The Dangerous Fantasy Behind Trump’s Normalization
Boris Johnson has urged people to ‘snap out of the doom and gloom’. Yet this situation is not normal. Convincing ourselves the president-elect doesn’t mean everything he says is a fantasy that stops us seeing Trumpism for the barbarism it is
It was David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, who crystallised the situation into a chilling shard, following the US presidential election result. Speaking on CNN, he said: “When I listen to Conrad Black describe Donald Trump, I think I’m hallucinating. When I hear him described as not sexist, not racist, not playing on white fears, not arousing hate, when he’s described in a kind of normalized way, as someone in absolute possession of policy knowledge, as someone who’s somehow in the acceptable range of rhetoric, I think I’m hallucinating. And I fear for our country, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to do so. I accept the results of our election, of course I do. At the same time, I think Vladimir Putin played a distinct role in this election, and that’s outrageous. And we’ve normalized it already. You would think that Mitt Romney had won.”
Hillary Clinton’s concession speech buried the hatchet, on the basis that the peaceful transfer of power – a principle Trump explicitly rejected before the election – required that the nation give him “an open mind and the chance to lead”. Obama was warmer still: “We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country. The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world … We have to remember that we’re actually all on one team.”
The logic is that Democrats are, by definition, true believers in democracy: they’re not the right. They don’t seek to impeach or recount or rerun an election. That principle sets off a chain of responses suggested by reason and history: if accepting Trump’s leadership is the democratic way, then any American patriot should line up behind him. Other leaders of democratic nations should offer him partnership and support. The battle has been won, and the only next stage for a body politic is reconciliation.
Yet this situation is not normal – or, if you prefer that in social media terms, #notnormal. When women are lining up for long-term contraception in a mournful, pragmatic farewell to their reproductive autonomy; when the chief strategist is accused of enabling racism and antisemitism; when the vice-president-elect signed legislation requiring women to hold and pay for funerals for miscarried fetuses; when the president-elect has vowed to deport three million immigrants; when he has at least 12 allegations of sexual misconduct outstanding against him; when he has announced a cabinet that includes his own three children: this looks nothing like a democracy. It looks nothing like reconciliation. It looks despotic, inflammatory, extreme and violent: it looks, in short, exactly as Trump promised it would look, as he campaigned on a pledge to imprison his opponent. His adversaries respond that he probably doesn’t mean what he says, a position for which there is precisely no evidence. Their desire to normalize has put them in the fantastical state of seeing the forthcoming presidency as they wish it, and not as it plainly is.
Normalizing is not Nigel Farage frolicking in a golden lift with Donald Trump: Farage was a man of the same stamp all along. The fact that his rhetoric was always so flaccid, so shifty, so euphemistic by comparison with Trump’s doesn’t excuse it any more than British corruption is excused when, compared with the US’s, the sums are always so paltry.
But Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, telling EU leaders to “snap out of the doom and gloom”, calling Trump a “dealmaker”, “someone with whom we can do business”, telling us to “see this is an opportunity”: that is normalizing. Look on the bright side, liberals. The sheer fatuousness of Johnson’s speech, the absence of any discernible values, or a backbone to put behind them, raises in me an unfathomable, hot, eye-pricking sense of having been betrayed. How was it possible for Johnson to disappoint, after his delinquent and self-serving summer? It’s like discovering that a neighbor, after a long party-wall dispute, has shopped you to the Stasi. I knew he was a jerk; I never realized he scorned our shared humanity.
Normalizing is not Marine Le Pen, up with the lark to hail the new fascism of which she hopes to be the next beneficiary. But it is Theresa May waiting anxiously by the phone to assure Trump she would be his special relationship; it is also a single column inch devoted to wondering how this affects our Brexit negotiating position. When you have a prime minister who will not raise a peep in defence of decency, you are in a new world. Its data cannot be fed into old formulas.
Normalizing is not the Ku Klux Klan taking a rosy view of the Trump presidency, it is CNN asking uncritically, “reaching out” for that view. It is trying to fashion a joke out of the Breitbart headline, “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?”, published under the vicious chairmanship of chief strategist Stephen Bannon. I want to see the absurdity of it, but it is not funny. Bannon’s ilk sees a woman on a quest for dignity and equality and wants to irradiate it out of her. It’s like living in a John Wyndham novel.
Normalizing is not anything the rightwing extremists do, and they do not try: they don’t look for acceptable labels for themselves. It is the mainstream that twists itself into conciliatory pretzel knots finding nicer words for “fascist”, such as “alt-right”.
