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We’re now 28 months and one week into Donald Trump’s presidency — 28 months and one week of perpetual chaos and scandal and outrage, of incompetence and criminality and cruelty — and the thing that bothers me most and that I find most dangerous is how normal it all seems, how routine and quotidian, like this is just politics now. Maybe this is how politics has always been.
That’s not accurate, of course. Politics is different than it was a generation ago or a decade ago. We’re polarized. We live in cultural and informational bubbles. We filter out things we don’t want to hear.
This is true of all of us, but it’s especially the case on the right, which prizes preserving the social order over the bedlam of change. This makes conservatives vulnerable to conspiracy theories (e.g., Obama’s birth certificate), populist fearmongering (e.g., migrant caravans are invaders) and appeals to authoritarianism (e.g., “I alone can fix it”). But it also enables them to dismiss dissonant information as elitist attacks on their leader and, consequently, his voters — them.
And so, as Stephen Colbert put it, reality ends up having a liberal bias.
This isn’t incidental to Trump’s political success. He didn’t create the dynamic, but he’s capitalized on it. He admitted as much to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, whom he reportedly told he complains 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 negative reporting to “fake” reporting.
His supporters believe him, even when the truth is so plain to everyone else. Day after day, week after week, you can point out how objectively awful and mendacious Trump’s administration has been — by standards historical and contemporary, moral and empirical — but you’re just screaming into the void.
That’s not to say America has embraced him. His approval stuck at 41%, he’s remarkably unpopular for presiding over this good an economy, so reviled that he could plausibly lose reelection with unemployment 4% and GDP hovering around 3%. That’s not supposed to happen.
But it is to say that the things that should have the nation enraged, the things that ousted Nixon, have become little more than background noise, just Trump being Trump. Sure, you could waste your breath pointing out how obscene it is, how destructive to our democratic institutions, but what’s the point?
Trump has become normal.
Case in point: The White House has given the finger to any semblance of congressional oversight, especially since the release of the Mueller report (which Trump’s toady of an attorney general, Bill Barr, lied about for a month). It’s fought the release of Trump financial records under laughable legal pretenses, blocked witnesses from testifying, and dismissed all of these efforts as illegitimate.
On Wednesday, Trump was supposed to have a meeting with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to discuss an infrastructure bill, but moments earlier, Pelosi said that Trump was “engaged in a cover-up” by defying congressional subpoenas.
So Trump went to the meeting, then stormed out in a huff a few minutes later 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” and had what Pelosi later described as a “temper tantrum”: “I am the most transparent president probably in American history,” he lied. 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.” (The next day, he agreed to a disaster-relief package that didn’t include border-wall funding anyway.)
It devolved from there.
Trump — who presumably has a busy schedule — tweeted 18 times that day. He began at 7 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 Schumer and Pelosi, held the press conference and got back on Twitter: witch hunt, Democrats want a do-over, he’s the best president ever — brief pause for an awards ceremony — no temper tantrum (shut up, Nancy Pelosi), Democrats suck, criminal conspiracy against him.
It continued on Thursday: 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 — kind of a self-own, no? — he was very calm yesterday, etc. That afternoon, he had a parade of staffers tell the media – for seven very awkward minutes – how he was so very, very calm in his meeting with Democrats (Shut. Up. Nancy. Pelosi.).
All of this is cringe-worthy. Amusing, even fodder for a John Oliver bit, at least to those of us who already think the guy is an oaf. But we don’t see these meltdowns as particularly newsworthy anymore. They happen too frequently. We just roll our eyes at the stupidity of it all.
And then Trump says something really dangerous, and we miss it.
Two weeks ago, Trump tweeted that his campaign was “conclusively spied on” (false). “TREASON means long jail sentences, and this was TREASON!” Asked Thursday who committed treason, Trump named FBI officials who investigated him: James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Lisa Page, Peter Strzok.
Dismiss this, too, as the president being clueless. He is. But he also thinks his enemies — FBI agents, Democrats, perhaps the media — should be imprisoned. And, as he told a “lock-them-up”-chanting crowd in Pennsylvania last week, “We have a great new attorney general who will give it a very fair look.”
Imagine what you’d think about that if you took Trump seriously. At some point, maybe we should.
(Jeffrey Billman is the editor of INDY Week, in Durham, North Carolina.)