in those other countries.

    Time to peek behind the curtain and quit hopping along the yellow brick road…

  2. What does “peek behind the curtain and quit hopping along the yellow brick road..” mean in practical terms, in terms of actions?

  3. daleb, in practical terms, if a system is failing and corrupt, you replace it with one which will work. We talk about voting and who’s corrupt, but what does a corrupt system produce?

    If a $5 million piece of robotic equipment in an auto factory keeps spitting out faulty parts, do you change the guys standing by the machine? Do you fire the CEO and hire a new one?

    No, you replace the faulty piece of equipment. Capitalism is the faulty system. The evidence is everywhere and it provides the fodder for this blog daily.

    Yet, very few want to call it a faulty system and work toward creating a new one. It was an economic system built upon slavery and serfdom. Those who owned the country (landowners) were the only ones allowed to vote.

    Times haven’t changed much, huh?

  4. Todd is of course incorrect in his statement, “The Democratic POTUS did nothing.” The Democratic POTUS was prevented by the current Congress from doing all he attempted to accomplish. The group of Republicans dedicated to prevent his progress and to prevent his election to a second term in office have proudly claimed this goal.

    He is abundantly correct in this assessment; “When you step back and look, the USA has become the largest terrorist organization in the world and definitely the biggest threat.” And this is our greatest and most dangerous shift from the American “norm”. The internal shift is moving us back to racial “norms” we fought a Civil War to rectify; most of us on this blog are well aware racism has not ended and undoubtedly never will. The external shift is alienating our allies and further angering our enemies which takes us to Todd’s correct assessment above.

    As for Trump and his deviation from presidential “norms”, the book “The Dangerous Case Of Donald Trump”; written by TWENTY-SEVEN Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts have placed him well within a long list of mental imbalance and borderline personality disorder “norms”. Published early in 2017; many of their warnings have come to pass, their prognosis of increasing instability and leading us nearer and nearer to nuclear war is now at hand.

    Todd says “…we aren’t a democracy…”; in his book, Vernon states, “But our system is not a true democracy, it is a democratic republic.” I could be wrong in my understanding of these statements (and definitions found in 2 of my 4 dictionaries) but it appears to me that our “democratic republic” elected a president who is now a self-appointed monarch…a total deviation from the “norm” our founding fathers based the Constitution on. This election came about because this “democracy” consists of millions of eligible voters choose NOT to avail themselves of their right to choose their leaders, and this has become America’s “norm”.

    I’m sure Josh Marshall would agree this is one “norm” we need to push to the forefront of the public if we expect to undo what is being allowed to continue happening to this country. The stay-at-home voters and those who opted to write-in Bernie Sanders or vote for one of the two parties with no chance of even showing in this last race, allowed the Electoral Colleges in Republican states to “choose” this president. Two weeks before the election Rudy Giuliani sat grinning and told the world, “The Republicans have something up their sleeve, they have the Electoral College sewn up.” Bringing us to Marshall’s all-too-true conclusion, “What we’re seeing now are not conflicts of interest. They’re straight-up corruption.”

  5. Based on whom I know on the ticket, vote straight democratic, top to bottom. We do not have all the answers but we will listen, as RFK did. If change is to come, it must start with listening to each other. I am a democrat. That is our promise, to listen and to change. It must be a process and that process will not start with the other party.

  6. Marshall certainly isn’t wrong when he talks about needing to call a spade a spade. How often have media reported “unconfirmed” “alternative fact” “claims” etc when what they really meant was “bald-faced lie of stunningly obvious proportions”.

  7. JoAnn –
    Anyway it was Obama’s AG, Eric Holder who infamously said > “I am concerned that the size of some of these institutions becomes so large that it does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute, if you do bring a criminal charge, it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy,” “And I think that is a function of the fact that some of these institutions have become too large.”
    Translation Too Big To Fail, Too Big to Jail.

    If there is a problem for President Agent Orange, it will be the endemic corruption of Steroid-Crony-Capitalism, that is being selectively revealed that he and his family engaged in. It is the few bad apples story line.

  8. Just as a follow-up to Todd’s statement >> The Democratic POTUS did nothing. In fact, he put Wall Street professionals who financed his campaign in charge of “cleaning up the mess.” Not a single banker went to jail. Not one. <<<<

    Eric Holder, Wall Street Double Agent, Comes in From the Cold.