Democrats try to find the fault within themselves: ask not whether a racist hates; ask what made the racist so angry in the first place. Once we have found the right member of the liberal elite to pin it on, the hate maybe won’t sound so frightening.
All this has a few sources: there is straightforward denial, the first stage of grief. Trump can’t be that bad, because that would simply be too bad. There is a sense that the far right doesn’t just ignore liberal sensibilities, it actively takes nourishment from our despair. The US journalist Wajahat Ali, writing the day after the result, described his conversation with his father: “Please be careful – if Trump wins, his supporters will feel very energized.” This was borne out by the spike in racist and sexist hate crimes in the US, and resonates here in Britain, too.
Racists are energized by the victory of racists, and calling them racist simply rams that victory home. A year ago, to be antisemitic would have meant exclusion from public life, and now it amounts to fitness for high office. Every time you reassert a fundamental value of humanity, you give a cheap, scornful thrill to the person who made it necessary for you to say it. You cannot shame a white supremacist; unaccountably, you feel the shame yourself when you try. The charge is so extreme, if they don’t accept, then you must be hysterical. There is an underlying truth, here, that the act of debating brings its own legitimacy. If we are really going to go back to square one and have to explain why grabbing a woman by the pussy is a violation of her human dignity, or why you can’t ban an entire religion from your shores, where does that end? What territory have you ceded just by allowing the question? It is genuinely hard to say.
The hard right does not accept argumentation as a path to a shared truth; it is simply not how they are wired. They take a view; you take a view; their view electorally prevails, you shut up. End of, as they always say on Facebook. “You just don’t get it, do you? You LOST.” That is the authoritarian way. It is hard to escape a pragmatic conclusion that verbal combat is pointless, but it is also wrong; the purpose now is not persuasion. I don’t think anybody is going to unearth any hidden sophistication or empathy in the person of vice-president-elect Mike Pence. The purpose of making these basic arguments is solidarity with one another, lest, in the silence, we lose our bearings.
As to the descent into leftwing in-fighting, so distracting from the task of trenchantly opposing a fascist, it has the same driver: if you are fighting to reach a consensus, however bitterly, you can only do so with people who will move. You cannot discuss climate change with a person who thinks all scientists are crooked; you cannot discuss abortion with people who conceive women as chattel to begin with; it’s meritless. And yet to fight with one another is not neutral, it does more than just pass the time. It creates false equivalence or, worse, a hierarchy that has its arse on backwards. If you are talking about Hillary Clinton’s corporate coziness and not Trump’s endorsement by the KKK, you are unavoidably putting one above the other.
What does non-normalizing look like? Bernie Sanders told the Today program today that it would be millions of people coming together to defend institutions and the rule of law. This is specific to the US, obviously – there isn’t much point in millions of non-Americans coming together, for all that the new toxicity of the US’s political culture affects us all, practically and theoretically. And it’s reactive, since the Trump presidency will choose the sites of the conflict. Yet there is meaning and hope in remembering, as the American Civil Liberties Union has, that the president is not pope; that there is a constitution and a set of laws; that supreme court judges can lean whichever way they will, but there are only so many ways of interpreting a constitution founded on the universal rights of man; and that millions of people can and will oppose their traducement with the backing of the ages.
The American journalist Masha Gessen, who has spent most of her life living in autocracies, gives her six rules for surviving under one, and they read as a direct accusation of the political response so far. First, believe the autocrat: if he says he will deport you, he means to. When you claim he is exaggerating, you reflect nothing but your own desire to rationalize. Relatedly, don’t be fooled by small signs of normality, the odd moderate placed in this or that position, a peremptory call for peace.
Dispiritingly, rule No 3 is: “Institutions will not save you.” The only meaningful way to marry that and Sanders’s call is to assume that institutions are as strong as the people ready to defend them. Rule No 4 is: “Be outraged.” Wherever you are in the world, however insignificant you think yourself, every time you shrug, caper, look on the bright side or do a Boris Johnson, you do grave injustice to the people in the autocrat’s line of fire. Rule No 5: “Don’t make compromises.” This is to put aside the grease of the modern political process. Politics cannot be the art of the possible when the impossible has already happened. No 6 is: “Remember the future.” Trump cannot last for ever.
I would add a seventh, which is to remember the past: whether it’s globalization or those who are left behind, whether it’s economic stagnation or the long, lashing tail of the financial crash, we should, as we climb over each other to be modern in our interpretations, remember there is nothing new about this story. It is the oldest in the world: nebulous animosities given shape and energy by the rhetoric of unabashed hatred. You cannot find common cause on the plight of the low-waged; navigate your own way through the swamp of secular stagnation, and name Trumpism for the barbarism that it is.