The Dangerous Normalization of Donald Trump
There's a way to keep our short attention spans and Trump's norm-shattering behavior from damaging the republic: "Expose and Oppose."
"[W]hatever is going to happen is really here now — if only one could see it.” — H.G. Wells, 1916
Americans are living through the dangerous effort to normalize the abnormal candidate who won the presidency with a record popular vote deficit of nearly 3 million ballots. Donald Trump has about the same popular support as losing candidates Michael Dukakis (1988) and John Kerry (2004). But that won’t slow him down.
As with many insecure leaders, he’ll attempt to govern as if he had a mandate for sweeping change. He doesn’t. Any mandate resides with the opposition.
The first step in his path toward a destination that only he knows is normalizing him. He’ll succeed and, in the process, subject the republic to incalculable damage only if others let it happen or, even worse, assist him. This column is the first in a series outlining a way to prevent that calamity. I call the strategy “Expose and Oppose.”
Nationwide Attention Deficit Disorder
When leaders fail to respect the underlying behavioral norms of a democratically elected government, its days become numbered. Donald Trump has already shattered some of the most important norms. How quickly many Americans seem to have forgotten his stunning deviations:
- Using crude language to foment ethic, racial and religious divisions under the guise of discarding political correctness;
- Eliminating reasoned discourse about competing policies and replacing it with name-calling that branded opponents and diverted attention from his inability to offer a coherent set of ideas;
- Bragging about his sexual predation and misogyny;
- Attacking journalists and anyone else who criticized him, thereby transforming them into defenseless targets;
- Embracing dictators who rule America’s dangerous adversaries;
- Becoming a purveyor of “fake news”;
- Refusing to release complete medical records necessary to assess the health of any presidential candidate;
- Stonewalling requests for personal tax returns that would permit voters to evaluate the financial implications of his past, present and future actions; and, most importantly:
- Lowering the bar for assessing his conduct far below that applied to anyone who ever sought the country’s highest office.
As each outrageous act surpassed its predecessor, Trump fatigue settled on the land. People became acclimated to his antics. Grading him on a curve — “Not bad for Trump” — was the only way he could pass the course. As the election neared, he submitted lower and lower scores.
Trump’s reward for such unprecedented bad behavior was a tenuous Electoral College win — he placed 46th out of 58 elections. Now for the punchline: Trump’s presidency is an inflection point in the great American experiment of self-government.
Shattering Post-Election Norms
Trump’s campaign misconduct pales in comparison to more serious norm-busting behavior since the election. Even before taking the oath of office, the president-elect has brought greater instability to the United States and the world order.
- The “one-president-at-a-time” rule whereby a president-elect allows the incumbent to finish his term without interference until Inauguration Day — an honored tradition since the founding of the republic. Trumped!
- The long-standing “one China” policy. Trumped!
- Fifty years of bipartisan nuclear arms reduction efforts. Trumped!
- Divesting business and investment holdings to avoid conflicts of interest that undermine the integrity of the presidency. Trumped!
America At a Crossroads
What norms Trump will jettison after entering office? Imagine the worst, but the most important ones probably are beyond anyone’s contemplation. There’s not a moment to lose.
For those resisting Trump, the challenge is enormous. Complementing his vile messages was the three-headed hydra of disorientation, distraction and dissembling — hallmarks of his candidacy. The election was never about competing substantive policies, but its outcome provided the positive reinforcement necessary for Trump and his advisers to continue pursuit of their strategy toward ends that only he and they know.
Since Nov. 8, he has doubled down. The first 100 days of his presidency will be worse. Much worse. Watch them carefully.
A frustrated plurality who never wanted a President Trump now say, “I feel helpless. What can I do?”
Help is on the way, but it won’t be an easy or quick fight. The winning strategy will test a people whose attention span is short and whose need for instant gratification is profound. Only an organized, systematic effort can combat the chaos that President Trump is already inflicting from Trump Tower.
Justice Louis Brandeis was right: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
But sometimes sunlight is only a good start. A potent antibiotic is necessary to eradicate the most severe infections.