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A culture at risk: We must not normalize the Trump administration

REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
This administration violates long-established standards of our democratic society.

None of this is normal. I am referring, of course, to the events we witness daily, even hourly, of the Trump administration. More specifically, however, is the fact that this administration violates long-established standards of our democratic society, including: the belief in and significance of facts, truth, reason, and science; the transparency of government officials’ financial holdings to avoid conflicts of interest; the rule of law; the respect for civil liberties, including voting rights and the freedom of the press; the incompatibility of using public office for private gain; and last, but perhaps most obviously, fundamental human decency. It is incumbent upon educators at all levels, journalists, and others who are in positions of intellectual influence to consistently remind the public of the enormity of the catastrophe that we see unfolding before our eyes. 

Neil Kraus

This is what makes the Republican Party’s official responses to the Trump administration so monumentally discouraging. With a few notable exceptions, the most comprehensive and consequential being the recent speech by Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona on why he will not seek re-election, the constant public shrugs, evasions, and even attempts at humor about the president’s statements and actions represent the zenith of political cowardice and cynicism. The president — buoyed by Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, et al. — is ripping our democracy and social fabric apart at the seams, and Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are standing by, utterly afraid to say anything of consequence. One cannot help but ask: Does the speaker let his children read the president’s tweets? What does the conversation between McConnell and his grandchildren consist of when the president is mentioned?

Moreover, witnessing the very public fawning over the president at the recent event celebrating the passage of the tax overhaul (Ryan, incomprehensibly, labeled the president’s leadership “exquisite”), one wonders whether those Republicans who spoke are aware of the fact that their comments are now forever memorialized? 

A full-fledged smear campaign

As indictments of the president’s associates are being handed down, and the Russia inquiry grows closer to the president and his family, the administration, quite conspicuously, has no legal leg to stand on. Thus the president’s most vocal supporters have adopted a full-fledged smear campaign, marinated with various outrageous conspiracy theories, of a lifelong Republican, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, along with the FBI generally. This campaign is embarrassing to even contemplate, let alone witness. The irresponsibility and recklessness that some will apparently engage in to change the subject appear to have no limits.

A culture is a system of norms and beliefs that shape and constrain individual behavior. Institutions of all types have cultures. Cultures exist because of adherence to rules, both written and unwritten. Cultures need not be permanent. Rather, they can change if new people become part of an institution, or if prevailing attitudes within an institution change, or both. One day, a certain behavior is not tolerated. But as time goes by, individuals engage in that behavior, and appear to pay no price in the process; hence that behavior comes to be seen as acceptable. It becomes no big deal. 

A crucial point in history

The political culture of the U.S., and the nation’s culture in general, are at a crucial point in history. We as a society have a chance to prevent incessant lying, the constant mistreatment of our fellow citizens, and abdication of all personal responsibility – arguably the president’s three most noteworthy personal traits – from becoming accepted elements of our current political culture. We have that choice.

A word of caution to my fellow academics. Attempting to understand why the president enjoys support is an important undertaking, and academic journals will soon be full of dozens, probably even hundreds, of studies exploring every conceivable aspect of this larger issue. As a scholar, I am all for this. This is the pursuit of knowledge, and is critically important.

But if the Trump administration is reduced to merely an object of study, then we are complicit in everything that the president says and does. Detached analyses cannot be the main contribution to the larger public discussion about the current state of our politics. We must not be afraid to call lying what it is, to take a firm position against treating people poorly through personal insults, or to repeatedly remind the public of the lack of information we have about the president’s business interests at home and abroad and how they are likely impacting public policy, to take but three examples.

Support maintained by fueling anger

Our democracy, indeed, our society, are in rough shape. The president, who was elected with just over 46 percent of the vote because of an 18th-century system known as the Electoral College, has seen his popularity decline measurably since taking office. He shows no interest whatsoever in even attempting to be the leader of the entire country through an intentional process of expanding his base. Rather, he maintains the support of roughly a third of the country entirely by fueling anger, while he presides over a complete corporate takeover of our government. He represents everything that we teach young people not to be, and nothing that elected officials, let alone those in high office, should be.

If we lose sight of this behind the veil of objectivity, or worse yet, cowardice, then we are partially responsible for whatever happens to our political culture as a result of his administration. Our children are watching. The world is watching. History is watching.

Neil Kraus is professor and chair of the Political Science Department at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls.  He is the author of two books, including, most recently, Majoritarian Cities: Policy Making and Inequality in Urban Politics.   

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Garth Taylor on 01/09/2018 - 08:57 am.

    TALK TO THE PERPETRATORS

    The first step in moving past this nightmare is talking to the people whose voting behavior brought this about, including: (a) white women, a majority of whom supported Trump; (b) African-Americans who didn’t turn out anywhere near previous levels because, well, you find out why; (c) Latinos, ditto; (d) millennials, who thought that not getting Rock Star Bernie on the ballot was a hall pass to go back to sleep; and (e) Green Party voters who, once again, proved that in a winner-take-all system (18th century, too) a hopeless cause with an ego-driven leader (Jill, Ralph, etc.) can push the winning balance to the side they despise (you can ask Al Gore about this one, too).

  2. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 01/09/2018 - 11:05 am.

    Continued Bias

    This article is still more of the same academic, holier than thou drivel. This writer gives zero evidence that much of what he describes other than just a list of grievances in a tantrum. This person is an educator who has helped the culture change that many are ticked off about our college and universities. Almost all instructors at our higher educational systems are almost all liberal card carrying Democrats who have never liked anyone conservative. You can enter any name you want, the descriptions are all the same. Yet it doesn’t matter what those in the Democrat party does.

