Norms and Values in the Age of Trump

I cry at television commercials, especially when they include babies or dogs, which happens a lot in ads for car companies and banks. A recent ad that caught my eye was for a company that would invest your money. It featured a baby lying on its father’s chest while the dad moved around part of his portfolio (or maybe it was to take out a loan) with a few computer clicks. The baby snuggled up, looking very comfortable, outfitted in an undershirt and a diaper. I thought that a very pleasing image because it meant the baby could hear his father’s heart and that would be comforting because the baby had for so many months during his gestation period heard its mother’s heart. The familiar would be comforting. And that made me reflect on, of all things, a basic sociological concept that had been troubling me ever since graduate school: the idea of norm. Let me explain.

The baby was doing something that was perfectly natural, which meant, in this case, that he was doing what was usual for him, which was hearing heart beats, and that was comforting. So the formula is that what is natural to the human world is finding comfort in the usual. That is the same formula Emile Durkheim applied in the late Nineteenth Century to the explanation of social phenomena. The natural way in which society operates is to find usual behavior comforting. He called that usual behavior a “norm” but he changed the formula by emphasizing its negative, which is that violations of usual behavior lead to exceptional discomfort and negative consequences for those who violate the norms, those people to be regarded as “deviants”, a term which I believe he coined. Deviants get vilified and punished. Why that is the case Durkheim never makes clear. It might well be that, instead of punishment, deviants are met with forgiveness, which Durkheim does admit happens in modern societies, or with indifference or with mild rebuke. But, no, Durkheim claims, people are aghast at deviants and wish them no end of ill will. There is nothing worse than being a deviant, and criminals are just one form of deviance, the term including, nowadays, overly aggressive males, people in dishonorable occupations, like ambulance chasing lawyers, people in stigmatized racial groups, like Gypsies, and, according to Erving Goffman, people who are disfigured or crippled. All these people are repulsive and rejection and hatred is their due even as they work to make themselves more acceptable or to hide their deviance, should that be possible. Some forms of deviance are worse than others but all of them distance people from being thought of as ordinary human beings and so these people are worthy of their rejection. You find reasons for why African Americans are still abnormal: they want too much government largesse or they don’t help their own or they commit the burden of crimes against white people, even if none of these statements are factually true. The hatred precedes the reasons that justifies the hatred.

The idea of “norm”, which began as a technical term for what was statistically normal, has passed into the language so that is used without attribution and everyone knows what it means. A man living in a crime infested neighborhood was interviewed on television the other day about a murder in his neighborhood and said with a great deal of anguish that “this is not the norm” and repeated the phrase over and over again, using the word correctly, to mean that it was not accepted in the neighborhood that murder was a usual crime even if there was more crime here than elsewhere. He was using the word correctly because he felt insulted by the murder that had taken place, that it was not the natural way things happened. He did not invoke a companion word “value”, which means something very different: an ideal which stands firm even if it is regularly violated. So we would say that not killing journalists or separating parents from their children is part of American values even if that principle is violated. A violation of ideals is greeted with righteous outrage, a declaration that this will not stand, while a violation of norms is greeted with simple rage, which means lashing out at the perpetrator.

Which brings me back to the wisdom of the commercial about the baby. A norm is not merely the paradoxical situation whereby something seems ordinary for an instant or longer until it changes and then there is a new normal which lasts for however long it does. That would keep people always guessing about what is comforting when in fact there is a kind of amnesia that settles in which does not allow us to recognize the norms that existed before the present ones or the ones that will replace the present ones. Not so long ago, it was considered a sign of liberation that men and women could be foul mouthed in front of one another rather than men reserving their crude remarks only for male company. But things seem to have changed so that an actress on a CBS series can get nine million dollars for hearing a few crude jokes, as if this had always been a violation of decorum between men and women as, perhaps, it was at one time before the women’s movement began. Rather, the point about norms is that they are natural, they have the force of being the way things have to be, and simply being usual is enough to give them that status. We could not very well operate in social life, so Durkheim’s theory goes, unless we had that assurance that normal life, the life with which we are familiar, what with all its customs and rituals and attributions of motives to bosses and teachers and Senators and secretaries, is life’s regular order, violated at risk and is only in the abstract capable of change. (That is very different from the opposite view, the perspective of Pragmatism, which I favor however much it is out of favor, that suggests people decide what to do in life because it is the reasonable thing to do rather than because society, for a moment at least, dictates what people are supposed to do.) So the association between the usual and the comforting is natural, and so powerful, at least according to babies, and that applies to social life as well as to biological life. Life cannot be much otherwise.

