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U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 9, 2016.


Over the American Thanksgiving holiday last month, Shadi Hamid visited his relatives in Ohio. Since Mr. Hamid is the family expert on politics – he's a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. – they had a question for him about the president-elect. Did he think that Donald Trump would create a Muslim registry?

It's an idea that Mr. Trump refused to rule out during his campaign and Mr. Hamid found himself faltering as he tried to reassure his relatives. "The very fact that we can't state definitively that it can't or won't happen is extremely troubling," he said. Just as troubling, in his mind, is the fact that these conversations have come to seem normal.

"Norms can erode very quickly," Mr. Hamid said. "Now we're setting the bar in different places."

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On the road to the White House, Mr. Trump has conducted himself like no other presidential candidate or president-elect in memory, breaking with norms built up over decades to delineate what is acceptable behaviour for politicians within American democracy.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the election result, both before and after the vote. He mused about whether to prosecute and jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He has asserted that a judge's ethnicity prevents sound legal judgments and claimed that "Islam hates us," vilifying a religion practised by millions of Americans.

With each passing day, he pushes through boundaries. Since his victory, Mr. Trump has spread unsubstantiated rumours on Twitter and called for flag-burners to be imprisoned. He singled out a major corporation – Boeing – and a local union leader in Indiana for public criticism.

This week, he declined to detail how he will address unprecedented conflicts of interest between his business holdings and his role as president. And in a highly unusual move, Mr. Trump's transition team recently lashed out at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, questioning its abilities after reports emerged that the agency believes Russia tried to influence the election in favour of Mr. Trump.

No one knows how Mr. Trump will conduct himself once he is sworn in as president on Jan. 20. But Mr. Trump's willingness to trespass on political norms is deeply worrisome to experts who study liberal democracies. Much of what makes such systems tick, they say, is not formal legal strictures but informal rules. When Mr. Trump breaks those rules, it can undermine fundamental principles and institutions. For instance, when Mr. Trump suggests election results are fraudulent, it raises the question of whether he will respect the results when he runs for re-election.

Democratic norms exist to mark that within the political realm "we are competitors, perhaps even opponents, but not enemies," said Yascha Mounk, a lecturer at Harvard University who studies how democracies can erode from within. In the absence of agreement around such conventions, politics becomes "existential" rather than focused on policy disagreements, Mr. Mounk said. "In a way, we're living in uncharted territory," he added. "We've never had as stable and as liberal a democracy as the United States" potentially going in an illiberal direction.

While much of the criticism of Mr. Trump as an illiberal democrat has come from the left of the U.S. political spectrum, it has also emerged on the right. Evan McMullin, who ran as an independent conservative candidate in the 2016 election, said in a radio interview last week that Mr. Trump is "taking steps that undermine our democracy" both in the policies he proposes and by "undermining cultural norms that reinforce our basic fundamental rights."

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Mr. McMullin, who formerly worked for the CIA in the Middle East, pointed to Mr. Trump's abrupt and unpredictable shifts on policy and strategy as a tactic used by authoritarian leaders. Mr. Trump proclaimed he would prosecute Ms. Clinton, then disavowed that promise; last week, he criticized Boeing but by the end of the day was offering praise for its chief executive.

Mr. Trump "backs off [controversies] and reapproaches whenever he wants, leaving everyone to start feeling as though his latest whim is the final decider of our liberties," Mr. McMullin said in the interview. It's "a strategy intended to elevate his importance."

Mr. Trump's transition team did not respond to a request for comment.

For some of Mr. Trump's supporters, his norm-breaking behaviour is part of his appeal. Mr. Trump doesn't act or sound like any presidential candidate before him, adding to his allure as an outsider eager to upset the status quo. Others consider his actions as a type of campaign bluster rather than an indication of how he will conduct himself as president. And still others simply believe that no matter Mr. Trump's drawbacks, their priority was to deny Ms. Clinton the presidency.

In the days after the election, President Barack Obama noted that Mr. Trump had tapped into the anxieties and enthusiasms of his voters in an "impressive" way. And that connection made him "impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate," the current President said. "That's powerful stuff."

Political scientists, normally cautious, discuss Mr. Trump's way of doing things with a kind of disbelief. "One of the lessons of 2016 is that our political norms in the U.S. are more fragile than we recognize," said Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth College. "The guardrails against irresponsible political behaviour were largely imagined."

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The mistake, Prof. Nyhan said, is "thinking there will be a single moment of democratic breakdown, and when that does not occur, people wrongly conclude that no damage is being done." Instead, he worries about a "slow erosion" of democratic norms now under way. Prof. Nyhan is stunned by what he sees as a passive response to Mr. Trump's actions – and the rapidity with which they are being presented as acceptable.

A recent opinion poll by Bloomberg News showed that 69 per cent of those surveyed felt that Mr. Trump did not need to sell his businesses to reduce conflicts. That finding came despite the belief of some experts that Mr. Trump's holdings may violate a clause of the U.S. Constitution aimed at preventing bribery by foreign leaders of a U.S. president. "The public isn't very engaged with the day-to-day of politics," Prof. Nyhan said. "We can't depend on them as a check."

Particularly in matters of national security, the U.S. public has shown it is willing to tolerate serious breakdowns of democratic norms and even infringements of the Constitution – for example during the Second World War or after the attacks of 9/11.

During his two terms, Mr. Obama has faced criticism for expanding the scope of executive power and ramping up prosecutions of government employees who leak information to the press. But Mr. Trump has shown an appetite, both as a candidate and as president-elect, for trespassing on an entirely different set of political conventions.

Mr. Hamid, the scholar at the Brookings Institution, is an expert on political movements in the Middle East (his latest book is Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World). He never expected to find his research relevant to the U.S. context.

"We have now elected our first illiberal democrat," Mr. Hamid said. While Mr. Trump believes in elections, he appears willing to consider infringements on fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech (as when he called for flag-burners to be jailed) and freedom of the press (he promised to make it easier to sue journalists, then softened his position). And he has shown a marked willingness to engage in populist rhetoric that divides the country into "we" and "them."

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That makes Mr. Trump part of a broader strain of ethno-nationalist politics in Western democracies and beyond, said Mr. Hamid. It includes leaders such asViktor Orban of Hungary, whom Mr. Trump has invited to visit Washington, and parties such as the National Front in France and the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP). Last month, Mr. Trump encouraged the British government to make Nigel Farage, UKIP's former leader, the next ambassador to the U.S.

Mr. Trump's unpredictability makes it nearly impossible to say how he will govern once he is president. It's conceivable that he will be more conventional and respectful of democratic norms once he is in office. But recent experience suggests otherwise. "We suffer from a failure of imagination," Mr. Hamid said. "Time and time again, we can't imagine that certain things are possible."

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