There is an awful lot to be upset about at the moment: Over the past week, Donald Trump has threatened to declare a national emergency on completely spurious grounds. We are now entering the 25th day of the government shutdown. Meanwhile, we have learned that the FBI was sufficiently concerned about the loyalty of the president to open an investigation into whether he might be a Russian asset, and he has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure that there would be no public records of his meetings with Vladimir Putin.
But what has a depressingly large number of American journalists been focusing on for the past twenty-four hours? Donald Trump’s choice to serve fast food—“McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King with some pizza,” as he put it—to the Clemson football team. “Trump Treating Champion Clemson to Finest Fast-Food Dinner,” New York magazine headlined. “ ‘We have everything that I like’: Trump serves fast-food feast for Clemson’s White House visit,” the Washington Post announced. Political Twitter was even more obsessed: At one point, #WhiteHouseDinners, Big Macs, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s were all trending.
All of this would be a bit of silly fun if it had taken place during the languid summer months of a placid presidency. It is completely inexcusable at a moment when the country is engulfed in a deep political crisis. But as a political scientist, I do recognize one unintended benefit to the media’s collective loss of mind: It is a great illustration of what scholars of populism do—and just as importantly, what they don’t—mean when they warn about Trump’s assault on democratic norms.
Leading scholars of democracy have consistently warned that Donald Trump’s insistence on breaking the most basic rules and norms of liberal democracy is one of his presidency’s most dangerous aspects. As Steve Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue in How Democracies Die (and I explain in The People vs. Democracy), the most basic building block of a liberal democracy is the willingness to accept that intense political disagreements should be settled by a shared set of procedures and institutions. Some of these rules and norms are written down, such as those defined in the U.S. Constitution. But because it is impossible to codify all aspects of a political system, other important traditions are informal. For example, it had until recently been an established political practice for the Senate majority to give judicial nominees a hearing even when they are put forward by the president of an opposing party.
This claim has sometimes been greeted with considerable skepticism, or even outright hostility, on both sides of the political spectrum. Defenders of the president have emphasized that Trump was elected to break things and drain the swamp. In their mind, the charge of changing up the way things have always been should be seen as a sign that the president is delivering on his most important promise (even when the thing being changed up is something as fundamental as, say, the political independence of the FBI). Meanwhile, left critics of liberalism who are not predisposed to liking Trump have been just as dismissive of the concern about norms: the obsession with such traditions, they claim, is just a small-c conservative plot to stop the marginalized from demanding justice in whatever way they can.
Both arguments effectively demolish the same stolid strawman. Norms are not important because the hallowed traditions of an orderly political system should take precedence over goals like equality. On the contrary, defenders of norms recognize that in the absence of an agreed set of procedures, deep disagreements over pressing issues of justice and equality can lead to violence, tyranny, or civil war. The point of democratic norms is not to stop people from fighting for what they most care about—but rather to ensure that they are able to do so at the ballot box.
This misunderstanding of norms has led to the idea that only a snobbish elite has reason to care about them. It is, of course, part and parcel of democracy for elected leaders to deviate from the way their predecessors did things, both with regard to the policies they pursue and to comparatively trivial things like how they carry themselves. In fact, some of our most popular leaders were so beloved precisely because they embraced the mores of a new generation that had grown impatient with the pieties of their elders. John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton—and in a different vein, conservatives like Ronald Reagan—appealed to their base in large part by bringing a new style to the White House. But even though, at the time, some commentators clutched their proverbial pearls about Kennedy’s glamorous parties or Clinton’s saxophone concerts, it was obvious that these changes did not represent attacks on the country’s fundamental institutional norms.
For that simple reason, it is vital to distinguish between what is dangerous and what is merely unprecedented. To give but one example, one critic took Levitsky and Ziblatt to task for, as he put it, fretting about the fact that “Trump has broken the norm of keeping a pet in the White House.” But anybody who bothers to open their book will find that they only mention this particular deviation from a long-held tradition to illustrate how trivial it is: While nobody should be concerned when presidents break insignificant traditions like keeping a pet, they write, everybody should be alarmed when a president calls in doubt whether he will accept the outcome of an election.
And so we return, at long last, to Donald Trump and the curious case of serving fast food to the Clemson championship team. No serious political scientist should or would think twice about the implications of this culinary choice, unprecedented though it might be. On the contrary, the media’s obsession with it is harmful not only because much of America will rightly perceive it as an unbearable instance of cultural snobbery—but also because all the attention being lavished on it is liable to distract voters from the assault Trump is currently waging on vastly more important norms.