Not long after his electoral victory, then President-elect Trump made the crucial mistake of accepting a phone call from the president of Taiwan, breaking United States custom and signaling that the next president of the United States will not obey the “One-China” policy. This simple action led to a rift between the United States and China, and at one point, both superpowers claimed war was inevitable. Fortunately, as time passed, President Trump acquiesced and accepted the “One-China” policy of recognizing China as the owners of Taiwan. Many of Trump’s opponents fear his outrageous policies that may violate the Constitution, for example the “Muslim ban,” but his behavior poses a much more realistic threat.
The most dangerous aspect of the Trump administration is his signature style. He is not the norm. Trump campaigned as an “outsider” to great effect, but consequences of this rhetoric manifest themselves in Trump’s ignorance of political conventions. Political norms, the unspoken guidelines of behavior for a president, ensure a baseline of behavior from POTUS to keep the government running smoothly. For instance, the peaceful transition of power from one leader to the next is a political norm that enables the next leader to get over the great learning curve of the most powerful job in the nation. While these norms are not legally binding, breaking them can be calamitous.
For instance, it is not explicitly illegal for a president to pardon the assassin of a political rival. While this is an extreme example, it points out the lack of clarity in the Constitution that has been remedied through political norms. Presidents are safe in assuming that pardoning assassins of political enemies will have disastrous political consequences that could threaten the existence of the United States government. Even subtle breaks from the established norm inject instability into entire countries.
Xi Jinping, President of China, intends to delay naming his successor until after a party congress in late 2017. Although this is just a small break in custom, it is causing severe anxiety about Xi’s intentions. Many think this is a maneuver to gain power behind the scenes through choosing a puppet successor, and some even believe Xi is attempting to gain a third term, a serious departure from established political norms in China. Such a simple transgression against political norms causes a serious problem, even for well-respected leaders like President Xi.
Trump is equally likely to make some error in judgment. He infamously appointed Steve Bannon to a coveted position in the National Security Council. Nothing prohibits the president from making this appointment, but it is unprecedented. Usually Bannon’s position is given to a military general. Bannon has not shown that he understands national security at all, and liberals fear Bannon’s influence because of his ties to far-right website Breitbart.
Notoriously, Trump never prepares speeches, and his off-the-cuff style threatens diplomatic relations with all countries, including those that the United States considers strong allies. In a phone call two weeks ago, Trump seriously damaged the U.S.-Australian relationship. Reportedly, Trump stopped a phone call with Vladimir Putin to ask an advisor about a nuclear deal between Russia and the United States: something he should have known about far in advance. Then he called the nuclear treaty a “bad deal.” Who knows who Trump will offend next with his unprepared style?
Trump’s policies are disconcerting and potentially damaging, but he is constrained by the court system and the Constitution. Even Trump’s own Supreme Court pick spoke out against his Muslim ban. Legal parameters prevent Trump from pursuing some of his outrageous ideas, like jailing Hillary Clinton without due process. The serious danger of this administration is its commitment to the unorthodox. Trump’s major breaks with political norms like vowing not to assist NATO allies are alarming, but even his minor departures of custom threaten the safety of the United States.
What would occur should Trump, through his unprepared remarks, offend a tenuous ally? How would an inexperienced civilian make judgments on the National Security Council? These are the terrifying questions we must ask ourselves in a new era of government. Past presidents always kept a measured tone, especially when discussing hot-button issues. Even George W. Bush spoke kindly about Muslims to balance the rhetoric of American politics concerning Al Qaeda. Presidents have obligations to follow rhetorical and behavioral norms to ensure the smooth running of the administration. President Trump is the antithesis of those norms.