  9. Monotonous; I watched Republican Mayor Bill Hudnut cut some city department and division staff numbers back and move from offices located in other large old buildings to smaller offices, the system which had been left by Republican Mayor Richard Lugar. One division I worked in, a division of the Mayor’s Office, had 37 employees, cut back to 17 who competently managed a heavy workload which consisted of monitoring federal funds into multi-service, senior and health centers throughout the county. I then watched Republican Steve Goldsmith enlarge department and division staff by privatizing their work; thus, when he publicized his city budget figures against “wasteful” Mayor Hudnut, only city employees were listed. He also cut his own office staff by placing his employees in other departments and paying them from those budgets; proving once again that he was saving tax dollars which had been wasted by Mayor Hudnut during his 16 years in office. Granted; in all levels of government there are some needless positions and some wasted office space; the United States will never reach a level of perfection the public believes is required. Trump has easily remedied that situation by simply not hiring or appointing dozens of necessary replacements within his own administration to accomplish departmental work within his Steroid-Crony Capitalist White House staff. Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

    What effect will results from Robert Mueller’s Trump/Putin/Russia investigation have on this country and the world? Will we ever see results? Will there ever be an end to the number of people and connections uncovered by this investigation? The title of Frances Farmer’s autobiography is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem; “Will There Really Be A Morning?” Will we ever see the light of a new day in this country; a day when we can wake without fear and foreboding of dreading what President Agent Orange can – will – possibly do next? There is also the old proverb, “For want of a nail a shoe was lost” leading to “for want of a leader a nation was lost”; we watch this one man deliberately destroying this nation…and no one seems to be able to nail his ass! For want of a nail this nation is being lost.

    Is Trump really “too big to fail and too big to jail”?

  10. Todd has a point. Politicians and politics are imperfect. Always have been. But the entire Executive Branch now is setting new records for low down. Clearly we screwed up royally. Let’s learn from our mistake and move on.

  11. Yes, clearly the Trump administration is a criminal enterprise. It is populated with criminals and miscreants from top to bottom. As far as I can see, there are NO decent people in that administration. Not one. Every single Trump-ite is crooked. Corrupt criminals like Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke merely wear nice suits. Inside they are dedicated to destruction and corruption. Every one.

    My biggest concern is that Trump will suspend the Constitution and cancel elections for “national security” reasons….just like he wants to ban the import of foreign cars – for security reasons. WTF? The echoes from Berlin, circa 1932-33 are becoming louder. Norms, shmorms. We will find ourselves “living” in a flat-out fascist dictatorship run by a despot and his thugs.

    This is Crime Family 101, plain and simple.

  12. Monotonous; I read that Rolling Stone article from 2015. Bill Clinton repealed the final protective regulations in the Glass-Steagall Act; George W. ran with it, giving billions of our tax dollars to corporations with no regulations which they kept to themselves. We all know the results of that action; we still suffer from the results of that action. Of course, “…not a single banker went to jail. Not one.” Not one of them broke any regulation or law because there were – there are – none to break. President Obama’s biggest mistake during his eight years was NOT to allow George W.’s tax cuts to the wealthy to end on the date George W. himself had set. We are still suffering from that, too.

  13. Josh needs to drive his point home home with every journalist who deals mostly in facts and cares to some extent about conveying truth. For quite some time I have lost patience with reporters who feel obligated to show that there exists some rationale on both sides of every Trumpian issue. Josh makes the salient point on this president. He is a criminal, his friends are criminals, and he sees no justification for democracy unless it provides him opportunities for enrichment. Reporters need to stick to the truth if the public is ever to understand Trump and his criminal agenda. Trying to sound like objective college professors in the face of Trump’s lies will not get the job done. They must tell it like it is.

  14. To some extent the media, and perhaps some of our social conventions, laid the groundwork for our current dilemma. When faced with evidence of corruption in one party, the press felt the need to also report on some offense by the other party in a misguided attempt to seem fair. The offenses were not even necessarily of the same magnitude, but the end result was that the public equated them and attributed thr problem to politics as usual. Politicians were let off the hook by claiming that their opponents were just as bad. So instead of rooting out corruption, the press gave politicians an excuse to continue their bad behavior. The media needs to toughen up in their watchdog role and to start calling a spade a spade. We also need to stop accepting apologies for inexcusable behavior in our elected officials. There have to be real consequences for actions. Instead of taking responsibility for their actions, politicians and celebrities alike, feel all they need to do is point out bad behavior by someone else. We don’t even let our kids get away with this crap. Why should we let our elected officials and celebrities do so.

  15. bumper sticker:
    todd is right! ive watched this game become out right corruption,in plain view.. civil aspects of life have routinely allowed it,like watching the tube and watching someone rob someone,then being amused at the follow up. this case,its mega matters,in a suit. we have allowed ourselves to become numb,as if all just a show to enjoy.. im watching our country desolve in front of me. and most Americans are not engaged. so when we have the monied intrests demand the rest, we will just agree,and find we lost our real freedoms…it wont matter anymore

  16. The criminal side of Trump is one thing. He was never known as an honest person or praiseworthy businessman. His multiple business failures are testimony to that. It’s not really surprising that he’d leverage the Presidency to his advantage.

