Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Trouble with Normal

We all have certain words or phrases that rub us the wrong way.  High on my list is "I. Can't."  Or better yet, "I. Can't. Even."  I first noticed these in the Facebook posts of some post-structuralist multiculti feminist academics on Facebook, used as commentary on egregious right-wing misbehavior, and since then they've turned up among some male leftists as well.  With the best will in the world I can't see them as anything but liberal whining, a First World Problem fueled by privilege.  Can you imagine someone in, say, Yemen responding to the latest horrific Saudi/US bombing with the Arabic version of those words?  Or an Afghan feminist writing it in Pashto about a Northern Alliance attack on a teenaged girl for going to school?

But that's by the way.  The Word for this week in liberal-Democrat social media appears to be "normalize."  Okay, I know that it was used during the campaign, but it looks like it's taking off as a way of trying to put limits on political discussion.  If you point out continuities between Trump and Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes, you're "normalizing" Trump.

Look, it's really too late to worry about that.  I still feel like throwing up a bit in the back of my mouth when I remember that Donald Trump is now the President of the United States.  Even if his regime goes down in flames, even if he's impeached and removed from office (Hello, President Mike Pence! -- a thought which also makes me want to throw up) Trump will still be in the public record and in history books as an American President.  But I remember feeling the same way when George W. Bush became President, and Ronald Reagan before him.

And I'm annoyed when our gatekeeper media are unable to find "Trump voters interviewed" who were unhappy with the man.  As Jim Naureckas tweeted, "46% voted for Trump. He's got 36% approval. If you don't find unhappy Trump voters, you're not looking hard enough."  Or again, when the same media "express amazement that Republicans in Congress seem to accept Trump’s ideas—most of which are longstanding GOP policies."  Something about writing "President Trump" evidently shuts down many journalists' and editors' critical faculties.  He's POTUS, you have to respect him! You can't just go out and start screaming in the streets like a dirty hippie.

Pointing out that much of what Trump is doing constitutes continuity with Obama, Bush, Bill Clinton and Reagan brings on accusations of trying to "normalize" him, and I'm not sure why.  Of course it wouldn't do to recognize how many awful policies Obama, especially, could get away with without a peep of protest from most liberal Democrats, and often with celebration of his greatness.  Even when Obama took those policies, such as endless war, the surveillance state, and erosion of civil liberties, from Bush, loyalists didn't just ignore the continuity, they denied it.  So it follows that Trump's continuity with his predecessors must also be ignored and denied. It's in the interest of both his allies and his enemies to ignore it.

I was thirty years old when Ronald Reagan became president, so I remember that period very well, and I see the similarities: in the way the Religious Right celebrated Reagan's advent as their Vindication; in Reagan's cabinet of crony capitalists and reactionary crazies; in his chest-thumping, bellicose foreign policy; in his record of hostility to social programs and Civil Rights legislation.  (Clarence Thomas, one example of a Reagan legacy that keeps on giving, was appointed to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission deliberately to undermine and bring it down.  But there's also a resemblance in their shared media backgrounds -- Reagan's in Hollywood and TV, Trump's on TV -- their fondness for recreational lying, and gleefully provocative (but ostensibly playful) bigotry.

Jon Schwarz pointed this out at The Intercept, recounting some of Reagan's greatest hits.  He recommended "the truly essential 1989 book The Clothes Have No Emperor by comedy writer Paul Slansky," which is available online at a really ugly web page, but it starts in 1980; I prefer to point to Mark Green and Gail McColl's There He Goes Again: Ronald Reagan's Reign of Error (Pantheon, 1983), which provides numerous examples of Reagan's all-American bullshit from the 1960s.  That's important, because when Schwarz tweeted the article this weekend, the reactions were revealing.  "Normalizing Trump" was the least of it.

For example:
The claim that Reagan was senile, or suffered from Alzheimer's, recurs in the replies to Schwarz's tweet.  I'm not sure why it's less "dangerous" for someone with senile dementia to have access to the nuclear codes than for a supposed narcissist.  I say "supposed," because despite a great deal of remote armchair diagnosis, it's not clear to me that anyone has actually proven that Trump is a narcissist by the American Psychiatric Association's criteria.  Notice FUD Buster's claim that "Trump has a certified mental disorder"; what Buster presumably means is that narcissism has been "certified" by virtue of being listed in the APA's DSM-IV manual.  It doesn't mean that Trump himself has been "certified" as clinically narcissistic.  As a homosexual who was "certified" mentally ill by the APA until 1973, I tend to take such diagnoses with a grain of salt.

