Trump's new American normal
One year ago tomorrow, the United States (and to a lesser extent, the world) lived through the most shocking and momentous event since the 9/11 attacks 15 years earlier. Slightly fewer than 63 million Americans distributed across a range of states with the necessary number of electoral votes opted to elect to the most powerful office on the planet a man of unprecedented ignorance, malevolence, and mendacity.
First we looked for someone to blame — Hillary Clinton … James Comey … Vladimir Putin … Fox News … the deplorable Republican base. Then we wondered who would save us from our democratically and institutionally determined fate — the Electoral College … Robert Mueller … the Resistance.
Those of us who didn't vote for Donald Trump have spent much of the past year in a state of heightened anger and anxiety. How is it possible that the president of the United States is this ill-informed about domestic and foreign policy? This prone to form opinions about the world on the basis of watching ideologically skewed cable news programs? This narcissistic? This adept at exacerbating the country's deepest divisions? This flagrantly corrupt? This willing and eager to spew blatant lies about easily verifiable facts? This authoritarian in his outlook and sensibility?
I still don't fully understand how it happened, but it has. That's something more of us need to accept. The point isn't to treat the Trump administration as "normal" in the sense that so many pundits and activists have employed the term over the past year: Trump obviously represents a dramatic break from the longstanding norms of American democracy. But pointing that out over and over again does nothing at all to keep him from becoming the first in a long line of presidents, senators, representatives, governors, and other public figures who follow his lead stylistically if not always ideologically. If that happens, it won't much matter that Trump was "not normal" when he was elected — because he will have succeeded in inaugurating a new normal in American political life.
To keep that from happening, we need to supplement our focus on the actions of the president and his party with heightened attention to ourselves. As David Frum recently and aptly put it following an extraordinary series of tweets in which the president denounced the FBI and called on the Justice Department to go after his former opponent Hillary Clinton, "President Trump is changing us. Had any predecessor said the things about [the] FBI [that] Trump said this AM, the country would have been convulsed."
That's because we expected more from Trump's predecessors. We expected them not to behave like petty and petulant tyrants who proudly display contempt for the law, just as we expected mainstream politicians from across the country not to devise blatantly racist ad campaigns, and legislators not to toil for months to ensure that millions of people have less access to medical care, or to author a tax bill that would slash rates for the richest people in the country while forcing graduate students living on a modest wage to pay nearly four times as much in federal tax, or public figures to respond to a wave of mass shootings with a shrug or borderline sociopathic advice.
We once expected more than this, and we usually got it. Now we don't. Ever.
Faced with the overwhelming evidence of incompetence, demagoguery, and ideologically motivated malice, how could our expectations not fall? How could we not come to expect less, and then even less than that, over time?
Intensely worried about the problem, many in the media have resolved to fight back (and generate gobs of online traffic) by hyping every outrageous deviation from long-standing norms, every example of presidential ineptitude, every incident of legislative callousness and cowardice.
But not only do such blaring alarms quickly become an undifferentiated roar of background noise that inadvertently illustrates how swiftly standards of normality are collapsing, the speed with which such stories are promoted on social media ensures that many of them are inaccurate and sometimes outright false. This happened not once but twice on Sunday night, as journalists took to Twitter to mock President Trump for humiliating himself and the U.S. on a trip to Japan by mistakenly dumping a box of food into a Koi pond and then implying that he was unaware that Japanese automakers manufacture large numbers of cars in the United States.
Both stories, it became apparent on Monday morning, were untrue.
It's hard to overstate how much damage is done by every such mistake, each one of which serves to vindicate the president's denunciation of any story or news outlet he doesn't like as "fake news."
Do nothing, and standards fall. Resist with insufficient care and thoughtfulness, and standards fall even further and faster. One year into the Trump era, that is where we are — a nation fitfully slouching toward authoritarianism.