Trump defining civic deviance way, way down
And it’s probably good for the GOP in 2016
Candidate Trump has gotten away with a dazzling amount of civic crime. He has been well compensated in early popularity polls, if not yet in actual votes and convention delegates.
This could turn out nicely for the eventual Republican nominee, who will certainly look normal, qualified and statesmanlike compared to the deviant Trump. A more likely legacy is that his campaign will further pervert our already hinky election process.
I swipe my reasoning here from the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his classic theory about defining deviance down.
In the 1960s, Moynihan suggested that one dishonest way society was coping with grisly problems was to define them out of existence. When crime increased, for example, some cities relabeled certain crimes as misdemeanors. This lowered the crime rate – statistically – and everyone felt better.
When New York’s asylums, as they were once called, were overcrowded and too costly, the state reclassified some conditions and declared them less severe or dangerous. This allowed committed patients to be released from institutions, solving the problems of overcrowding and expense and creating a slew of new problems.
Moynihan’s theory is also invoked, in ways he didn’t quite intend, when some behavior or practice that was once considered taboo becomes acceptable, or at least tolerated, but not necessarily for good reason. An example might be the prevalence of sex, violence and obscenity in entertainment aimed at children.
For months now, Trump has been serving a menu of insults, lies and trash talk. No other candidate in the TV age has dished out this sort of slop before on a national stage and gotten away with it for this long. But Trump’s customers keep coming back for more.
Critics and foes have gone after Trump’s deviance with every kind of artillery — satire, punditry, indignation and negative advertising. He has been declared officially dead several times – after he called Mexican emigrants rapists and John McCain a chicken, after he mocked Ben Carson’s faith and a reporter’s disability.
But Trump takes a lickin’ and keeps on kickin’. The man is impervious so far.
To a large, uncertain slice of the electorate, Trump is not a deviant, but a devilish heckler of the real rats – the Establishment, the career politicians, the bureaucrats, the losers.
To the rest, he is like a delinquent from a rich family enjoying a surge of attention right before he is sent off to reform school and then a life of high income and low scruples.
So why or how does Trump get away with political murder? Why does he go unpunished for crimes that have routinely convicted other hacks?
Four answers have been frequently proffered.
1) Trump is perceived to be an entertainer or a celebrity and so isn’t held to the same standard as “real” politicians.
2) Trump has successfully pierced the fog of malarkey endemic to the marketing of political candidates and a hard-core of angry, fed-up voters is now loyal and inspired by every new and deviant antic.
3) The political and journalistic elites are too gutless and disoriented to challenge Trump in a serious way.
4) Trump isn’t actually getting away with anything; he is merely doing well among a minority slice of GOP primary voters in early popularity polls against a weak field; he will never get the nomination.
These are all good points and sound arguments. But Moynihan would make an additional point, I suspect. He would say that by defining civic deviance down more enduring legacy of Trump-ism is likely to be the further coarsening and degradation of campaigning and politics.
Trump may now be the most shameless of hacks – he isn’t even vaguely embarrassed or apologetic when called out for lies, exaggerations or slanders. But this deviance will become the norm. It almost is anyway.
A fair analogy comes from cable news, where Bill O’Reilly’s career inspired and epitomized the acceptance of a new level of journalistic deviance.
Historians might point out that Trump’s antics are no worse than politicians in earlier times. I think that is true of politics before television, not after. From the point where all Americans could look into the broadcast eyes of candidates, their rhetoric and hijinks became tamer. It was easier to blow outrageous smoke in front of a small crowd at a whistle-stop when there were no cameras shooting close-ups.
That could well change for the worse and we would have Trump to thank.
How could this help the Republicans in 2016? The eventual nominee, if it isn’t Trump, will look more centrist, reasonable and presidential because of the prolonged contrast to him. The GOP nominee may even be able to get away with more deviant antics than Hillary Clinton since Trump paved the way.
Most of us assume that at some point before the summer conventions, Donald Trump’s act will end and the stage, the audience and the republic will be no worse for it. I suspect the curtain will fall but the stench will linger.