The Desperate And Destructive Search For Normalcy
If anything the last week has shown us is that there is an unquenchable thirst within the establishment to desperately cling on to to a vision of a normal world in the face of enormous and overwhelming evidence to the contrary. In fact, this myopia has been evident throughout the Trump era with the result that so many encroachments on our norms of behavior and governance are continually couched as just simply the normal course of politics and business, indicating an almost willful ignorance of the reality and seriousness of those breaches.
The New York Times headline that “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM” is probably not a really significant story on its own. But, together with so many other mainstream news organizations, it reflected the desire to once again take a patently insincere and performative statement from the President, belied by many years’ worth of words and deeds, and turn it into that long sought moment when Trump finally became the type of president they always envision. But he is not that type of president. He never has been and he will never will be. And, for the umpteenth time, he proved he never will be within hours of that speech and in the subsequent days. The incredible dichotomy between the desired fiction and actual reality was also highlighted by the contrast between the Times front page headline and the article on page A13 that described the thousands of Facebook ads already run by the Trump campaign just this year, fear-mongering and race-baiting about the “invasion” on our southern border.
The Times executive editor, Dean Baquet, admitted that the paper had provided a bad headline. But his interview with the Columbia Journalism Review also underscored the current myopia of the elites about the particular danger of these present times. Said Baquet, “I get that people see the phenomenon of someone who says inflammatory statements as a new thing. I grew up in the South…Americans have a way of thinking that nothing like this has happened before. Picture what the newsrooms of the New York Times and the Washington Post were like when people thought the draft and Vietnam meant that they were literally going to have to fight a war. I think it’s healthy for each generation to come in and discuss what the rules are. You have to accept that there’s something at the core of the New York Times and the Washington Post that won’t change, but there’s a lot that can change at the edges”.
In a sense, Baquet is correct. The history of our country is one long struggle for civil rights and equal justice with cycles of progress and relapse. But even in the Vietnam era, we did not have the leader of one of the country’s major parties openly spouting racist white nationalist ideology as his primary campaign strategy and joking with his supporters about shooting the “invaders”, as Trump did in Pensacola, and then having one of those supporters drive hundreds of miles to intentionally kill as many of those purported “invaders” as possible. Explicit racism has been the central theme of Trump’s political career at a minimum and it takes a certain kind of willful blindness to somehow ignore that and write such a headline especially after a single speech that was so markedly insincere that it has been described as a hostage video. But the headline vividly expresses the extreme desire, particularly within the establishment media, for Trump to act like a “normal” president and, far too often, to treat him that way.
That is what made Beto O’Rourke’s “WTF?” moment so powerful. When asked by a reporter what Trump could do to help El-Paso heal, O’Rourke refused to play along with the normalization game, responding, “What do you think? You know the shit he’s been saying. He’s been calling Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. I don’t know, like, members of the press, what the fuck? It’s these questions that you know the answers to. I mean, connect the dots about what he’s been doing in this country. He’s not tolerating racism, he’s promoting racism. He’s not tolerating violence, he’s inciting racism and violence in this country. So, you know, I just—I don’t know what kind of question that is”. It is a question designed to elicit the a response that can be used in the typical “both sides” story where Trump calls for unity but Democrats decry Trump’s divisive prior comments, alleviating the reporter of directly saying what everyone really knows, namely that Trump is a racist and his call for unity a mere sham.
But perhaps the biggest blind spot comes to dealing with the Republican party as a whole and how the party has abandoned any real commitment to democracy and a functioning government that does not enhance its own power. Donald Trump did not force Mitch McConnell from refusing to even give Merrick Garland a hearing. Donald Trump has not been purging voter rolls at a 40% higher clip in counties in which preclearance was lifted by the Shelby v Holder decision than the already surging purge rate in other red states. It was Mitch McConnell, not Donald Trump, who refused to join a bipartisan statement condemning Russian interference in the 2016 election and threatened to make any statement that the intelligence community had determined the Russian effort was designed to get Trump elected into a partisan fracas. And it is Mitch McConnell, with Trump’s support, who will not even let votes on election security or gun control that have passed the House to even be considered by Senate committees, much less be brought to the floor for a vote which would allow voters to assess where their Senators actually stand even though the bills will never survive the filibuster. The self-proclaimed “Grim Reaper” essentially has taken it upon himself to determine when Americans actually get the democracy we are entitled to and when we don’t.
