September 24, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

No, not the Showtime series. The president.

In a “news analysis” piece in the Times today (here), Peter Baker, who has been reporting on the Ukraine story, says:

Even for a leader who has audaciously disregarded many of the boundaries that restrained his predecessors, President Trump’s appeal to a foreign power for dirt on former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is an astonishing breach of the norms governing the American presidency. [emphasis added]

Ah, yes. Breaching the norms. In a series of posts two years ago, I explained why I was not a big fan of the “breaching” assignments that many instructors use in the unit on norms in Sociology 101. Important lessons can be learned from these assignments, I said, but to learn them, we have to shift  onto the reactions of the norm violator and away from the reaction of others, which is what the assignment usually tells the norm-breaching students to focus on.

Lesson #2: When we think about breaking a norm, our anticipatory anxiety is highly exaggerated and not rational. When you ask people why they can’t, just can’t, break the norm, they imagine consequences far out of proportion to what might happen. When Stanley Milgram told his students to go into the NYC subway and ask people for their seats, one student said, “You want to get us killed?” When I’ve asked students about doing the breaching experiment, they imagine offended strangers raining mayhem upon them. But even as they say it, they know that it’s preposterous. Which leads to . . .

 Lesson #3: We follow the norms not out of some rational cost-benefit calculation. We follow them because we have internalized them. Society is not just “out there”; it’s “in here,” inside us, as well. [The entire post is here.]

Those internalized norms are what create the feeling of shame, the feeling that comes from knowing that other people around us strongly disapprove. Without that sense of shame, our only consideration would be the rational cost-benefit calculation. To the shameless, the disapproval of others matters only if it can be transformed into some sanction with real consequences. Most of the time, it can’t.

Years ago, I went into one of those narrow news stores, the kind that sell newspapers, magazines, lottery tickets, and cigarettes. A man was standing there paging through a skin magazine. (This was way before the Internet, before you could get free porn by just tapping your phone.) “Hey, fella,” the man behind the counter said, “you want to buy the magazine?” The reader ignored him. Maybe he even put down the Playboy and picked up a Penthouse. “Hey, this ain’t reading room. Buy it or get out.” The man went on reading for another minute or two despite the repeated demands from the man behind the counter.

I was amazed at his brazenness. On the shame spectrum, he was at the opposite pole from Woody Allen in this scene from “Play It Again Sam.” (That film was made in 1972. The final line in that scene, the Woody Allen making a reference to child molesting, sounds very different today given what we now know.)

Our president has demonstrated just how flimsy our norms are. The Times article quotes Richard Ben Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, referring to Trump’s “profound disregard for presidential norms.” But this disregard has brought no meaningful sanctions. Of course, sanctions are less likely to be imposed on norm violators who have some power. As Trump said in connection with his disregard for other, non-presidential norms, “When you’re a star . . . you can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” If you’re a star and, he forgot to add, if you are shameless.

As Gwenda Blair, a biographer of the Trump family, put it.  “What he’s learned is you can get away with just about anything if you’re willing to gamble and you have zero shame.”

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