The Jury Talks Back


Hey New York Times Reader: Have a Conniption Fit Over This!

Filed under: Uncategorized — JVW @ 1:07 pm

[guest post by JVW]

Because the moon must have passed through the Sixth House of Mars during its waning gibbous phase in the Chinese Year of the Dog or something, the New York Times Op-Ed page saw fit to commission a piece from Charles Kesler, the wonderfully prolific scholar and editor of the Claremont Review of Books. In his own delightfully contrarian way, Professor Kesler took up pen and paper (OK, finger and keyboard) to shock the delicate sensibilities of the prissy NYT crowd with a defense of the idea of wreaking havoc in Washington, DC. Headlined Breaking Norms Will Renew Democracy, Not Ruin It, Professor Kesler sets about scandalizing the cosmopolitan left:

Hardly a day goes by without President Trump being accused of breaking a presidential norm or two, doing something that no president has ever done — nor, it’s implied, ever ought to do.

He tweets. He runs down the F.B.I., the intelligence community, his own attorney general. He makes fun of other politicians. He hires and fires cabinet secretaries, lawyers and communications people with abandon. He revokes a former C.I.A. director’s security clearance. He fails to disclose his tax returns. He picks his Supreme Court nominees from a list prepared by outside groups. He alternately threatens and sweet talks foreign despots.

Guilty as charged — but so what? All norms are not created equal. Hence breaking norms is neither good nor bad except as the norms themselves are good or bad. We elect presidents partly to separate the wheat from the chaff: to energize government by shedding or retiring norms that no longer serve the public good, and by adopting fresh ones that do.

Professor Kesler then leads the reader through a learned disquisition on the period after the ratification of the Constitution, as the earliest United States governments were trying to figure out how to implement Articles I, II, and III and set up norms as to how our government would operate, lacking the traditions and enforced manners of the established European governments. He points out that not all of the protocols that were established by our first President, George Washington, were continued by his successors, even though we do generally acknowledge that the Great Man established most of the parameters of the office, as much by his humility and reticence as by his boldness and vigor. In a subtle yet pointed jab, Professor Kesler points out that two 20th Century progressive Democrats — Woodrow Wilson, beloved most especially by those who long for an aristocracy of the credentialed, and Franklin Roosevelt, the hero of the modern regulatory welfare state — are the most guilty of abandoning Presidential norms to further their own agendas. But from there he suggests that perhaps many norms ought indeed to be broken:

Presidents are often called upon to adjust norms; it’s almost part of the job. The crucial question is how the norms in question stand in relation to the Constitution and the common good. Are the norms President Trump is accused of breaking vital to American democracy and constitutionalism, or are they vital rather to the way government operates in contemporary Washington, which, like the way government was operating in the 1820s, may have surprisingly little to do with either democracy or the Constitution?

Most of Mr. Trump’s alleged transgressions, measured by those standards, seem picayune. They offend against the etiquette of modern liberalism and modern liberal governance, not the Constitution. For example, choosing from a list of potential Supreme Court nominees prepared by outside experts at his request, before deliberating with his advisers and interviewing several finalists, hardly amounts to a dereliction of presidential duty. And haven’t several Democrats subsequently called for a new court-packing plan to retake control of the judiciary — a far greater norm-buster than anything Mr. Trump has done or proposed?

While acknowledging that, yes, Trump often behaves in a crass and petulant manner, Professor Kesler ends his piece by reminding the reader that Donald Trump’s successors are under no obligation to adopt his blustering and bullying style, though they too might find it liberating not to be tied to what passes for conventional thought in a stultifying capital.

Besides, future presidents will be free to ignore or repudiate Mr. Trump’s views and his blunt manner of doing business. This occupant of the White House seems to enjoy breaking norms, and he has been conspicuously more successful at breaking them than at devising and blessing new ones for our troubled times.

But if he is to make America great again, President Trump will have to cherish his legacy as a norm-builder, too.

As we always say, read the whole thing, if only to let the NYT know that publishing conservative opinions is good for pageviews.



  1. Had to remember to cross-post this one so that there is refuge if this becomes a pro-Trump/anti-Trump debate over on the main site.

    Comment by JVW — 8/24/2018 @ 1:09 pm

  2. Thank you for posting this here, JVW, and I will definitely read the whole thing and your comments. I want the Times to know there is a market for ideas like this, and I want to learn from you and the Professor.

    Comment by DRJ — 8/24/2018 @ 5:41 pm

  3. That is a thought-provoking piece. I agree that DC needs the status quo jolted now and then, and with what I view as Keslar’s ultimate conclusion — that Trump isn’t violating the Constitution:

    Most of Mr. Trump’s alleged transgressions, measured by those standards, seem picayune. They offend against the etiquette of modern liberalism and modern liberal governance, not the Constitution.

    I don’t agree with his conclusion that upsetting norms of civility has no impact because the next Presidents can adopt them again. They could, of course. They could also give up cellphones, but they won’t.

    Trump treats his Presidency like a reality show and he treats the American public like a gullible audience, not participants in self-governance. It’s true that is not a violation of the Constitution, but it does undermine the idea of self-governance that led us to adopt a constitution.

    Comment by DRJ — 8/26/2018 @ 12:55 am

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