It also seems unimportant to me, because any person who runs for high office, especially for the American Presidency, should be suspect from the get-go as narcissistic.  The DSM-IV criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder seem to me to fit both Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, yet Democratic loyalists never connected those dots.  Consider, for example, "(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations" -- doesn't that describe Clinton's conviction, shared and enabled by her fans, that she was entitled to be the Democratic candidate, and ultimately the President?  Or "(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others"; that is recognizably Obama joking about killing the Jonas Brothers with predator drones (to say nothing of those in the audience who laughed at his wit), or defending the mistreatment of Chelsea Manning (via).  The rest can be left as an exercise for the reader.

Reagan was a professional liar and fantasist long before dementia got him, which is why I point to There He Goes Again, with its examples of Reagan in his prime.  But he was also canny.  Gore Vidal wrote in 1983 that when he said "how odd it was that a klutz like Reagan should ever have been elected president," a California journalist who'd covered Reagan as governor told him:
He's not stupid at all.  He's ignorant, which is another thing.  He's also lazy, so what he doesn't know by now, which is a lot, he'll never know.  That's the way he is.  But he's a perfect politician.  He knows exactly how to make the thing work for him.

... You see, he's not interested in politics as such.  He's only interested in himself.  Consider this. Here is a fairly handsome ordinary young man with a pleasant speaking voice who first gets to be what he wants to be and everyone else then wanted to be, a radio announcer [equivalent to an anchorperson nowadays (G.V.)].  Then he gets to be a movie star in the Golden Age of the movies.  Then he gets credit for being in the Second World War while never leaving L.A.  Then he gets in at the start of television as an actor and host.  Then he picks up a bunch of rich friends who underwrite him politically and personally and get him elected governor twice of the biggest state in the union and then they get him elected president, and if he survives he'll be relected.  The point is that here is the only man I've ever heard of who got everything that he ever wanted.  That's no accident.*
The correspondence between Reagan and Trump isn't perfect, of course -- Trump, unlike Reagan, was born into money -- but there are enough similarities to be worth noticing.  (Such as that "narcissistic" trait that I put in bold.)  I wince when I see people denouncing Trump as "stupid," and "idiot," "crazy," not because it's rude but because they're underestimating him.  (And overestimating themselves.) That his enemies underestimated Trump is why he won the nomination and the election.  We cannot afford to do that anymore.

The writer Mark Hertsgaard showed in his 1988 book On Bended Knee: The Press and the Reagan Presidency (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) that Reagan and his team began courting the media as soon as he was elected, and Reagan enjoyed an unusually positive relationship with the press despite his blatant dishonesty and even inaccessibility.  If Trump had shown similar cordiality to the media, he'd be having an easier time of it now, but I wouldn't assume, given most Americans' hostility to the press, that being criticized by the liberal media will really hurt him with his base.

I'm noticing more and more liberals calling Trump "mentally ill" as an epithet, very much the way right-wingers used to hiss "Barack Hussein Obama."  To treat mental illness as a moral evil is itself a moral evil (though not a mental illness).  If Trump really were mentally ill, which I doubt, liberals should treat him with compassion rather than condemnation.  Why not simply condemn him morally? The English language has a fairly abundant vocabulary for moral judgment, so why do liberals find it necessary to throw in accusations of mental illness, of overweight, of the size of his hands and penis.  At least I haven't noticed them calling him retarded.  I can only suppose they haven't thought of it yet.

The irony in the fuss about normalizing Trump and trying to defend Ronald Reagan is that Reagan inspired the same apocalyptic warnings when he became president.  Liberals quickly adjusted, of course, and indeed hid behind Reagan to justify their own sexism, antigay bigotry, racism, and classism.  It wasn't that the country "swung to the right," as many pundits claimed; it was government and media elites who did so.  The Democratic Leadership Council, which gave us Reagan Democrats like Bill and Hillary Clinton, was intended to normalize Reagan's policies and assimilate them to the Democratic Party.  Barack Obama followed suit, claiming that Reagan would have been too liberal to win the nomination now, and praising what he thought Reagan stood for.  We can expect the Democrat leadership to do the same for Trump.  It won't be the left who will "normalize" him, it'll be the sensible middle.

The furious, concentrated response to Trump's executive order restricting entry to people from seven majority-Musim countries is an encouraging sign.  But we have a long haul ahead of us.

* Gore Vidal, "Ronnie and Nancy: A Life in Pictures," originally published in the New York Review of Books; as reprinted in United States: Essays 1952-1992.(Random House, 1993), pp. 986-7.  Boldface added.  On those rich friends who helped Reagan's political career, see Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal (Norton, 2009).