Recently, I came across an ongoing argument on Twitter between one person who was criticizing President-Elect Trump on his failure to release his tax returns and another person who was defending this criticism like this: “But, nothing he’s doing is illegal. It is not a requirement for a candidate to release his taxes.”
On the surface, this argument is not necessarily an inaccurate one, but it is a fallacious one.
In every society, there are things called “social norms.” Deviating from social norms can sometimes be illegal, like in cases of not stopping at a red light or not paying for your groceries. However, most social norms are not governed by law. They are governed by public opinion.
In this particular instance, the behavior at issue would be a candidate for leader of a free society (and the free world) releasing his tax returns as a show of good will and for the sake of transparency. Since this has been the established behavior of almost every candidate in America for the last 40 years, this would be considered a social norm.
Social norms can and do change, but the change is typically gradual, arriving on the backs of the next generation. For example, when baby boomers were in elementary school, the girls wore dresses. It wasn’t until the Sexual Revolution that girls began wearing bell bottoms and other non-skirt attire. Sure, it was considered provocative at the time, but this change was basically harmless in regards to its effect on American society. This would be considered an organic evolution of a social norm.
There are some social norms that probably will never change. Some examples of those are: (a) not picking your nose, (b) not facing backwards in an elevator, (c) not touching shoulders with a stranger if there is plenty of space to not do so, (d) leaving a tip for the waitress, (e) not cursing in a formal situation like a job interview… the list goes on.
Those mentioned are also examples of social norms that are not illegal if broken. So, let me ask: would you get into an elevator with a person who was standing backward and picking his nose? Would you go near a person who clearly had an issue with invading personal space? What would you think about someone who didn’t tip a waitress or who didn’t filter his/her language around your boss or grandparents?
Trump is failing to observe a long-running American societal norm by not releasing his tax returns. It’s not a harmless one, either. Making this information public allows the American people to be able to fully trust that any candidate we choose has our nation’s best interests at heart.
There’s a reason why social norms come to exist. It’s because those behaviors work best to provide order in that particular society at that particular time. If a different behavior works better, the old norm will be replaced with a new one. In this case, most would not argue that less transparency works better in a free society than more transparency.
People who understand this are viewing the President-Elect as if he is either insane, rude, odd, entitled, or up to no good – the same way they would view the guy in the elevator, or the personal space invader, or the untimely swearer.
By refusing to adhere to the social norms of the presidency, Donald Trump is the nose picker of American politics.