Some Trump opponents argue that we shouldn’t “normalize his election.” It’s a losing argument and not likely to convince anyone of anything. In fact, it’s likely to make some people defensive who can otherwise be brought to oppose Mr. Trump or at least some of his most egregious actions.
The intention behind the argument
Trump’s campaign was based on an unprecedented appeal to racism, xenophobia, and violence. (Or “unprecedented” for the candidate of a major party since World War II.) A good number–perhaps small, but still too many for comfort–of his supporters identify openly with the “alt right” or other white nationalist creeds, and one of his “senior” advisors used to be an editor for an online magazine that gave a voice to some alt right groups. Further, it appears that Mr.Trump has either declined to disavow them, waited too long to disavow them, or has been too equivocal in disavowing them. (For a dissenting view, see Scott Alexander.)
There are other sins, too, and I haven’t even touched on the in some ways more disturbing implications of Mr. Trump’s presidency for foreign policy.
Those who say “don’t normalize” the election are saying this is no ordinary transfer of power. They’re pushing back against a tempting story that goes, “well, two people ran for election and one of them won, so let’s all come together and support the new president, and better luck next time to the losers.” The “don’t normalize” people are saying that approach is insufficient. It doesn’t represent the gravity of what has already happened and doesn’t create a bulwark against what might happen. In a very real sense, that approach makes “normal” that which ought never be normal and until recently wasn’t even openly sayable.
An unnecessary hurdle
But raising the “don’t normalize” argument creates an unnecessary hurdle for Trump opponents. With the “don’t normalize” argument, they now have to explain what normalization is, why it’s bad, how not to normalize, and how any given action a “normalizer” undertakes actually constitutes normalization–all that before and in addition to criticizing anything of substance.
And the what’s, why’s, and how’s are more difficult than it might seem from a Trump opponent’s perspective. For one thing, what does it mean as a practical matter to “normalize”? As Noah Millman has said,
If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.
I’ll add that it’s impossible NOT to normalize (for certain values of “normalize”) without making some very difficult decisions. If you have a 401k or an investment account, are you prepared to disinvest from any stocks or bonds that have a stake in “normalizing” the new presidency–which is pretty much all of them? Are you prepared, as Millman says, to refuse to pay taxes, etc.? Do we start a civil war? If so, who do we kill? (For the record, I disavow killing or civil war. I’m pointing out that one reductio to which the “don’t normalize” talk can go is to a call for violence. Again, that’s not something I’m willing to endorse.)
More from the same Millman article:
I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work.Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.
In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.
What is to be done?
I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps because Trump hasn’t even assumed office yet, “don’t normalize the election” might be a more winnable or at least plausible argument because he hasn’t had a chance to do much yet other than signal certain policies and criticize people’s acting ability. Maybe when the time comes, we can follow Matt Yglesias’s suggestion and focus on the actual policies and humdrum of politics.
Or maybe we could do more than that (although we should probably do that). Take Rebecca Trotter’s blog. She’d possibly disagree with my admonition against the “don’t normalize” argument, but even if she does, she offers concrete things we can do in her series of “daily acts of resistance” posts and her ideas on “what resistance to Trump looks like.” I’m don’t read her as often as I should–and I’m not prepared to say I necessarily agree with her ideas for resistance–but she’s offering something concrete.
Maybe Trump is an authoritarian who may bring us closer to the coming next presidential tyranny. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the weak-willed, thin-skinned, incompetent his actions so far suggest he is. A third possibility is that he’s just a regular politician who’ll both modify, and fit in to, the institutional norms and incentives that are the presidency.
I realize there is real fear out there. Perhaps events will prove that fear unfounded, but I can’t and won’t deny that the fear is genuine and plausible. I’m not part of the demographics most likely to be targeted by what’s going on, and I realize that this fact gives me a detached view that others can ill-afford to take. My historian’s sensibility warns against judging people who are in circumstances I can never understand perfectly. But I do believe the “don’t normalize” argument at best will simply not work and at worst will help foster a defensive reaction in favor of Trump.
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