Even though the concepts of norm and value apply to all cultures and all times, describing how every detail of social structure works, at least according to the people who hold by the concept, the concepts also apply to contemporary politics. Here is a paradox that the concepts can elucidate. I have predicted for more than a year now, and I am vain enough to take credit for the prediction, that nothing much would happen in American politics until Mueller made his report, and that has not yet come to pass. Certainly, nothing much happened during the year just ending. Yes, Flynn and Manafort and Cohen pled guilty, but not to anything very revealing or earth shattering. And the economy may be at the end of its decade long expansion, but not much impact of that yet except on the stock market. And we are the beneficiaries of a decade of more or less peace abroad. So nothing bad has happened in society as a whole even if there have been atrocities for which the administration is responsible, such as separating parents from their children. Now, when nothing happens, we think that is normal, acceptable, comforting. But people seem awfully riled and polls regularly report us to be in a state of crisis. How to resolve that paradox?

Well, deviance occurs when something shocking happens in our politics even if that is only in the bubble of the media and not out in the country itself. There, in the media, something deviant is taking place, and it is the Presidency of Donald Trump. The commentators on MSNBC and even the broadcast networks for the most part treat him with contempt and as an habitual liar. They have gone beyond seeing him as regrettable, as a violation of American values, to seeing him as deviant and so worthy of outrage, everything about him cringeworthy. And it is true that he is not an admirable figure, not by any standards, even of his supporters, who took a fling on bad character to replace sterling character because the times are so good you can afford the risk, though aside from his egregious bad manners about fallen heroes and racial groups, the worst proven against him so far is that he paid off some women to be quiet about sex he had with them. What is so bad about that? Even the #me-too movement is in favor of Non-Disclosure Agreements, so long as the price is right. So we think the times are bad because Trump is bad while his supporters, who are at least a third of the American electorate, don’t know what the fuss is about.

Think of the emotions that could have been deployed against Trump other than the outrage which greets deviance. Barack Obama knew how to deal with Trump. He belittled him and treated him as a creature of fustian. Many a campaign ago, Phil Donahue was the moderator at an early primary debate and treated the candidates for President as if they were on his talk show and so he could be sarcastic with them. Jesse Jackson, one of the candidates, stepped in to say that these were all serious people and should not be addressed that way, and that was the end of it. Why didn’t any of Trump’s competitors in the primary season take that high road and point out that it was a violation of American electoral values to treat one’s competitors with pejoratives that diminished them? Webster treated Calhoun better than that, and the two Senators were talking about the destruction of the American Union. My own explanation is that Trump’s competitors in the primaries were cowards not willing to trust their candidacies to a quip and also thought that they could pick up his voters when Trump dropped out of the race, which they all thought inevitable. So the deviance is reserved to the media world of politics but that seeps into our perception of what is going on in the real world because people vote in the real world according to what they perceive as pleasurable in the TV world.

The question remains, however, whether deviance as an experience is ever a good thing even if it is as natural as a baby hearing the heartbeats of a parent. I do not get satisfaction at vilifying Trump even as so many people fall into that mode, as if they couldn’t help it, as if it were the natural thing to do for such a repulsive person. I prefer to think of him as a force of nature who was foist upon us by a fluke of the electoral system that allowed a small number of people in three states to determine the outcome of the 2016 election. Do you vilify the bear with which you are locked in a cage? No, you just try to protect yourself. Parents with all their hearts protect their babies from bears and, in this case, we just have to outlast him. Deviance is not a necessary category, just one that describes the present moment as if it were an eternal one.