It is probably too much to expect President Donald Trump to have read “Defining Deviancy Down,” the 1993 essay by the late New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Much noted at the time, and remarkably prescient, Moynihan’s essay warned that Americans were seeing a decay in social behavior (for example, the rise in gun violence), and were becoming inured to it. To accept such deviant behavior as normal—to “normalize” it, to use a word lately in fashion—was bound to render America a less civilized society, Moynihan wrote.
He was, of course, correct: In the quarter century since, we have accustomed ourselves to the ongoing coarsening of our society, from small things like the vitriol of Americans writing on social media and in the comments sections of news articles, to big things like our increasingly ugly political debates.
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Early on in the presidential primary season, Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart cited Moynihan in declaring that candidate Trump’s embrace of “nativist, racist, misogynistic slop” was defining deviancy down in the presidential campaign—mainstreaming coarse rhetoric and prejudicial views. Today, with President Trump continuing to exhibit deeply unpresidential behavior in the White House, he isn’t just defining deviancy down for political campaigns; whether intentionally or not, he is defining the presidency itself down.
Moynihan would have turned 90 this month. Decades ago, I had the honor of serving as one of his top aides. He was in many ways Trump’s polar opposite—a self-made statesman, sociologist, political scientist and lifelong student of history, someone who had seemingly read every book in the Library of Congress. The man had a core set of principles. He insisted on factual accuracy, believed that “governing requires knowledge,” and, famously, often said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” He required his staff to double- and triple-check factual assertions, and was known to include footnoted citations in his speeches and sometimes even his letters.
Moynihan believed in the necessity of independent analysis in order to measure problems before policymakers could solve them. He understood that if, for instance, Republicans and Democrats could not agree to abide by the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office, then agreement on legislation that spent money would be nearly impossible.
Moynihan was a stalwart defender of the free press, and knew that it was essential to an accountable government and informed citizenry. Although Moynihan’s mornings always began with a thorough reading of the New York Times and Washington Post, he was also a careful reader of other papers—including those, like the New York Post, that regularly criticized him. He even lent his support to the New York Post when its viability was threatened in the 1980s due to financial and regulatory challenges. In making his case to save the struggling Post, Moynihan— an Alexander Hamilton buff long before it was cool—always emphasized that the Post had been founded by Hamilton.
Perhaps most important, Moynihan understood, as Hamilton did, that strong, accountable institutions are necessary to maintain order, dispense justice, foster economic opportunity, provide national defense and so forth—not because civil servants in neoclassical buildings have some inherent authority to do those things, but because we as a society have agreed to give them that authority, and to respect it. For example, Moynihan believed deeply in the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, often reminding aides, “You don’t have to agree with the Supreme Court, but you do have to obey it.” He likewise took very seriously the independence of prosecutors. When the senator met with candidates for U.S. attorney positions, he would conclude a successful interview by informing the applicant, “I’m going to recommend you—and this is the last time you’ll ever hear from me.”
What would probably concern—and anguish—Moynihan most about Trump’s leadership is his systematic degradation of our societal institutions, from the courts to the media to agencies of his own government. Trump may or may not realize it, but his conduct in office is also diminishing the institution of the presidency itself.
Moynihan revered the institution of the presidency. He was tremendously proud that he had served in the Cabinet or sub-Cabinet of four successive presidents from both major parties: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and Ford. Years later, as a senior senator who had worked for and with many leaders of the free world, he still treated every visit to the Oval Office as a big deal, and wouldn’t think of closing a letter to a president with any word but “Respectfully”—a custom that now seems quaintly anachronistic.
Moynihan understood that the power of the presidency derives as much from the respect and deference given it by Americans and the rest of the world, as it does from its enumerated constitutional authorities—and that this respect and deference are not automatic. Over the course of more than two centuries, previous presidents have appreciated this and have chosen to act with the dignity and seriousness of purpose appropriate to upholding and extending that unique trust. Presidents have carefully cultivated the institution of the presidency ever since George Washington voluntarily declined to run for a third term.
President Trump doesn’t seem to get that, and doesn’t seem to care. The more he ignores facts, repeats falsehoods, demeans institutions and constantly reverses himself, the more the presidency will shrink in power, prestige, relevance and influence. Trump’s approach to governing is therefore, ultimately, self-defeating. With every tweet alleging, for instance, that U.S. allies owe us money or that a free press is the “enemy of the people,” the presidency is diminished. With every press briefing where White House aides insist—against all evidence to the contrary—that candidate Trump was wiretapped by President Obama, he is making himself less powerful. With every undercooked statement or policy rollout, he is defining the presidency down and charting a course for his own failure. And he is also damaging the institution of the presidency for his successors, who will have the challenging task of rebuilding the lost credibility of the office. He risks making that loss his most lasting legacy.
Moynihan frequently observed that “if you have contempt for government, you will get contemptible government,” a line he attributed to the journalist Edwin M. Yoder. If the senator were alive today, he would be alarmed by the casual contempt for government being shown by our president. And Moynihan would rue the contemptible governance that will inevitably result if Trump does not alter his course.
But because he was also a patriot, Moynihan would not have been content merely to lament our current circumstances. As he did when Ronald Reagan’s presidency appeared headed for failure in the Iran-Contra affair, Moynihan would have implored President Trump to change his ways, and to clean house for the sake of the country. “Out with all the facts, out with all the malefactors,” Moynihan advised Reagan in a Democratic radio address in November 1986, as the scandal was boiling.
Moynihan’s warnings then seem just as compelling today. As Moynihan told Reagan, “This nation does not need and does not want another failed presidency. … We want you to save your presidency.” And then, he clarified himself: “Our presidency.”> Share on Facebook > Share on Twitter