    Don’t like our current president, fine. But don’t give a litany of baseless claims with no proof. Even so, everything that he describes also define what the Obama administration was doing as well. So how about some intellectual honesty when you write up something like this. This is what ticks off the populace and creates people like Trump to be the elected leaders.

    Or is it simply because Trump is someone who fights all the garbage that is being spewed at him in the typical liberal MO when all you really want is him to sit and remain silent? It’s been priceless when it’s being shown that nothing has been proven yet (and admitted by even many liberals) other than his gander is raised.

    • Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 01/09/2018 - 12:31 pm.

      Many tens of millions of Americans are appalled at Trump’s behaviors as President.

      We don’t have to be academics to react to him that way. All we have to do is follow the news to see what Trump does, in videos and TV interviews. He’s out there, lying about facts, making up things as he goes, attacking any and all who even raise questions about his actions, much less contradict his created “realities” with facts. He has a hard time with just about anyone who isn’t an older white male. And he is a real embarrassment to us. We cringe daily at what he does and says and tweets. He is a cringe-worthy president.

      Many tens of millions of Americans perceive this. We don’t have to be liberals to see that Trump’s behaviors are just not normal for our presidents. Nor healthy for America.

    • Submitted by James Miller on 01/09/2018 - 09:19 pm.

      Continued Bias

      He has consistently changed his mind and views to suit his immediate needs. What makes you think this behavior will change?

    • Submitted by Cameron Parkhurst on 01/10/2018 - 08:44 am.

      Talk about baseless claims with no proof

      Come on Bob, really?

      “Almost all instructors at our higher educational systems are almost all liberal card carrying Democrats who have never liked anyone conservative.”

      “But don’t give a litany of baseless claims with no proof.”

      I dislike Trump because he is a loathsome human being, not because of his perceived Republican or conservative tilt. He had a unique opportunity to make changes, but has blown it due to his lack of conviction, focus, and direction. He is like a kite blowing whichever way the wind blows. He cares only about winning, learns nothing from failure (won’t even admit he has ever failed), and appears to care for only himself. Although, prone to spurts of “independence” I suspect he can be easily manipulated. He is not normal, and the writer is correct, Trump’s time as President must not be normalized.

  3. Submitted by Misty Martin on 01/09/2018 - 12:35 pm.

    Professor Kraus: “Bravo! Well said!”

    I am no literary giant, and I have been watching a lot of reruns of “Downton Abbey” lately (to explain my subject line above), but all I can say is that I enjoyed reading your article, and it makes me sad, to think that this is where our great country is now.

    And I especially agree with the last sentence in the first paragraph under the subtitle: “Support Maintained by Fueling Anger” where you write: “He (Trump) represents everything that we teach young people not to be, and nothing that elected officials, let alone those in high office, should be.” I’ve been stating something along those lines even before the results of the election, and I see no reason to change my thinking. In fact, things are even worse than I imagined that they would be.

    And I don’t see your article at all as “Continued Bias” as was written by Bob Petersen. I am a born-again Christian and probably the ONLY member of the church where I attend who didn’t vote for and does not support our current POTUS. But my own personal convictions won’t let me support him – when in the rare instance, he does something even remotely correct, I say so – but no, I won’t give my unquestionable support for a man who is pretty much the way you described him in this article. I keep looking for him to improve, but I do not see much evidence to support that dream, I am afraid.

    At this stage of the game, the most we, as a nation can hope for, is that Trump doesn’t run for re-election in 2020, and that someone capable of being our respected Commander-in-Chief runs for that office and is elected as same, and we as a nation can then begin to heal.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/09/2018 - 06:20 pm.

    Besides being shocked

    That the author is a college professor, I am amazed that a liberal would mention that our society has demonstrated an “abdication of all personal responsibility”. Or that the author would trumpet the need for “the rule of law”, by say, enforcing the borders or pot smoking laws. Or more amazingly declare that “One day, a certain behavior is not tolerated. But as time goes by, individuals engage in that behavior, and appear to pay no price in the process; hence that behavior comes to be seen as acceptable. It becomes no big deal”, which accurately describes gay marriage, abortion, drug use, etc.
    As we go about our day to day lives ask yourselves, have things really changed that much over the last year, for ME. Not for some “group” or philosophy, or cause. And not a “possible” change or “unproven future”, but an actual change to your job, your school, or your neighborhood.
    “Tens of millions” might not like the President, but in a country with well over 300 million people that could be 30%, and the last President had tens of millions who opposed him, but they didn’t seem to complain as much I guess. Or have a protest march the day after his inauguration before he had a chance to accomplish anything.

  5. Submitted by joe smith on 01/10/2018 - 06:38 am.

    Let me get this straight,

    it is wrong for Trump to point out DC is a broken, polluted swamp but it is fine for folks to rip the Presidency. Bad for democracy to to say FBI, DOJ are too political but fine to claim the President (who is in charge of both agencies) is corrupt. Sounds very much like hypocrisy to me.
    BTW, reducing regulations, reducing taxes is reducing Government which is what we need. To claim that is a corporate takeover of our Govt is as silly as saying that letting people keep more of their money through a tax break is Armageddon…. Thank you Nancy Pelosi…. I find the Armageddon statement more scary than lower taxes and less Govt regulation.

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 01/10/2018 - 08:21 am.

    TALK TO THE PERPETRATORS V2

    And if Mueller does find conclusive evidence of all the bad things we suspect let’s not forget the Chuck Grassleys, Jim Jordans and Devin Nunezes of the world who did everything they could to stop the investigation. Just as Steve Bannon described Don Jr’s Russian meeting as Treason, let’s not forget members of congress who did their all to cover up treason: LOCK THEM UP.

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