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OPINION | Norm violations are now the norm

DONALD Trump is rightly smacked for calling his impeachment antagonists traitors, spies and lowlifes.

Unfortunately we don’t have benefit of a clear experiment on whether, by now, Mr. Trump or his enemies are more responsible for this erosion of standards. From the moment he was elected, many journalists, Democrats and veterans of the Obama administration were happy to throw around the term traitor for Mr. Trump.

After Charlottesville, he did what reporters wish all politicians would do. He didn’t mercilessly stick to a talking point, repeating it over and over so the press would have no choice about what to quote. He mused discursively on the episode. There was no consensus in the liberal Virginia town in favor of removing confederate statues. Two groups of extremists came with mayhem on their minds. As his reward, the media quickly settled on its own talking point, repeated ad nauseam, that Mr. Trump had called white nationalists and neo-Nazis “very fine people,” though his plain words said the opposite.

I haven’t heard many promoters of the Russia collusion narrative say “We were wrong. We made a mistake. We got some bad information.” Universally — you know this is true — their attitude has been one of disappointment, of teeth-gnashing because their play to sink his presidency didn’t come off.

Journalists, by and large, are not the irascible free thinkers of lore, going their own way without fear or favor. Corporate institutions as a rule have limited use for such people. Especially in today’s electronic environment, journalists are creatures of availability bias, to borrow a term from social science. They believe what others in their milieu believe, say what others are saying, because it’s in their interest to do so.

Even though the full powers of government were employed on the allegation and found no evidence, you never saw headlines announcing that the Russia collusion theory had been discredited. The opposite is true in the Biden case because it supports the rush to impeachment. Mr. Trump may put the worst imputation on the few known facts, but passed from journalist to journalist already is the tropism that the Biden allegations have been “debunked” as if the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.

An honorable throwback to when ours was an epistemological profession — concerned with how we know what we think we know — is Adam Entous, author of the New Yorker’s lengthy July article on the Bidens. He told an interviewer a few days ago: “The editors wanted me to make a firm pronouncement one way or the other on the allegations. And where I came down was it’s legit to question [Hunter Biden’s] activities, his decision to take the money from these companies at a time when his father was active. But at the same time I didn’t know enough to be able to say outright that the allegations are false. I find it hard to do that as a reporter.”

I recommended in 2016 that the GOP convention throw open its nomination rather than award it to a man with questionable character and allegiances who received the most votes without being the clear favorite of a majority of primary voters. But disagreeing with Mr. Trump and even disliking him does not make him illegitimate.

The glory of our system is that it can throw up a candidate who is willing to be out of sympathy with the establishments of both parties, who plainly pronounces that he will not conform, who advertises his desire for better relations with Russia, who pooh-poohs Kremlin election-meddling because the U.S. has done the same.

His norm-busting, in that sense, is a lot more legitimate than the norm-busting of his opponents because, unlike them, he is exactly the person he sold to voters. It was possible even to entertain hopes for his presidency because he arrived without fixed political attachments, touting his skills as a dealmaker. So who really is most responsible for throwing away the opportunity his election might have represented for the country?

One kind of Trumpian norm-violation you can be certain will not outlast him. He may spread false or dubious claims but, uniquely, he does so in his own name, using his Twitter account and press conferences. He deliberately and willingly courts the coverage he gets, with important newspapers calling him a liar, awarding his statements multiple Pinocchios. He doesn’t hide behind four layers of deniability as other politicians do when they outsource their lying to oppo researchers and surrogates.

I am not sure whether this is good or bad on balance, but I’m absolutely confident that it’s a model that won’t be catching on.