When I was a very young boy, and my mother was making a meal, or otherwise engaged, I’m told she’d turn to anyone handy and say, “Go find Nicky; see what he is doing and tell him to stop it.”
That’s how more and more traditional Republicans — and Americans generally — are coming to feel about Donald Trump.
The week of September 25 was a good example, from his ignoring advice on how to minimize self-inflicted harm during the Monday night debate with Hillary Clinton to his pre-dawn Twitter tirade Friday attacking Alicia Machado (the former Miss Universe).
“There ought to be a law,” you say. But there’s not.
Abraham Maslow may not have realized it, but he said something relevant to first-year law students when he observed, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Many of those law students are too quickly tempted to start thinking of all human behavior as a product of legal rights and responsibilities.
There are a number of Trump’s controversies that may have legal significance. David A. Graham has listed 19 in a recent Atlantic article: The Beauty Pageant Scandals, Racial Housing Discrimination, Mafia Ties, Trump University, Tenant Intimidation, The Four Bankruptcies, The Undocumented Polish Workers, Alleged Marital Rape, Breaking Casino Rules, Antitrust Violations, Condo Hotel Shenanigans, Corey Lewandowski [former campaign manager], Suing Journalist Tim O’Brien for Libel, Refusing to Pay Workers and Contractors, Trump Institute, Buying Up His Own Books, Undocumented Models, The Trump Foundation, and The Cuban Embargo. (For each he provides “where and when,” “the dirt,” “the upshot,” and “read more.”) David A. Graham, “The Many Scandals of Donald Trump: A Cheat Sheet,” The Atlantic, September 30, 2016.
But like the law students, we would be wrong to assume our only means of corralling the wild Trump involves courts, judges and lawyers.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, most of what regulates our behavior, to the extent anything does, is not the law as such, but rather social norms: what we eat and how we eat it; the distance we maintain when standing and talking to another; the clothes we do (or don’t) wear for various locations, occasions and situations; the verbal and body language we employ when talking to contemporaries or supervisors. Most social norms are unwritten and evolve over time. Some come from our parents, our friends and neighbors in a small community, a religious organization, or our fellow workers at a university or business.
Just as there are penalties for violating the law, so too are there penalties for violating social norms — including what the community may consider inappropriate speech. (See, Nicholas Johnson, “Was It Something I Said? General Semantics, the Outspoken Seven, and the Unacceptable Remark,”October 30, 2010.) Is this a possible course for those concerned about Trump’s hateful outbursts? It just may be.
In the summer of 1969, when the Los Angeles creative community — actors, writers, directors, producers — became concerned about what some of them thought of as “censorship” of their work by the networks, the FCC eventually agreed to hold a hearing on the matter. The witnesses who appeared were mostly white, male, network lawyers and lobbyists in suits.
The last one to appear was decidedly not a member of that club. It was my friend, Emmy and Grammy winner Mason Williams, head writer for the “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” a highly-rated CBS variety program with social and political content. Given the 1960s, Tom and Dick Smothers had generated both a large, loyal following of fans, and significant levels of network executives’ anxiety — anxiety that took the form of New York executives’ close review and removal of some portions of the scripts created in LA.
Mason arrived with open shirt and beads, carrying a guitar, and copies for the FCC commissioners of what he called “The Mason Williams FCC Rapport,” July 23, 1969. As he played and sang his way through his testimony he read from his “Rapport” some of the brain-bursts he’d entered in his journals (e.g., “Network television wants to keep you stupid so you’ll watch it;” “Winning an Emmy from television is like getting a kiss from someone with bad breath”). [Photo credit: Wikipedia, public domain, Ken Kragen & Friends; Mason Williams, 1969.]
One of those brain-bursts, relevant to Donald Trump’s speech, posited that someone had leveled an offensive and possibly erroneous charge against the President. (I won’t repeat the offensive speech here. It can be found at page 66 of the “Rapport.”) Rather than a network censoring the remark, Williams said:
Someday I hope that someone could appear on television and say [the offensive speech] and the public would individually be able to say, “That’s not right. And that’s not a nice thing to say. Next.”
In other words, rather than have the FCC and networks censor creative content speech that violates social norms could be uttered, because society would have evolved to the point that we would simply reject it — “that’s not a nice thing to say” — and either change channels, or go on to the next item, with the command, “Next.”
Have we reached that point? Hardly. Indeed, many are concerned, as I am, that Trump’s approach to political campaigning may be seen as a new normal by both the young and those with sufficient celebrity status to consider running for office themselves with a Trump-like campaign.
But there are hopeful signs that social norms regarding speech are beginning to join the other objections to Trump’s candidacy — his lack of political and governing experience, the character of his staff choices (some of whom had to be replaced), his policy proposals (e.g., building the wall, deporting 11 million, use of nuclear weapons), his untruthful utterances, his refusal to reveal his tax returns, and the 19 items involving his business practices noted above.
One source of those signs is what some solidly Republican newspapers have been writing in the course of not endorsing him:
The Dallas Morning News, which has never endorsed a Democratic Party presidential candidate since 1940, wrote: “We reject the politics of personal destruction. . . . He [Trump] plays on fear — exploiting base instincts of xenophobia, racism and misogyny — to bring out the worst in all of us, rather than the best.” Editorial, “We Recommend Hillary Clinton for President,” The Dallas Morning News, September 7, 2016.
