If this campaign has had one rule, it’s that rules don’t apply to Donald Trump.
He confers with his campaign manager during debate breaks even when that’s prohibited by debate rules. He calls into television shows that ordinarily require scheduled interviews to be conducted on camera. He has even insisted that he is above the law, as when he said that the military would commit war crimes if he instructed it to.
But when we say that the rules don’t apply to Donald Trump, we also mean two things beyond these kinds of literal rules. One is that he violates social norms without apparent punishment. He issues vicious, childish insults. He makes racist comments. He lies constantly. He seeks a job for which he is woefully unqualified. He gets away with all of this — or at least he keeps winning states — in spite of it.
Two, some of the rules that don’t apply to Donald Trump are rules of thumb. As a rule, you can’t win a presidential nomination without doing intense retail campaigning. You can’t let yourself get drastically outspent on television advertising. You need a professional get-out-the-vote operation. You need endorsements from the party establishment. Trump has broken these rules, too.
Because so many rules don’t apply to Trump, it is important to enforce the ones that do. And that’s why it’s such a good thing that his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, has been charged with simple battery.
It feels a little ridiculous that this incident has to involve a criminal charge — and it probably wouldn’t have, if Lewandowski had apologized instead of accusing reporter Michelle Fields of being “totally delusional.” In a normal campaign, Lewandowski’s apparent grab of her arm would have been followed by a firing, not a criminal proceeding.
The law against battery is accompanied by a norm against battery, and ordinarily the norm is more important than the law. The main reason Lewandowski shouldn’t have grabbed Fields’ arm is not that doing so was illegal, but that it was wrong: unprofessional, a violation of Fields’ personal space, and potentially injurious.
The problem is, the usual channels of norm enforcement have broken down. One channel is shame: Lewandowski should have felt bad about grabbing Fields — and Trump should have felt bad that his employee did so.
The other channel is social stigma. Voters, not to mention Trump-backing party insiders like Chris Christie, should have turned against Trump because of this and other, more severe instances of Trump fomenting a culture of violence around his campaign.
Alas, Trump and Lewandowski are incapable of shame, and Trump supporters are uninterested in enforcing social norms against him. Importantly, Trump’s opponents have no direct ability to enforce social norms on Trump. They already hate Trump and already aren’t voting for him. Their disapproval cannot hurt him.
All that leaves is the law. Maybe Lewandowski can’t be punished for doing something wrong, but he can be punished for doing something illegal. So, that’s the way to go.