It’s been a very unusual convention season. Both major parties had to improvise on the traditional convention playbook because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, holding nearly all-virtual gatherings instead. But the Republican National Convention cast aside other traditions too — featuring some of the norm-breaking (and possible law-breaking!) that we’ve come to expect from the Trump administration and blurring the lines that separate governance from party politics, and party politics from personal advancement.
As we’ve noted here before, there’s a difference between norms and democratic values. Norms are nice, and even important sometimes. But not always: Both conventions featured new forms of roll-call voting, for example, losing some norms but not in a problematic way. Other norms, though, help enforce democratic values. And that kind of norm-breaking is the one we should really worry about.
So what values — if any — are at stake in the norm violations at the 2020 RNC?
Election integrity and good governance
Most of the norms-based criticisms of the RNC revolved around the use of government resources and governing powers for a political event. On the second night, the convention kicked off with President Trump pardoning Jon Ponder. The same night, the convention aired a pre-taped naturalization ceremony filmed at the White House. And on Thursday, Trump delivered his acceptance speech from the White House’s South Lawn. All this drew sharp criticism, including questions about whether the Trump administration had violated the Hatch Act, which bans federal officials from mixing their government work with political activities.
Indeed, since last week, the Hatch Act has been having a moment. But are there democratic values embodied in this 1939 piece of legislation? On Wednesday morning, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows was quoted saying that only “Beltway insiders” cared about such things. And civil service regulation might not seem like the most exciting or relevant topic. But the Hatch Act came after many years of political struggles, and other, unsuccessful legislative attempts to address the relationship between politics and governance. These kinds of rules are in place to protect the governing process from improper political influence and elections from the sway of powerful actors. The civil service reform movement in the 1880s sought to create an effective federal government, staffed by civil servants who were trained for their work and free from fear of losing their jobs over politics. The idea of protecting elections dates back to at least the 1830s. The Hatch Act itself came about as the result of concern about the FDR administration using the Works Progress Administration for political gain and becoming overly involved in the 1938 primaries in an effort to defeat conservative Democrats. In other words, the act, which was controversial at the time and has been controversial since, was aimed at curbing the role of politics in governance and keeping the president from having too much influence over elections. The Hatch Act and other rules like it aren’t just about obscure regulations or Washington norms — they safeguard the values of election integrity and good governance.
Nonpartisan foreign policy
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech from Jerusalem also prompted Hatch Act questions. It’s possible the speech didn’t technically violate the law. And it’s not unheard of for Cabinet secretaries to speak at conventions about domestic issues. But regardless of who paid for what, the appearance of a secretary of state at a convention links partisan politics to foreign policy statecraft and diplomacy. And there’s a reason why foreign policy is different.
As Scott Anderson explained on the Lawfare podcast, the principles behind State Department policies banning partisan activities by overseas diplomats are that they represent the entire nation – not just one political party. Suggesting that one party is better than the other to our allies runs the risk of undermining our national position and credibility when the other party takes power. It defies the concept that both parties are equally invested in the security and safety of the nation, ultimately denying the legitimate role of opposition — the idea that the party out of power is still a legitimate part of the nation, and a crucial democratic value.
Equality and access
At the Democratic National Convention this year, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris both had family members speak about them. But at the RNC, in addition to Ivanka Trump’s introduction of her father, three of Trump’s children had evening speaking slots. His sons, Eric and Donald Jr., spoke about politics, castigating “cancel culture” and the Biden campaign. Contrasted with Melania Trump’s speech as first lady, the Trump children — and his sons, in particular — stepped out of the ceremonial role as “first family” and into a more partisan, political one. As some commentators noted, the speeches sounded like they were gearing up to run for office.
Family political dynasties are hardly unusual in American politics. There are the Bushes, the Romneys and of course, the Kennedys — as well as many others. And political conventions are supposed to showcase speakers who might run for office later. But combining these two things flies in the face of core democratic values like equality and access and instead turns the political party into a personal vehicle for the president and his family.
The deeper democratic value violation in the RNC’s use of these presidential powers — both real and ceremonial — in a convention context is what political scientists call personalistic leadership. It’s not just that Trump merged governance and party politics. It’s that, in this merging, the impression is given that Trump himself — rather than the Constitution or the office — is the source of privileges like granting pardons and citizenship. This gets directly at one of the principles the nation’s founders worried about when creating the office of the presidency: that it would place too much power in the hands of a single individual, endangering the idea of a “government of laws and not of men.”
Finally, and relatedly, Trump accepted the nomination in a closing speech on the South Lawn of the White House, followed up with “Trump 2020” fireworks over the Washington Monument. Some commentators have questioned not only the propriety of this but also suggested these events were illegal. (A gathering of 1,500 people, most of them unmasked, also violated local laws, though federal property is exempt from those laws.)
Political parties have become more focused on the presidency over time, with candidates rarely stepping up to challenge incumbent presidents for the nomination. And it’s standard for the conventions to focus heavily on the sitting president in that way, highlighting that this is the person already in the office while also competing to stay there. But Thursday’s use of the White House, accompanied by Trump’s declaration of “we’re here and they’re not” in his renomination acceptance speech, undercuts the reality that all presidents occupy that space temporarily. The separation of the presidency from the president is a key democratic value. The presidency and its symbols do not belong to one president or his supporters, but to all of the American people.