On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after launch, killing all seven astronauts. The Rogers Commission, which investigated the tragedy, found that the technical fault was the burn-through of a rubber O-ring separating sections of the right solid rocket booster. It also discovered that the O-ring problem had been known about for years, but that NASA continued to fly, a process Nobel physicist and commission member Richard Feynman likened to playing Russian roulette. When shuttle after shuttle flew successfully, NASA just accepted a problem it had initially itself named critical to flight safety. Sociologist Dianne Vaughan labeled this “the normalization of deviance.” In short, behavior that is deviant becomes more acceptable over time and, after a while, people no longer think of it as violating proper norms - until disaster strikes.
After a while, people no longer think of [deviance] as violating proper norms - until disaster strikes.
In the last year, Donald Trump has demonstrated a behavioral pattern normally considered deviant for an aspiring or existing president. He demeaned the American electoral system by calling it rigged, the American judiciary by labeling certain members “so-called judges” or ones biased by their ethnicity, and he has called the American free press “the enemy of the people.” He has made damning assertions for which he provided no evidence: that 3 million people fraudulently voted for his opponent and that a sitting president wire-tapped him. He has propagated falsehoods (Obama is not a U.S. citizen). He has demeaned women, immigrants, newscasters and others by derogatory comments. He has excused himself from being bound by ethics laws, while people stay in his hotels to curry favor with his Administration. A top aide publicly endorsed his daughter’s commercial products, behavior that violated ethics standards but for which he refused to sanction her. Most recently, in foreign affairs, he and his senior staff, on alternate days and sometimes on the same day, have proclaimed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can stay, must go, will be subject to attack if he uses barrel bombs ― or won’t.
This behavior thrills many in his base, who see in it a president willing to ignore traditional norms to get government moving again on their behalf. Even most Republicans in Congress look the other way, willing to put up with it as the price to pay to achieve their own goals or because they fear that objecting would produce a tweet against them.
The danger is that, over time, such deviance will be accepted as normal ― and perhaps not just for him but for future presidents. While his supporters hardly seem concerned with that, they might ask themselves how they would feel about such behavior by a president who is a Democrat.
Such presidential behavior, one might argue, is not without precedent. John Adams and his Federalist Party hated the press and enacted the Sedition Act to jail opponents. Thomas Jefferson scorned the Federalist judiciary and tried to impeach a Supreme Court justice. Warren G. Harding’s administration was plagued by ethics scandals, Richard Nixon lied to the American people on repeated occasions, and Bill Clinton had “relations” with a White House intern. Lyndon Johnson promised not to send American boys to die in Vietnam, and then did just that in huge numbers.
None of this behavior, at the time or after, was accepted as normal or survived more sober judgment. The Sedition Act was repealed, Jefferson’s effort failed, Harding’s Administration was forever tainted, Nixon was forced from office, Clinton was impeached by the House, and Johnson denied himself a second term. Yet the fact that history might render a correct verdict is little consolation for the danger our current president poses in the present.
Past deviance among presidents occurred within a Constitutional system that enjoyed widespread public faith. The deviance of the executive was thus constrained by the strength of that system. What must concern us now is that presidential deviance is aimed, consciously or unconsciously, at undermining that system itself. If Americans believe false claims and attacks on core American public and private institutions and individuals, they lose faith in them. Yet even if they recognize the claims are false or unwarranted, they still lose faith ― in the presidency itself.
Presidents take an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. If deviant behavior in a president becomes normal, he violates that oath. To argue otherwise is to ignore the long-term danger to our republican form of government and to claim that the end justifies the means. That’s not the America the Framers envisioned in Philadelphia.