    What people have really found out since what he calls “the victory” is how mentally unstable, petty, thin-skinned, racist, misogynistic and arrogant he is. What I personally have found out to my amazement is how many people there are out there just like him and/or who admire him. Likewise a revelation is the extent to which people who claim to be religiously pious, like Pence, will stand in solidarity with this chronic liar, sexual predator and self-aggrandizing racist. That is truly shocking to me. I really thought this country had come further than that.

  17. Perhaps our ever present entertainment has convinced us that, like it’s contents, we are not how we see ourselves.

    I have to keep reminding myself that Agent Orange was elevated to virtual dictatorship by a small minority of Americans.

  18. Thank you, JoAnn. People keep forgetting just how broken the country was prior to Obama’s election.

  19. Since I seem to be the keeper of the source material of “old saws” I’d just like to say, isn’t it about time we call a spade a spade. 45 is a liar and a thief. He violates the Constitution on a daily basis and his open corruption puts both the Grant and the Harding administrations to shame.

  20. A great and extremely thought provoking piece as usual Sheila!

    First of all, mucho kudos to Vernon Turner for summing Trump and his Administration up so very well. I totally agree with Josh Marshall’s assessment and his piece as well as Sheila’s with both going a long way in describing the dilemma we as a country face in a way that answers and addresses of good number of the nagging questions I have about the impact of all this on all of us. While I appreciate Todd’s argument regarding pitching the current system and creating another I can only say, or key, that if you think we have chaos now wait till we try to do that. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 was like a cross between romper room and a WWF wrestling match. To try and do the same thing today while having a huge myriad of additional sources of input into the decision-making that would be required to create a new political system would be chaos beyond what any of us could probably imagine and would dwarf what we’re dealing with now, which is a lot.

    Marshall and Sheila both have addressed a lot of the things that we don’t really consciously think about because they’ve been constants in our lives even in the worst of times such as during Watergate where in spite of Richard Nixon’s illegal and unconstitutional activities our system of governance remained intact and worked as it’s supposed to. We culturally have no experience, particularly during our own lifetimes, where it hasn’t, nor have we had a Chief Executive that has ridden roughshod over traditional Presidential conduct and demeanor to the degree that this one has. What Trump has and is doing is unprecedented.

    Trump is like a virus in a very complex computer system that has gotten through its firewall and is in the process of infecting every file that it has within it. What is needed is not trashing the system rather it is ridding it of what has infected it. Perhaps, this is the way we need to precede but do so according to the rules of governance that this country has lived by for well over two centuries. We are already in uncharted waters and to go even further into uncharted territory and to do so while under such duress could end up being a very foolhardy thing to do.

    Whatever we do in regard to this infestation we also have to keep in mind that it is not only affecting us but the rest of the world and while we have to think of this country first, and I in no way mean country first as Trump has enunciated it, we also have to think of the impact this is having on the rest of the world. All of this internal chaos threatens our position as a reliable partner for all of the various nations that we have alliances and treaties with, some for well over a century. The world order that we are all part of being under great stress right now from all sorts of sources with perhaps our own political chaos being the most damaging to it. Whether we like it are not we are linked with the rest of the world and what we do or do not do impacts it and, in turn, it impacts us. Right now, Trump is throwing a monkey wrench into its gears and fouling it all up mightily.

    Whatever decision the American people end up making to restore our confidence in our governmental institutions we have to keep this in mind and to suddenly deviate from our traditional system into another would very likely be not only counterproductive that catastrophic as well. What we have facing us is a tall order under the best of circumstances; to get the American people united once again and to have them participate in their governmental system as they should for it to work correctly. Perhaps that alone should be the first baby step we take, the first of many to follow to reestablish some semblance of normalcy to the governmental structure and functions and to provide the environment in which a truly viable Chief Executive could be elected to replace the fatally flawed one that we currently have occupying the Oval Office.

    These are perilous times whether or not we want to admit that they are or not and we need to govern ourselves accordingly and a large part of doing that is expecting our elected officials to act in an honorable fashion and a hold them to that and not turn a blind eye to corruption or indifference or incompetence as it has been exhibited by any of them from the top to the bottom. We are meant to be the masters of our government and we have to think about it that way because when we don’t we end up in mess is like the one we have now. A great deal more than we realize is riding on what we do and the commentary by Josh Marshall and Sheila’s piece gives us insight into the menu we need to look at that seems all too often overlooked by focusing, justifiably, on those bigger fish we need to fry.

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