Not even Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters would deny that he has often disregarded norms of political behavior—from the derisive nicknames he uses to diminish political rivals to ill-advised tweets such as the one suggesting we delay the election. These are impossible to ignore, not least because when they happen the entire press and political establishment talk of nothing else for days.
So let us stipulate that the president is a serial norm breaker, and it’s perfectly fair to call him out on it. But Mr. Trump’s foes break plenty of norms themselves, justifying it because of, well, Trump—and then adding a lecture about civility on top. The latest example: Can anyone imagine a serious news publication running a story accusing Joe Biden or Nancy Pelosi of maligning the war dead with all anonymous sources?
The Trump-justifies-the-means rationale has been as poisonous for the nation as anything the president has done. Start with this: Has there ever been a norm violation more grievous than the way the Justice Department and FBI were politically weaponized to intervene in an election and then take down an elected president, built on a salacious Russian dossier commissioned by the Hillary Clinton campaign and lies to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court? Not to mention intelligence chiefs such as CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who publicly painted the president as a Russian agent while privately testifying to Congress they’d seen no evidence for such a claim.
In the Age of Trump, calls to change any norm seen as working in the president’s favor are frequent. Mr. Trump wins the election but loses the popular vote? Eleven Democratic candidates for president call for doing away with the Electoral College. Mr. Trump appoints jurists who don’t believe in legislating from the bench? Sens. Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren propose packing the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton, still sore about her loss in 2016, urges Mr. Biden not to concede in any circumstances. Trump Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh is accused of gang rape and we are told about our obligation to believe the women as the allegation is splashed all over the news, but when a former Senate staffer accuses Mr. Biden of sexual harassment, it turns out you don’t have to believe that woman, or even pay attention to her. Meanwhile the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, launches an impeachment inquiry of the president without a floor vote authorizing it.
Or remember in February, when Mrs. Pelosi ostentatiously tore up her copy of the State of the Union on her podium? Or how anyone wearing a MAGA hat is automatically a racist, including a high school kid wearing one to a pro-life rally? Or Rep. Maxine Waters calling for people to confront Trump officials wherever they’re found—at restaurants, shops, or a gas station—and create a crowd to harass them?
So long as a norm violation works against Mr. Trump or his supporters, it gets a pass. That’s mostly because the institution that should be holding violators accountable, the press, has abandoned even the pretense of objectivity with anything Trump.
The most recent example came Friday. The president held a press conference in which reporters rightly peppered him with tough questions about everything from the attempted assassination of Russia’s opposition leader, to whether America is making as much progress against Covid-19 as he says, to whether he regretted saying John McCain was no hero.
The same day, Mr. Biden held one of his (infrequent) press briefings. This time, it was all softballs. Most reporters simply asked him to expand on how awful Mr. Trump is, starting with the first question, which asked Mr. Biden to give his take on Mr. Trump’s soul.
We’ve been seeing this for years. Where was the press skepticism about the Steele dossier or the whole Russia collusion narrative? Can anyone remember headlines about norm busting when Americans learned the FBI agent accused of altering a document for a FISA court had declared himself part of the “resistance”? Or when a text revealed the FBI’s lead investigator into the Trump and Clinton campaigns telling his FBI lover that they will “stop” Mr. Trump from becoming president? Against this, the standard rhetorical excesses likening the president to murderous totalitarians—Trump is Hitler, Trump is Stalin, Trump is Mussolini—look almost quaint.
The critics will say this is all whataboutism. But that’s not an answer, it’s an evasion. If norms are norms, they apply to everyone. Unfortunately, as my colleague Kim Strassel notes in her book “Resistance (at All Costs),” the reigning standard of the Trump norm busters is this: “You either hate the man, or you are as bad as the man.”
The new approach to norms was signaled in the thick of the 2016 campaign, in a front-page New York Times op-ed by Jim Rutenberg. In it Mr. Rutenberg asked whether “normal” standards should apply to Donald Trump.
Plainly we have our answer: No.
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Appeared in the September 8, 2020, print edition.