Lost in the Monkey House

I’m going to ask you to bear with me while I tell a brief story that seems irrelevant but actually has a lot of application to our tumultuous politics, particularly after this past week.

A while back—please don’t ask how—I happened to find myself watching an episode of the fashion-design competition show “Project Runway.” However dubious this viewing decision might have been, it fully redeemed itself with a very useful analogy from the mouth of Tim Gunn. He’s a sort of advisor and den mother for the wannabe designers on the show, and in that role he has become something of a minor celebrity. In this case, he was giving advice to a designer who had spent a lot of time pursuing a very dubious idea.

This being the 21st century, I found someone’s transcript of his speech in about five seconds by way of Google. Here it is:

I have this refrain about the monkey house at the zoo. When you first enter into the monkey house at the zoo, you think, “Oh my god, this place stinks!” And then after you’re there for 20 minutes you think, “it’s not so bad,” and after you’re there for an hour it doesn’t smell at all. And anyone entering the monkey house freshly thinks, “this stinks!”

You’ve been living in the monkey house.

If the dumpster fire was the signature analogy for 2016, evoking a particularly smelly and unpleasant kind of out-of-control disaster, then the monkey house should be the signature analogy of 2017—the pungent mental image most appropriate for the era in which we’ve become so used to the insanity that we no longer notice it.

Anyone entering freshly into the monkey house that is the Trump administration would be overwhelmed by the stench. But too many people who have been living with this day in and day out find their senses distorted by the weird priorities and mental habits they have grown accustomed to regard as normal over the past year and a half.

I’m trying to say this kindly, in that nurturing, nice-guy way Tim Gunn has, because it has happened to people I like, and I really want them to snap out of it. I’m hoping the latest development—Donald Trump’s bizarre Twitter campaign against his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions—will be the thing that makes them look around and realize where they are.

The mental habit people have come to regard as normal is a kind of reflexive, combative partisanship: Donald Trump does or says something, the left and the mainstream media overreact with exaggerated claims, and people on the right dutifully respond by attacking the left and the media and defending Trump. If I have complained that the anti-Trump “resistance” has no OODA Loop—well, neither does the right. They are also stuck in this cycle of reaction, overreaction, and counter-reaction, of Trump, Anti-Trump, and Anti-Anti-Trump. And they keep on doing it when it is no longer appropriate. They are still reacting in July in a way that might have been appropriate in January.

So as a guide to those who are lost in the monkey house, let me point you to a few landmarks of your current environment, things that simply are not normal and would not be regarded as acceptable if you came upon them with fresh eyes, mind, and nose.

It is not normal that the president’s son and son-in-law would take a meeting with a Russian operative and do so specifically because that operative claimed to have damaging information on Hillary Clinton that would help tip the election that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”—and then have the president back up his son by saying that anyone would have taken that meeting—and then have everyone in Trump circles still declaring that it’s ridiculous to say that they would ever “collude” with Russia.

It is not normal for the president to loudly warn an independent counsel investigating him that under no circumstances should he look at Trump’s personal finances. (Nor is it prudent, because when the subject of investigation loudly protests that you shouldn’t look somewhere, that’s the first place a good investigator looks.)

It is not normal for the president to fire the FBI director after asking him to end an investigation into one of his associates. Or for him to start a public feud with his attorney general because he failed to prevent an independent investigation into the president. It is not normal for the president to think that the job of the Attorney General of the United States is to protect the president, his family, and his associates from investigation, or to think that the president should be able to dictate to Justice Department officials how and when investigations into his circle should end.

It is not normal for the president to investigate whether his pardon power extends to pardoning himself, or to then boast that his pardon power is “complete.”

It is not normal for a president to use Twitter to; demean a key early supporter; the endorsement from Jeff Sessions, then a Senator from Alabama, helped Trump gain the support of Southern Evangelicals and dashed the hopes of Ted Cruz, Trump’s main rival in the primaries for the conservative vote. And it’s not normal for Trump’s core supporters, who took that Sessions endorsement as evidence that Trump would back their agenda, to now keep on supporting Trump and turn against Sessions.

It is not normal for every morning to begin with a flurry of major announcements and private feuds emanating from the president’s Twitter account, with no apparent media strategy except to create chaos and see what happens.

It is not normal for the president to be invited to the Boy Scouts Jamboree and to deliver a rambling political speech haranguing them about “fake news” and railing against the media.

All of these things are not normal. They are not the way anything has ever been done before. And if I had proposed them to you a year ago, or two years ago, as the way things would someday be done, you would have agreed that this is a disaster to be avoided at all costs.

But when you get bombarded with this everyday, it’s easy to become disoriented. Even for myself, I have found it hard to muster outrage or even much of a reaction to the latest Trump tirade, because he and his associates are just being who I already knew they were. Even though I recognize on an intellectual level that this all stinks, and I try to keep that knowledge in the forefront of my mind, I can no longer register the normal reactions of outrage or disgust. I, too, have been spending way too much time in this goddamned monkey house.

The great danger of this era is that I see it causing a permanent change in people’s method of thinking. Trump’s one and only real political skill—and unfortunately, many of us underestimated it—is his ability to connect with a certain kind of voter on a raw sense-of-life level. He exploits that connection to strip away the part of their brains that claims to care about ideology or policy. So he can totally fail to deliver on any or every policy issue—see the wreckage of Obamacare repeal, or tell me what is being done to build that wall on the Mexican border—and nobody cares. Instead, he engages a part of their mind that is reactive, tribal, and emotionalistic. It’s the kind of mentality that wants to identify with a group and gang together to beat up its enemies, deriving an emotional charge from the mere fact of tribal conflict, with no rational, impartial consideration of abstract ideals and principles. That is all that our politics now consists of.

Those of us who opposed Trump in the primaries warned about all of this, of course, but the fact that we are so clearly being proven right seems to make people less likely to admit it. In their tribal-conflict mode, they would rather defend the latest absurdity than admit that someone outside the tribe was right. If you read my list of Trump’s malfeasance and find yourself screaming that “you NeverTrumpers lost,” then it’s time to wake up and realize how you have let this reactive-adversarial outlook dominate your thinking.

Donald Trump is the king of the monkey house, and he has brought us all into his domain. It’s time to get out before the stink and the rot work their way permanently into your brain.

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