It’s difficult to be shocked when everything’s shocking.
We’re now twenty-eight months and one week into Donald Trump’s presidency—twenty-eight months and one week of perpetual chaos and scandal and outrage, of incompetence and criminality and cruelty—and the thing that bothers me most, that I find most dangerous, is how normal it all seems, how routine and quotidian, like this is just politics now, or maybe this is how politics has always been.
That’s not quite accurate. Politics is different than it was a generation ago, or even a decade ago. Today we’re far more polarized; we live in cultural and informational bubbles.
This is true of all of us, but it’s especially the case on the increasingly populist right, which innately prizes the preservation of social order and is susceptible to authoritarian appeals. In turn, this makes it easy to dismiss dissonant information as mere elitist attacks on their leader and, consequently, them.
This dynamic isn’t incidental to Trump’s success. He admitted as much to 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl, whom he reportedly told, “I [complain about fake news] to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.” On Twitter, he’s equated any negative reporting about him to “fake” reporting—an indication of what he views the proper role of the media to be.
And so you can point out how objectively awful and mendacious Trump’s administration has been—by standards historical and contemporary, moral and empirical. You can support your argument using the most reputable sources on the planet. To Trump’s most ardent supporters, none of it matters. You’re just screaming into the void.
That’s not to say it doesn’t matter to the country writ large. Trump’s approval is stuck at 41 percent; he’s remarkably unpopular for presiding over this good an economy, so reviled that he could plausibly lose reelection with unemployment at 4 percent and GDP hovering around 3 percent. That’s not supposed to happen; indeed, every traditional forecasting model predicts Trump’s reelection.
The problem, though, is that the things that should have us in a collective rage—the things that ousted Nixon—have become little more than background noise.
Trump has become normal.
Case in point: The White House is seeking to block the release of Trump’s financial records under laughable legal pretenses, preventing witnesses from testifying before congressional committees, and generally giving the finger to any oversight effort, which—the U.S. Constitution aside—it has deemed illegitimate. On Wednesday, moments before a meeting on a proposed infrastructure deal, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Trump was “engaged in a cover-up” because his administration was defying subpoenas.
Trump responded by cutting off that meeting a minute or two in, storming off while Pelosi was talking. He then held a brief press conference in the Rose Garden, where—conveniently—there was a sign on the podium reading “NO COLLUSION, NO OBSTRUCTION”: “I am the most transparent president probably in American history,” he said. He called the Russia investigation “a takedown attempt of the president of the United States.” though it sent his former campaign manager and fixer to prison. He said he doesn’t “do cover-ups,” though he paid women to keep quiet about their alleged affairs.
And then he said that he wouldn’t deal with Congress until Democrats called off the “phony investigations.”
Things devolved from there.
Trump—who, as president, presumably has a busy schedule—tweeted eighteen times Wednesday. He began at 7:00 a.m. by complaining that the “illegal witch hunt” hurt his poll numbers, then bragged about the wall, then complained about congressional investigations. Then he went to the meeting with Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, held the press conference, and got back on Twitter: witch hunt, Democrats want a do-over of the Russia investigation, he’s the best president ever—a brief pause for an awards ceremony—he didn’t have a temper tantrum, Democrats suck, there’s a criminal conspiracy against him.
Finally, it seems, he went to sleep. But he was back at it the next morning: Democrats suck, they want a do-over, Rex Tillerson is “dumb as a rock” and was “totally ill prepared and ill equipped to be Secretary of State” when Trump nominated him—which is kind of a self-own, no?—he was in fact very calm yesterday, no matter what Nancy Pelosi says, etc. That afternoon, he had a parade of staffers tell the media—for seven awkward minutes—how very, very calm in his meeting with Democrats.
All of this is cringe-worthy. Amusing, even, at least to those already convinced he’s an oaf. But these meltdowns occasion little more than an eye roll. They’re too frequent to be news-worthy.
And then Trump says something really dangerous, and we miss it.
Two weeks ago, Trump tweeted that his campaign was “conclusively spied on” (this is false, not that it matters). “TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!” (Technically, treason has a specific constitutional definition and carries the death penalty.) Asked last week who exactly he believed committed treason, Trump named some of the FBI officials who investigated his campaign’s ties to Russia and have become punching bags of the Fox News propaganda machine: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok.
Dismiss this, too, as the president being clueless, careless, and hyperbolic. He is all of those things. But he’s also the president of the United States—a position that, until about twenty-eight months and one week ago, was viewed as the leader of the free world.
And the president of the United States believes that the media’s job is to sing his praises. The president of the United States believes that law enforcement officials who investigated whether a foreign adversary was trying to infiltrate his campaign—it was!—committed a capital crime. The president of the United States has ordered his toady of an attorney general, William Barr, to investigate how the investigation into his campaign got started. The president of the United States told a crowd in Pennsylvania that was chanting “lock them up” last week, “We have a great new attorney general who will give it a very fair look.”
The president of the United States believes his political enemies should be imprisoned.
Imagine what you’d think about that if you took Trump seriously.
At some point, maybe we should.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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