Panelists convene at Miller Center to talk political norms and laws in America

Panelists E.J. Dionne and Peter Wehner explored President Donald Trump’s disruption of political traditions


From left to right: Panel moderator Brian Balogh, a professor of history at the University and the Miller center; Peter Wehner,  a senior fellow of the ethics and public policy center; and E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. 

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

The Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a panel discussion featuring E.J. Dionne and Peter Wehner Tuesday to examine whether the United States depends upon laws or norms in the context of contemporary American politics. 

E.J. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a liberal political columnist for The Washington Post and a professor at Georgetown University. Peter Wehner is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and opinion writer for The New York Times, who has served in the last three Republican presidential administrations. 

University History Prof. Brian Balogh moderated the event. 

Balogh said he chose Dionne and Wehner as the panelists for the event because of their contrasting political views. 

“I think it is always important to air disagreements so I think it’s always useful when putting a panel together to have a diversity of views,” Balogh said. “I wanted to get a leading conservative intellectual, and I wanted to get a leading progressive intellectual…But this is not about [President Donald Trump] … this is about norms and laws, and I tried to emphasize numerous occasions where norms are not necessarily applicable, and there are plenty of norms that we have needed to check.”

Although he has identified as a member of the Republican Party since he became eligible to vote in 1980, Wehner wrote in a 2016 New York Times article that he would never be able to vote for Trump due to the former mogul’s lack of experience and morals. 

“He would be the most unqualified president in American history,” Wehner wrote. “He is erratic, inconsistent and unprincipled … Donald Trump has altered the political equation because he has altered the moral equation. For this lifelong Republican, at least, he is beyond the pale. Party loyalty has limits.” 

Dionne also emphasized Trump’s “erratic” nature in a Washington Post article March 11. 

“Trump has interests,” Dionne wrote. “He doesn’t have a philosophy. But above all, he has needs, and the erratic nature of the Trump presidency can be explained by the interaction of his two compulsions: looking strong and being liked.”

Dionne also recently published a book titled, “One Nation After Trump: A Guide for the Perplexed, the Disillusioned, the Desperate, and the Not-Yet Deported.” 

During the discussion, Dionne and Wehner identified a series of norms which they considered Trump to have defied, including the fair treatment of the press, respect for the truth and political vulnerability to scandals. 

“Norms are sets of behavior that you so take for granted as part of basic decency that you don't even think you need to write them down,” Dionne said.

Wehner said he did not consider Trump to be conservative in the traditional sense, as he has defied many norms during his time in office. 

“It's certainly fair to say that philosophically conservatives have an appreciation… or used to have an appreciation, for the importance of norms...and a respect for the past and tradition,” Wehner said. “There's the idea that conservatives are forever wed to the past and never want to change...but I think there is an epistemological modesty [in the idea that] we are not here to reinvent the world and that those who came before us had something to teach us."

Wehner added that the unconventional nature of Trump’s time in office thus far has damaged the president's credibility as a true conservative. 

“Which is why I think Trump is such an assault to conservatism… because [we see] someone who is supposed to embody the conservative movement throw one [norm] after the other aside,” Wehner said. 

Dionne said that liberals do have an appreciation and respect for the past, but added that they stand to make sure that these norms are ones that are of ongoing value such as freedom of press and respect for minority communities. 

“When we think about norms, we have to be careful,” Dionne said. “There are some norms that we do want to overturn. There are sexist norms, racist norms that we are actually grateful that people rebelled against.”

In response, Wehner said Trump has only defied norms which should not be overturned. 

“The problem with Donald Trump … is that all the norms he seems to be targeting are the ones that advance justice and decency,” Wehner said. “If he has overturned a norm that needed to be overturned, I haven't stumbled across it yet.”

Although there was disagreement between Dionne and Wehner concerning the role of norms and their permanency, they both agreed that the Trump administration has given them a greater appreciation for norms that they previously took for granted. 

“When [norms are]  shattered… that's a disorienting experience and all of a sudden you think, ‘My gosh, these things are actually important to society,’” Wehner said. “And that's true for all of us, and I think that's especially true for our president… as it’s the most prominent office in the world, and there are radiating effects that the presidents have on setting conditions and expectations, or uprooting them.”

Dionne said that Trump’s presidency has challenged norms in such a manner that they may have to be codified into law to prevent their violation in the future. 

“Norms are truly important because we can't write down in law every single thing that we expect humans to do... One of the outcomes of the Trump presidency is … [we may] have to write down into law things we didn’t think we had to write down.” 

Balogh asked the panel which new precedent established by Trump is the most poignant. 

Balogh said Trump’s attacks on the press distress him the most.

“It is not illegal to call the media fake news,” Balogh said. “But to me, that is a foundational norm that Trump ...questions the basic integrity of.” 

Dionne said the tactic of discrediting the media is often an expedient for authoritative regimes. 

However, Dionne expressed deeper concern for the normalization of corruption in politics by Trump and argued that the president does not receive the scrutiny he deserves as there are many instances of scandal within the Trump administration. 

“Trump is the only politician in history who fends off one scandal with another scandal,” Dionne said. 

Dionne also criticized the language Trump uses when addressing others, particularly minorities and women. 

“How you talk about people affects how you behave towards people,” Dionne said. 

Wehner said his greatest anxiety is Trump’s “annihilation of truth,” whether it be in the refusal to release his tax returns or lying about the turnout at his inauguration. 

However, Wehner added that Trump’s time in office has been beneficial as it has mobilized increased activism in response and cited the March for Our Lives anti-gun violence protest in Washington March 24 as an example. 

“We are here right after the gun march in Washington,” Wehner said. “The best thing that Trump may have done to the country, is mobilize a lot of people... and for that, and only that, I might thank him some day.”

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