international analysis and commentary

Donald Trump and the strategic value of unorthodox political behavior


It’s been nearly two years since Donald Trump boarded the golden elevator in Trump Tower to kick off his presidential campaign. In that relatively short time, he has survived almost countless revelations and incidents that would have destroyed another candidate or another president. To some degree, the explanation is structural – but Trump is also demonstrating in the loudest and most visible possible way the limits of shame as a control mechanism on public behaviour.

It’s important to stipulate a few things. Firstly, it’s important not to overstate this case. The US is extremely polarized, and partisanship (both positive and negative) is a massive driver of votes. Given these factors (along with the middling speed and scope of the economic recovery), some political science models predicted a Republican victory without reference to public opinion polls. To put it another way: there’s a strong case to be made that any Republican candidate would have been a favourite to win the election simply because of structural factors – but as with all counterfactuals, we’ll never know for sure.

Secondly, Trump still has unified Republican control of Congress, which certainly helps the sense that his mistakes are not stopping him. Congressional Republicans may have wanted one of the more conventional GOP candidates instead of what they got, but for the moment they have remained extremely supportive – only one bill as of yet has failed to pass the  vote, and all of Trump’s nominees who have come up for a vote have been confirmed (despite a few scattered Republican defections). His approval ratings are low by historical standards, but with more than three years yet to run before he faces re-election – and still-high ratings amongst Republicans – this has, at most, an attenuated effect. A combination of public protest and legal action has had some impact, but the dynamics of that strategy are ultimately reflective of the fact that Trump and his party continue to hold the balance of political power.

This may all change at some stage. But given the sheer number of political norms that Trump has simply ignored, the fact that it has’nt yet is remarkable evidence of the sheer power of shamelessness.

What does that mean? Leaving aside cases of actual criminal misconduct, there is a lengthy history of American politicians at the national level being laid low by allegations of infidelity, financial wrongdoing, inappropriate public statements or other forms of impropriety. Trump, by contrast, has checked all of those boxes in a remarkably short period of time – and pioneered others besides. His perceived closeness to Russia doesn’t have a good modern precedent; nor is there a politician anywhere near the presidential level who has been quite so unfamiliar, and cavalier, with the basic functions and operations of the federal government.

So how is it that Trump hasn’t been constrained by his own behaviour? It’s simple: to a huge – and until recently, hugely under-appreciated – degree, the system by which political behaviour was constrained was operated by shame and the related unwillingness to be seen violating norms. Politicians who engaged in non-criminal but ethically compromising behaviour were expected to express some degree of remorse and accept at least a temporarily diminished public role. But it was a subtle balance – the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton for violating social mores backfired against its prosecutors.

Trump, by contrast, responds to opprobrium by attacking rather than retreating. He does not accept political standards imposed, in his view, by others. And most importantly, he makes an intentional practice of never apologising – the closest he ever came, in the wake of the release of the Access Hollywood tape the month before the election, started as a qualified apology and veered quickly into an attack on his political opponents.

That is all exacerbated by the sheer speed with which Trump violates norms. As I wrote this, the news  broke that President Trump leaked highly classified information originating from a US ally to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. By any standard this is a massive story, and under other circumstances it would be the driving narrative of opposition to Trump for the foreseeable future. But this story is breaking less than a week after the firing of FBI director James Comey. Scandals take time to percolate – to be  discussed and considered in order to make their way into the body politic to shift the grounds of debate. Trump’s unwillingness to be slowed or to change course in response to public opprobrium denies the public, and his opposition, the opportunity to dig into fixed positions and develop a fully-fledged strategy to capitalise on one scandal before another one completely changes the day’s narrative.

In these ways, Trump is like a character from the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, running out over the edge of a canyon with nothing below his feet but air. But according to cartoon physics, a character can keep running on air until they realise what they’ve done, at which point gravity takes hold. Trump simply never looks down – and no one knows how much further he can run before political physics reasserts itself, or if it ever will.