Joe Biden seems to be another establishment figure who somehow clings to this idea that things can still be normal. He has, at times, seemed deluded about both Trump and the GOP. His initial response when asked whether Trump had any responsibility for the massacre in El Paso was to say, “Clearly his actions have done nothing to do anything other than encourage this behavior. I’m not sure what this guy believes.” His refusal to call out Trump’s racism and white nationalist rhetoric was yet another indication of the inability to accept the abnormality of our current situation. He has since used much stronger and accurate language when addressing this issue, but he still adamantly refuses to call Trump the white supremacist he is and his initial response is probably more indicative of his real thinking. Similarly, Biden keeps on promoting this vision of a reasonable Republican party that will, in his telling, reemerge after Trump has departed. He has stated that explicitly saying, “With Trump gone, you’re going to begin to see things change. Because these folks [Republicans] know better. They know this isn’t what they’re supposed to be doing.” And the evidence he provided for that statement were “concerns” that Republican senators had with the blocking of Merrick Garland, which of course did nothing to change the fact that Garland did not even get a hearing, much less a vote. That is the “changed” GOP Biden is harkening back to. And this delusion was further emphasized when he again restated his belief in maintaining the filibuster, ensuring his presidency will be unable to pass virtually any significant legislation that can’t be included in a budget reconciliation bill during the entirety of his term.
More insidious is the fact that the normal responses to Trump’s actions which are taken to ameliorate the damage he has created actually inspire more Trump extremism. The interest rate cut by the Federal Reserve at the end of July was a precautionary response to what looks to be a global economic slowdown and concern over the impact and uncertainty of Trump’s trade wars. Seeing that the Fed could be cajoled into offsetting the damage his trade war with China was creating actually emboldened the President who announced a whole new set of tariffs on $300 billion worth of Chinese goods the very next day. China’s response to these tariffs was to cease all imports of US agricultural goods, putting a further squeeze on American farmers. So now Trump is jawboning the Fed to cut interest rates even further to mitigate the negative effects of a situation he alone has created. In fulfilling its duty to stabilize the economy, the Fed actually encourages more destructive behavior from the President.
It could be said that the reluctance to begin an impeachment inquiry reflects a similar desire to maintain this idea of normalcy in the face of at least a dozen clear instances of criminal behavior by this President. And that reluctance merely emboldens Trump further. In a similar vein, the delusion, especially among so many centrists and even large swaths of the liberal elite, that Bill Barr would be a traditional conservative institutionalist rather than the hand-picked personal defender that Trump had openly pined for and has turned out to be, was another devastating miscalculation that has given the President even wider latitude for abuse. That desire for normalcy is also reflected in the collective gullibility in believing that this time Trump and the GOP Senate will actually do anything on gun control after Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton when they did nothing after Pulse, Tree of Life, and Parkland and so many others.
On last night’s Hardball, Joel Payne commented on Trump’s clearly white supremacist views by saying, “I think we have a hard time calling this out because we don’t want to believe the worst about our President because it reflects the worst in our country”. Confronting the truth about Trump means confronting the truth about ourselves collectively and our country’s past and present. For so many, especially those with power and privilege, life under Trump continues as normal, making it easy to pretend that things are, in fact, relatively normal and to pander to the mythological vision of America. Others, less fortunate, like the church-goers in Charleston, gays in Orlando, Muslims in Kansas, asylum seekers in Texas, Hispanics in El Paso, and the children in Sandy Hook and now in Mississippi, know full well the weight of our past and understand the present danger of our President and his party.