The Trump Era has brought us a campaign against a new moral crime known as “normalization.”
When the New York Times published a journalistic profile of a rank-and-file white supremacist, it was accused or “normalizing Nazis.” The definition of “normalize” here seems to be: to describe an unpleasant reality in a factual manner. Apparently, nobody reads Hannah Arendt anymore, so the banality of evil is a new idea to them.
But most of the campaign against “normalizing” is about normalizing Donald Trump. Jimmy Fallon got in trouble for “normalizing” Trump during the election. People have published agonized thinkpieces about it. Even the New York Times, now in trouble for normalizing, has fretted about normalization. The upshot of it all is that apparently we need to stay outraged. All the time. About everything. At the maximum level.
This serves an obvious goal when it comes to maintaining partisan discipline. The charge of “normalizing” is a guard against anyone in the Democratic Party apparatus or in the mainstream media—but I repeat myself—accepting Trump’s legitimacy as president on even the smallest of issues. We’re at the point where White House Christmas displays are now treated like a partisan litmus test. You are required to hate them, because they are associated with Donald Trump.
The point of this is supposed to be that Trump is so far outside the normal bounds of politics or the presidency that he is totally anathema. But have we considered the even more terrifying possibility that Donald Trump is normal?
The question reminds me of a scene in Casablanca when a girl asks Rick “What kind of a man is Captain Renault?” He replies “Just like any other man, only more so.” It’s not a compliment. He describes the girl as “underage,” and she’s clearly so young that Roy Moore would have found her irresistible. The reason she is asking Rick is that Renault has offered to get her an exit visa to go to America—if she sleeps with him. So what he means by “like any other man, only more so” is: corrupt and driven by base appetites. It shows us the deep cynicism about human nature that Rick has adopted in an attempt to drown his old idealism, which Renault derides as “sentimentalism.”
I don’t have a cynical view of human nature in general—but when it comes to politics, I follow Jefferson’s rule: “let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”
Donald Trump embodies every vice we have grown to expect in politicians, just to a sharpened degree. Is he vain, thin-skinned, and vindictive—convinced he doesn’t get enough credit for everything and that criticism of him is always motivated by bad faith? Sure, but if you’ve followed politics for the last decade, some of that has got to sound familiar to you. Is he impulsive and undisciplined, seemingly driven by his emotions and appetites? Yes, but I started writing about politics in the 1990s, and I can tell you this definitely seems familiar. Since Democrats are working themselves up to the idea of nominating Joe Biden, it will probably be really familiar again.
Does he seem out of his depth, overmatched, and ill-informed on policy issues? So are half the members of Congress, and that’s an optimistic estimate. Does he pander to the prejudices of factions in his base and refuse to renounce connections with radicals who promote nefarious ideologies? Complain about that to Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright.
I’m not arguing that Trump is a good president. I’m not even denying that he is a worse than usual president. In fact, I have insisted on it. And I’m definitely not arguing that the “lesser of two evils” argument is an all-purpose excuse for bad behavior by a member of your political tribe. That’s an argument that is unconvincing at best and a garbage hot take at worst.
But the silver lining of the Trump presidency is that it takes the edge off of attempts to glamorize politics or to over-exalt the office of the presidency.
Those who insist on viewing Trump as a totally unprecedented politician are trying to talk themselves into is the notion that this giant juggernaut of government power we’ve built would be just fine, would be no threat at all, would work beautifully to improve everyone’s lives—if only the right, decent, “normal” people were in charge. They want to evade the fact that dishonesty and pandering and ambition and vanity are built into the DNA of politics and politicians.
Yet if someone they despise so much, someone they regard as so wicked and dangerous, can get himself elected to wield the immense power they have invested in the federal government—then maybe they should reconsider giving the government so much power in the first place. Reagan used to say that a government big enough to give you everything you want is also big enough to take everything you’ve got. Similarly, a presidency powerful to enough to do all the wonderful good things you imagine is also powerful enough to do all of the awful things you fear.
People who rail against “normalizing” Trump want to pretend they’re being vigilant against tyranny, but they’re not. If they wanted to be vigilant, they would be vigilant against everyone. Because Donald Trump is like every other politician, only more so.