Trump, Trust, and Impeachment

The greatest danger Trump poses to the country is norm erosion. All free and democratic societies depend on norms beyond the law itself in order to function well. In particular, they rely on social norms, patterns of behavior that are not only backed by empirical expectations (people think most others will follow the norm) but by normative expectations (people share a belief that we think others think we ought to follow it). So social norms are publicly recognized rules that are seen to be in effect and normatively binding. Social norms are one of the key sources of social order. In many cases, if laws contradict social norms, they will simply be ineffective.

Democracy depends on political officials following social norms like, well, don’t use your office for personal gain. These are acts that researchers call “grand corruption,” and they are probably the greatest threat to trust in government. What’s worse, corruption is one of the few factors that clearly negatively impact social trust, a precious resources that makes just about every institution work well. When an elected official, usually a very high status person, violates an anti-corruption social norm, they therefore not only facilitate the harm the social norm discourages, they undermine the basis for social cooperation itself.

Ordinarily, social norms are enforced through sanctions – blame and punishment – where violators are held accountable by members of their community, and most importantly by high status members. The hope is that the sanction, or the prospect of sanction, motivates compliance with the norm, and some kind of repentance by the norm violator. The primary aim is to impose costs on the violator, which will include the moral emotions of guilt and shame, and drive compliance. If the violator can’t be successfully punished, the aim is to discourage others from violating the norm in the future.

Impeachment might not cost Trump, who I think welcomes it, but it can impose costs on future violators, since most officials have a capacity for guilt and shame and don’t want to be remembered for being impeached. So I think it makes sense to move forward. However, I also worry that Trump may benefit from the impeachment process, especially because failing to remove him can be spun as exoneration, and Trump can easily control the media narrative throughout the trial. If he benefits from this sanction by creating a counter-sanction, that may embolden not only him, but future officials.

For this reason, it is essential that Trump be successfully sanctioned. But successfully sanctioning someone who feels no guilt or shame, and who is a master media manipulator, is hard. It will require skillful political maneuvering. If it succeeds, we may preserve the precious resources of social and political trust. If it fails, God help us all.



  • Robert A Gressis Posted September 26, 2019 4:14 pm

    At NRO, Andrew McCarthy writes: “In Ball of Collusion, I outline some of the extensive evidence that in 2016, the Obama administration’s law-enforcement agencies pressured their Ukrainian counterparts to revive a dormant corruption investigation of Paul Manafort.” (See here:

    If McCarthy is right that the Obama administration tried to pressure Ukraine to investigate Manafort to discredit Trump, but no one seemed to care, then does that count as norm erosion or not? Here’s why I ask: the key difference here (again, assuming McCarthy is accurate) is that this was not treated like a big deal. So there was nothing to get away with. So what does it take for there to be norm erosion?

    • Kristine Posted September 30, 2019 2:07 am

      Right, or consider Obama’s politicization of the IRS to investigate his political rivals. Couldn’t that be considered the moment that this particular norm eroded?

  • Bernd Buldt Posted September 26, 2019 10:23 pm

    In a way I’d like to agree, but what if blame and punishment don’t work since violators are hardened criminals or simply people living in their own bubble with a different set of norms?

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