Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
After Nov. 8, the left engaged in a minor skirmish over “normalizing” Donald Trump. In his piece the day after the election, New Yorker editor David Remnick warned “commentators will attempt to normalize this event.” John Oliver took to HBO insisting that Trump “is abnormal.” In response, the more contrarian corners of the internet left — Vox and, of course, Slate — suggested “This is not normal” is not a good organizing principle for the anti-Trump resistance. The debate is muddled, confused and, in the end, probably unproductive.
But there is good reason for this confusion. The Trump phenomenon is undoubtedly odd, but underneath the tweets and scandal, much of American politics is operating like usual. So far in the Trump era, two realities compete and overlap: the normal and the loopy.
To illustrate these two realities, allow me to tell two stories about Donald Trump. Let’s call this first one “Fascist”:
Once upon a time, in a country called the United States, a populist demagogue rose to power. He appealed to white folks’ fear of a rising multicultural majority, heaping animus on Latin American immigrants and Muslims. His rise to the presidency was assisted by a dictatorial foreign adversary, with whom his campaign had contacts. After his election, this populist demagogue told his supporters that they should blame the federal judiciary for future terror attacks. He also began referring to the press as “the enemy of the American People.”
And the second story, titled “Republican”:
Once upon a time, in a country called the United States, the Republican Party nominated a candidate to the presidency. Following two terms of a Democrat in the White House, it was likely that this Republican would win. A number of political science forecasts predicted a narrow advantage for the GOP candidate. Indeed, this candidate did win narrowly. The Republican president, with support from the Republican Congress, tried to reform healthcare, which he discovered to be very difficult. Meanwhile, the Republican president nominated a conservative Supreme Court justice, whom Republicans liked and Democrats disliked and Democrats dug for scandals that would delegitimize the new president.
Both of these stories are true. The loopy reality — featuring Russian hacking, travel bans and early morning Twitter rants — coincides with normal partisan posturing. Americans know their roles: Republicans vote for the Republican presidential nominee, Democratic senators criticize GOP-nominated judges and Republican politicians defend their president against accusations of impropriety. Many folks, mostly on the right, are behaving like actors in a play, running through their lines unaware that a grizzly bear is playing the lead role. Trump is unhinged and the system marches on.
The loopy and the normal realities could coexist. While it’s unlikely that Trump will stop tweeting or fomenting conspiracy theories, his loopy behavior might not affect the lives of too many Americans. Some smart commentators are comparing Donald Trump to Jimmy Carter, a legislatively ineffective president who had a contentious relationship with his party in Congress. This is the best case scenario: Donald Trump continues to tweet, opposition in Congress paralyzes his policy agenda and he loses in 2020.
But we cannot forget that a man who once said, “I’m speaking with myself … because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” has the power to end human life on Earth. Loopiness could quickly become perilous if Trump attempts a serious crackdown on the press, we learn of direct collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin’s government or the United States becomes embroiled in large-scale ground war. Trump’s emotional instability and his team’s incompetence could portend catastrophe.
And if catastrophe comes, will the normal, reflexively partisan current of American politics break out of its routine? Or will congressional Republicans and passive citizens twiddle their thumbs as our republic fractures? This is the defining question of the Trump presidency. Our governmental institutions have the power to stop a madman in the White House. Our democracy depends on politicians and voters shedding the comfort of normalcy and embracing their civic duty if disaster strikes.
Max Foley-Keene is a freshman government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.