A couple weeks later the Cincinnati Enquirer, which had never endorsed a Democratic Party presidential candidate since 1916, joined the Dallas Morning News with its endorsement of Hillary: “We’ve condemned his childish insults; offensive remarks to women, Hispanics and African-Americans; and the way he has played on many Americans’ fears and prejudices to further himself politically. . . . Trump tears our country and many of its people down with his words so that he can build himself up. Trump has toned down his divisive rhetoric, . . .. But going two weeks without saying something misogynistic, racist or xenophobic is hardly a qualification for the most important job in the world. Why should anyone believe that a Trump presidency would look markedly different from his offensive, erratic, stance-shifting presidential campaign?” Editorial, “It Has to be Hillary Clinton,” Cincinnati Enquirer, September 23, 2016
More would come in rapid order. The Arizona Republic, which has never endorsed a Democratic Party presidential candidate since it began publication in 1890 (as The Arizona Republican), wrote: “Trump mocked a reporter’s physical handicap. Picked a fight with a Gold Star family. Insulted POWs. Suggested a Latino judge can’t be fair because of his heritage. Proposed banning Muslim immigration. Each of those comments show a stunning lack of human decency, empathy and respect. Taken together they reveal a candidate who doesn’t grasp our national ideals. . . . She [Hillary Clinton] can move us beyond rancor and incivility.” Editorial, “Endorsement: Hillary Clinton is the Only Choice to Move America Ahead,” The Arizona Republic, September 27, 2016.
Here’s what The Detroit News had to say: “[Donald Trump] rubs hard against the editorial board’s values as conservatives and Americans. [He] is unprincipled, unstable and quite possibly dangerous. …. Trump has attracted support from too many of those who represent the worst of human nature …. Few groups have been spared from his bile. . . . But the most worrisome thing about Trump is that he is willing to stir the populace by stoking their fears of sinister forces at work from within and without to tear down their traditions, values and families …. His sort of populism has led to some of history’s great tragedies.” The News, which has only endorsed Republican Party presidential candidates since it began publication in 1873, rather than endorsing Hillary Clinton, instead chose to skip Trump for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian Party candidate. Editorial, “Libertarian Gary Johnson for President,” The Detroit News, September 29, 2016.
The next day the Chicago Tribune followed the Detroit News’ example with its endorsement of Gary Johnson. This was only the third time in the last 169 years that it had endorsed any presidential candidate who was not a Republican (the two prior were both Chicagoan Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012). Its editorial said: “Trump has gone out of his way to anger world leaders, giant swaths of the American public, and people of other lands who aspire to immigrate here legally. He has neither the character nor the prudent disposition for the job.” Editorial, “A Principled Option for U.S. President: Endorsing Gary Johnson, Libertarian,”Chicago Tribune, September 30, 2016.
Finally, USA Today, one of America’s national newspapers, took a different approach — urging voters to not vote for Trump, while not endorsing any of the other three (Clinton, Johnson, or Stein). (Its editorial board only expresses consensus, and there was no consensus for an alternative.) This is the first time in the paper’s 34-year history that it has expressed an editorial opinion for or against a candidate in any presidential election.
The Board wrote: “Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he lacks the temperament, knowledge, steadiness and honesty that America needs from its presidents. . . . From the very beginning, Trump has built his campaign on appeals to bigotry and xenophobia, whipping up resentment against Mexicans, Muslims and migrants. His proposals for mass deportations and religious tests are unworkable and contrary to America’s ideals. . . . He speaks recklessly. . . . He has coarsened the national dialogue. Did you ever imagine that a presidential candidate would discuss the size of his genitalia during a nationally televised Republican debate? Neither did we. Did you ever imagine a presidential candidate, one who avoided service in the military, would criticize Gold Star parents who lost a son in Iraq? Neither did we. Did you ever imagine you’d see a presidential candidate mock a disabled reporter? Neither did we.” Editorial, “Trump is ‘Unfit for the Presidency,'”> USA Today, September 30, 2016. And see generally, Tim Dickinson, “5 Conservative Newspapers That Just Went ‘Never Trump;’ Why Papers That Have Backed Republicans for Decades Broke Ranks With This GOP Nominee,” Rolling Stone, September 29, 2016.
(The USA Today editorial is also one of the most thorough in discussing the range of reasons not to vote for Trump, with the following headings: He is erratic; He is ill-equipped to be commander in chief; He traffics in prejudice; His business career is checkered; He isn’t leveling with the American people; He speaks recklessly; He has coarsened the national dialogue; He’s a serial liar.)
It is significant enough that solid, conservative newspapers that have never lifted a figment of type to help a Democratic presidential candidate, or oppose a Republican, are now opposing Trump — and sometimes even endorsing Hillary Clinton. And most, like USA Today, have identified and enumerated categories of reasons why he is unacceptable.
But what I find most heartening is the growing formulation of a set of social norms, or political norms, regarding what is, and is not, acceptable speech in presidential campaigns. If this continues, it may just save us from future political candidates assuming Trump-style campaigns are the new normal.
Here’s what you and I can do:
Next time you see Trump on TV, listen to what he says, and if you find it unacceptable, say so. Say to whomever is with you — or out loud even if you are alone — “That’s not right. And that’s not a nice thing to say. Next.”