On Tuesday night, Donald Trump committed a huge no-no. This was nothing trivial like empowering white hate groups or waging public and legal vendettas against his enemies—he’s been doing those things all along. For the first time since winning the presidency last week, he sneaked away from the pool of reporters tasked with knowing his whereabouts all day every day to dine at a fancy Manhattan steak house.
This may sound like a minor infraction, but it is actually a matter of incredible importance, as many journalists have explained in the hours since.
Trump had traduced yet another vital norm, except instead of simply noting an objection to the violation, and assuming the importance of the broken protocol, reporters have been at pains to defend it. Pool duty isn’t the most glamorous assignment, but it is some of the most vital work political reporters do, because when someone is vested the power of the presidency, history is always at his fingertips. The public has a right to know what the president of the United States is doing, but so does history. As Yahoo! News chief Washington correspondent Olivier Knox explained Wednesday, “it’s designed to tell Americans, and the world, about the president’s whereabouts and well-being in the event of a crisis, and how the president is responding. At its grimmest, it’s sometimes called a ‘body watch,’ the bleak legacy of the assassination of JFK and the attempted murder of Ronald Reagan.”
The protective pool doesn’t dine with the president, but posts nearby, usually out of sight, in case anything from a terrorist attack to an untimely heart attack happens when the president and his staff are away from official outposts where the full press corps can assemble. Pool reporters don’t do this for access—usually little access is provided. They do it so that documenting the presidency doesn’t fall exclusively to interested parties who work for the president’s administration. They do it so that news reporters don’t have to tell the world that nobody knows where the president is.
The defense of the protective pool norm has been deployed passionately, and righteously, but on that score it is the exception that proves the rule. Trump shatters norms on a nearly daily basis, but typically his recklessness is noted, objected to, and then largely forgotten. Reestablishing these broken norms will require the establishment of a new one: a free press that internalizes its role as a defender of values beyond the free press itself.
When Trump announced that white nationalist publisher Steve Bannon would be his chief strategist next year, the political media wasn’t entirely sure how to process it. Early reports depicted Bannon, the executive chairman of the racist agitprop website Breitbart, not as a hero figure to white supremacists and neo-Nazis but as a “combative” strategist or a “conservative firebrand.”
This was predictable enough. After all, when Trump named Bannon his campaign chair in August, campaign reporters depicted his ethnonationalist views and his effort to create a clearinghouse for news about “black crime” in similar terms.
Suddenly, though, Bannon isn’t merely guiding a dark horse campaign; he has arrived at the doorstep of global power, inviting an intense backlash against reporters and politicians who ignore his racist roots, or shrug them off with euphemisms. Those alarmed by Bannon’s rise to power pleaded with the press not to “normalize” him.
The media responded fairly quickly to the ensuing public pressure. His odiousness is now one of the central flashpoints of the Trump transition, though many outlets still choose to launder the appropriate adjectives through “critics,” as if Bannon’s views aren’t evident from text and praised by his white supremacist fans.
What’s missing from this and other Trump-era affronts isn’t the vocabulary to note that Trump is deviating from norms, but the vocabulary to explain why the norms he’s shattered are important. To say “don’t normalize this” is important, but insufficient. It begs the question by assuming broad consensus that the norm under attack was proper and defensible to begin with.
For most readers here, and probably for most Americans, it’s self-evident why the “no white supremacists in the White House” norm should stand. People generally grasp that racism is a horrifying value, even if they’re unfamiliar with the kind of violence and subjugation that occurred when white supremacists controlled government in the past.
But that doesn’t mean we should omit the explanation. What’s needed, in both the media and among those crying foul from other megaphones, is an instinct to explain why normal is good—just as reporters did when Trump ditched his press pool. When he does anything aberrant, it’s crucial to identify the value or truth that he’s traducing, and defend it.
This will be exhausting. On Tuesday, the writer Joshua Foust published an extensive list of ways Trump’s presidency is shaping up to be abnormal. What makes these abnormalities abnormal, though, is the norms he’s violating, and each of those norms has a critical justification.
We expect politicians to place their investments in blind trusts so that they can’t make policy for their own financial gain. When the president-elect uses his office to promote his business interests we should be alarmed because he is advancing his own interests instead of the public’s.
We expect politicians to disclose their tax returns so that we know they use good judgment, adhere to the law, and aren’t indebted in ways that will compromise their policymaking judgment.
We prohibit presidents from hiring family to avoid nepotism; we insist that politicians not place themselves or their families on both sides of the Chinese wall, so that they can’t profit off of their own policymaking or trade policymaking favors for personal enrichment. Politicians can at times sneak around these walls in unsavory ways, but the notion that a president’s son-in-law will receive the presidential daily briefing while his daughter runs his international business empire is a flagrant breach.
We reject serial fabulism and the denial of plain truths, not just because lying is something we teach children not to do but because promoting rhetorical fantasies and disputing the verifiability of fact are tools of authoritarian control.
With Trump the list is endless, but we need to describe the retrogressive effects of his behavior with the same vocabulary we use to defend press freedoms. This is inhospitable terrain for reporters, because where their own direct interests aren’t concerned, defending norms can resemble or be cast as the abandonment of neutrality.
But opposing graft and racism and subjugation isn’t the same as opposing tax cuts or supporting Obamacare. If the press is a bulwark of liberal democracy, as it generally conceives itself to be, then it shouldn’t stop at noting when norms have been transgressed, but defend the norms on their own merits. Anything less won’t work, because being transgressive isn’t always wrong. But knowingly doing harm is.