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How President Trump Pushes The Boundaries Of Norms In Office

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If there has been one constant of the Trump presidency, it has been the president's willingness to set aside the norms of the office. It happened yesterday when President Trump declined to speak out against the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And the crux of the theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind or...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I haven't heard that. But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, you know, if I can help save the world from problems, I'm willing to do it. I'm willing to put myself out there.

CHANG: Because of QAnon's connection to violence, it has been declared a domestic terrorism threat by the FBI. Susan Glasser writes the Letter from Washington column for The New Yorker. This topic has been a frequent one for her over the years. She joins us now. Welcome.

SUSAN GLASSER: Thank you so much for having me.

CHANG: So let me just start by getting your reaction to what the president said yesterday about QAnon. What did you make of it?

GLASSER: Well, it shouldn't have been a hard answer just to say, you know, that's an absurd theory and, no, of course not. But the thing is, is that the president - for him, conspiracy theories are almost the original sin, the origin myth, of his political career going back to, of course, his promotion of the untrue birtherism conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama. So, you know, on the one hand, it's like many things in the Trump era - it is completely shocking and yet not surprising.

CHANG: How much of a deviation would you say that President Trump has handled controversial topics compared to past presidents?

GLASSER: Well, what's striking to me is that it's not just controversial topics; he has a knack, actually, for turning things that we didn't even realize were previously controversial into controversial subjects. Remember - it was just a few weeks ago, I think, one of the biggest norms in American life was exploited by President Trump when he actually openly mused about delaying the U.S. presidential election, even though, of course, it's outside of his power to do so. So, you know, that's turning something that we didn't even know was up for grabs into something that we call into question.

And then, you know, you have something like this press conference yesterday, which just goes deep and dark into the world of what's been described as a satanic cult. But because they support him, Donald Trump seems unwilling even to disavow that.

CHANG: I mean, as we mentioned, you've written about these erosion - this erosion of norms over the past few years. What would you say is the most concerning impact while you're watching this erosion of norms?

GLASSER: Well, you know, I think it's really important - and it's almost impossible at the same time - for us to remember how striking this is. You know, there's the metaphor of the boiling frog, right? That, you know, this happens with such frequency that by the time things really come to a head, it's too late to do anything; we're already dead and boiled the frog.

I spent the day - part of the day looking back at some of the speeches from the Democratic convention of four years ago and what President Obama, Hillary Clinton and others had to say about Donald Trump then. And if you had told your 2016 self that some of the things that the president now says and does would actually pass without even much comment, you know, you would have been truly worried and concerned. And this sheer scale of the erosions of our norms is, I think, what has been the big surprise of the Trump era - not the fact that the president is willing to embrace conspiracy theories, since that's how he came into politics in the first place.

CHANG: Well, I guess that begs the question of how permanent is this erosion? I mean, how do you see the next president - whether that be someone a few months from now or someone four years from now, how do you think that president will be affected by this current president?

GLASSER: You know, it's a great question. You know, what you hear from Democrats is sort of this line - well, America can survive four years of Donald Trump, but after eight years the damage would be permanent. You know, I'm not so sanguine about it. It strikes me that, you know, we can't go back in time...

CHANG: Right.

GLASSER: ...And pretend that this all didn't happen.

CHANG: That's Susan Glasser. She writes the Letter from Washington column for The New Yorker. Thank you.

GLASSER: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.