Breaking the Norms of the Presidency

Courtesy of Pete Souza (Official White House Photo)

Written by Maddie Graf

It’s no secret that Trump’s presidency has been politically polarizing. Democrats in America tend to strongly dislike him, while Republicans are often in support of him. However, that isn’t all. During the 2016 election, there were strong correlations between education levels, race, wages, and voting for Trump or Clinton. In a study by the Pew Research Center, Trump’s main demographic was shown to be white males without college education. Clinton’s demographic was the opposite; mainly women, people of color, and those who were college educated. With his strong base of supporters, President Trump has had nearly unwavering support, despite him being one of the most untraditional presidents.

Some of the scandals that Trump has been involved with have been matters of the law. For example, the Ukraine deal, one of the aspects of Trump’s impeachment trial, violated Article IV Section II of the Constitution, which deals with impeachable offenses such as “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Even Trump’s decision to cut the 2020 census short was a legal matter which had to be decided by the Supreme Court. However, there are also some controversial actions and decisions of the president that do not violate laws, but instead violate norms. “Norms” are expectations that are placed on the president when they enter office, and are based on the precedents set by previous presidents. Trump’s presidency, more than any other in recent years, has been marked by frequent breaks from tradition.

One of the most obvious cases of the current president breaking norms is in his refusal to hand his tax returns over to the democratically controlled House. This isn’t legally required of him, and his attorneys have said so; their claim was that the request for Trump’s tax returns by the House lacked legitimate legislative purpose, which is the required precedent by the Supreme Court. The idea of a president handing over their tax returns began when President Nixon went through a very public tax scandal. It was proved that the IRS did not closely audit his taxes, and that he had an outstanding debt of about half a million dollars. Due to the effects of this scandal on Nixon, every president after Jimmy Carter willingly handed over their tax returns while in office, according to Forbes. The fact that President Trump has refused to hand over his tax returns willingly, as other presidents have done, shows just one of the many ways that he has broken established norms.

Considering its prevalence in the news as of late, another prime example of Trump breaking norms was with his nomination and confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Trump broke norms in this situation by rushing her confirmation in before the election. Previously, during President Obama’s term, Obama had attempted to nominate Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, but was stopped by the Senate, which was – and still is – Republican. The claim was that his nomination was too close to the next election, despite the fact that the election was 270 days out. Despite this claim, however, Judge Amy Coney Barrett was nominated 47 days before the election, and her confirmation vote in the Senate was a 52-48 vote directly along party lines. The 52 Republican votes to confirm her were, ironically enough, the same 52 votes cast against Garland in 2016. Again, the norms were broken by President Trump and his Republican congressmen as they directly contradicted their own statements from the prior election.

Another fairly evident breaking of norms has been President Trump’s presence on social media. While Obama was hailed as the “first social media President” considering his usage of platforms like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram, even he did not use social media in the way that President Trump does. His presence on Twitter on both of his accounts, @realDonaldTrump and @POTUS, often allow for insights into his mind. Trump’s tweets are considered “official statements” according to Sean Spicer, the 2017 White House Press Secretary, when President Trump became active on social media after taking up the office of Commander-In-Chief. As of November 2019, Trump has tweeted over 11,000 times, according to a New York Times article analyzing his Twitter patterns. Of course, Trump isn’t the only member of his family on social media – his wife Melania uses the Twitter handle @FLOTUS, and his son Donald Trump Jr. is active both on Twitter and Instagram. The presence of the First Family on social media is unprecedented, both because of the changes in technology over time and because it has, for some reason, become their preferred form of communication. 

Furthermore, Trump’s refusal to commit to a peaceful transition of power proves yet another way in which his presidency has been non-traditional. Every president since 1797 has peacefully committed to handing over power to their successors, but President Trump has recently stated that he may not follow suit. His hesitancy comes from concerns over the legitimacy of the voting system during COVID-19, as he believes that there may be cases of voter fraud or miscounted votes. However, this fear seems to be unfounded – FBI investigations have shown that there are very, very limited cases of voter fraud, and no evidence of any outside nations tampering with ballots. The idea that any president would refuse to leave office because they were upset with the outcome of the election seems absurd, but it seems that it is yet another aspect of the Trump presidency that goes against all tradition. 

Lastly, (and most importantly), Trump has broken presidential archetypes by being the first president in over a century without a dog in the White House. Since President William McKinley in 1897, every president has had a dog while serving in the White House, save President Trump. While this may not be a “norm”, it certainly does show a break from long-standing tradition. He even referenced it in a speech he gave, saying “How would I look walking a dog on the White House lawn?” while shaking his head. 

Whether he’s gone against formal or informal norms, there is no doubt that President Trump hasn’t served a traditional term. Perhaps the country will have more non-traditional presidents in the future, or maybe they will revert back to the old ways. Either way, one thing is for sure – if Trump stays for a second term, it certainly won’t look like any we’ve seen before.

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