Your 'Norms' Have Left the Building

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Zephyr Teachout is a progressive Democrat and longtime activist running for New York state attorney general. In an interview with MSNBC’s Ari Melber last month, Teachout said she would “absolutely” pursue state-level charges against people—think Dinesh D’Souza, Scooter Libby or Joe Arpaio—who have been pardoned by Donald Trump.

Watching the above video, it’s pretty clear that Teachout is not arguing that she hopes to go after people because they are Republicans, but because she believes they are corrupt, have broken the law, and may have outstanding state charges to be leveled against them. Going after powerful and corrupt individuals—rather than targeting powerless, vulnerable people—is what public prosecutors should do.


Brendan Nyhan—a Dartmouth political scientist and prominent political commentator—disagreed, comparing Teachout to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and saying her comments amounted to “prejudging” the guilt of Trump’s allies (who have already been convicted of breaking the law).

On Wednesday, Teachout pledged to investigate corruption within the president’s businesses practices, and said she would use the law “as a sword against Trump lawlessness, not just a shield.”


Nyhan criticized Teachout again, saying her statement “undermines the rule of law.”


Here’s the thing about the Democratic Norms folks like Nyhan like to bang on about: they’re already gone, and anyone who says they aren’t is living in a dream world. Mealy-mouthed centrist posturing only serves to give credence to the idea our right-wing government is desperately pushing forth: that two political factions are on an equal playing field, and thus should be given equal criticism, even if one party holds all of the power in the country, and the other party holds almost none.

If you want to talk about who has eroded the “rule of law” in this country, let’s take a look at the people who Trump has deigned to pardon so far in his presidency. Joe Arpaio used his political power to put undocumented immigrants in an outdoor prison camp. Scooter Libby used his power as a member of the Bush White House to lie to FBI investigators and obstruct justice in the Valerie Plame case. And Dinesh D’Souza used the money he gained from being a professional piece of human excrement to launder $20,000 in campaign contributions to a GOP candidate through “straw donors.” Trump can wave his wand of executive power and clear their official records, but that does not erase their personal history of corruption and general dick-weaselry.


This is the equivalent of people who act like Louis Farrakhan wields the same political power today as Donald Trump. Conservatives do this in bad faith to degrade their opposition; centrists play along because they think it makes them look like the big kid in the room. In the end, all it accomplishes is further muddling conversations around issues that actually matter while erasing the many people suffering significant pain at the hands of the Trump administration’s goons every day. (It’s also worth mentioning that when wealthy, white political commentators talk about “norms” being eroded, they usually elide the fact that historically, those norms have rarely been applied to people of color and other structurally disadvantaged people.)

Nyhan’s head-shaking tweets unwittingly play into Trump’s own “witch hunt” pedagogy. What’s left unsaid is that pardoning your political cronies is perfectly acceptable, while going after those cronies because they are corrupt contributes to the “spiral of norms violations.” I’m sorry if I can’t muster up the outrage that a political candidate is pledging to go after men with such sterling reputations.


Our precious norms went out the window long ago. The president himself is arguing that he is above the law, and can pardon himself for whatever wrongdoing he may be convicted of. Criticizing Teachout for feeding into a “spiral of norms violations,” as if every slight were equal, is akin to watching a man shoot another man dead in the street, then seeing a teenager punch a bully in the arm, and running to the principal’s office to tattle.

Correction, June 7, 2018: This post has been updated to reflect that Teachout’s original MSNBC interview aired on May 17.

Senior politics reporter at Splinter.

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