A worrying lesson for many people of the Trump Presidency was that much of the order and process for politics in the United States is based on norms with little to no actual legal backing or consequence. Norms help set boundaries for decorum, help us learn how to navigate relationships and spaces, and in nearly all US presidential elections of the past, have helped us manage the transition of power from one president to the next.
Trump demonstrated that norms can be bulldozed by those who are either immune from the consequences of violating norms or by those who simply don’t care about the consequences. We also saw that when norms unravel, people get worried, something Steven Pinker writes about in the context of nuclear weapons in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. He writes, “a norm that rests only on mutual recognition of that norm is, of course, vulnerable to a sudden unraveling. One might worry … that nuclear nations outside the club of great powers … might not be party to the common understanding that the use of nuclear weapons is unthinkable.”
Norms are key parts of our institutional systems, even our international institutions as Pinker demonstrates. We rely on norms because writing down how every law should apply in every situation is not possible. There will always be important exceptions to rules and laws no matter how well we write the laws. Norms guide us and allow us to navigate spaces and situations without having explicit and direct rules and laws for every possible scenario. But norms also become invisible until someone is suddenly violating them.
Tump was dangerous because he disregarded many political norms. Any news he disliked he dismissed as fake news. Even for the 2016 election, which he won, he never accepted the legitimacy of the electoral system. He refused to concede power after losing an election until enough outrage built following the storming of the Capitol. The outcomes were awful, but somewhat limited due to Trump’s laziness and incompetence.
As Pinker notes, norms also govern how most countries think about nuclear weapons. But there is no reason someone couldn’t disregard the norms around nuclear weapons the way that Trump disregarded American political norms. Pinker highlights the danger of a rogue actor or terrorist with a nuclear weapon. He writes about the danger of states like North Korea which may not adhere to our norms. If norms are all that bind the prohibition on the use and testing of nuclear weapons, then there is little that would prevent someone as rash as Trump or the North Korean leader from disregarding the norms and making a decision that could lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands or millions of people.
Norms are often invisible until they begin to unravel. When they do, it can happen suddenly and be very dangerous, especially when those norms surround major transitions of power or the use of nuclear weapons.