When Donald Trump won the presidency, our vocabularies didn’t bulge to accommodate the reality that this ignorant geyser of hate had ascended to the world’s yugest leadership position. We’re left pressing the same worn-out words into service, paradoxically reminding each other: This is not normal.
In an essay for the New York Times Magazine, Teju Cole wrote, of the days following Trump’s win, “All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress. So many were falling into line without being pushed. It was happening at tremendous speed, like a contagion.” David Remnick told CNN, “We’ve normalized [the results] already. Less than a week after the election is over, suddenly Washington is going about its business talking about who’s going to get what jobs. You would think that Mitt Romney had won. It’s a hallucination.”
After a while one grows habituated to people explaining that Trump trespasses against all precedent and convention. With each new twist in the Trump saga—the uptick in hate crimes, the plan to appoint a racist as his chief strategist, the Twitter rants against the First Amendment, the seeking of security clearances for family members—we hear the same feeble-sounding plea. “He is not normal,” insisted John Oliver over the weekend. “He is abnormal.” Shouts of “normalization” have become normalized.
The frame we’re putting around the president-elect emphasizes how freakishly outside the mainstream his views and behavior lie. That’s useful, up to a point. But in appealing to what’s typical rather than what’s right or true, we’re missing an opportunity to make a stronger statement. Trump himself aims to center white men as “normal” and push everyone else to the periphery. If populist, white nationalist currents swept this demagogue into the White House, perhaps we shouldn’t denounce him by invoking the wisdom of crowds. Trump won the electoral college. Our country chose him. To more than 60 million of our fellow countrymen, Donald Trump is normal, even if it’s painful to admit that.
An outsider challenging establishment foes, Trump pledged to “make America great again”—essentially, to bring our country back to the days when white men ruled the roost. At the same time, he pledged to invert the meaning of normalcy in the United States circa 2016, bringing the fringe into the mainstream and expelling the elites to the margins. Liberals, in other words, don’t have a monopoly on the concept of normalcy. Trump’s candidacy was centered on his vision of what’s normal (the white working class) and what’s not (recent immigrants, our black president).
In this, Trump resembles Richard Nixon, who petitioned a “silent majority” of Americans to reassert their values during the turmoil of the late 1960s. And as James Taranto pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, he evokes Warren G. Harding, who campaigned for president in 1920 on the slogan “return to normalcy.” Both phrases carried within them a rejection of the upheavals reshaping U.S. society. They were conservative anthems, hostile to demographics newly empowered by the Great War (in Harding’s case) and emboldened by the women’s and civil rights movements (in Nixon’s).
While Nixon and Harding wielded the notion of normality against political outsiders, diplomats and advocates sought to normalize in a different sense—to solidify national alliances. A New York Times article from 1969 described “India’s desire to normalize relations with Pakistan.” In 1981, American diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick vowed to “fully normalize” Chilean-American bonds. Over the next 20 years or so, normalize floated out of its foreign policy box. “Public consumption,” theorized the critic Michael Kimmelman in 2010, “normalizes all culture.” According to one expert, sexual education in schools should “normalize,” not “dramatize,” erotic feelings. A theater called the Infusionarium represents “the Children’s Hospital of Orange County’s latest effort to normalize” chemotherapy, per a 2014 column in the NYT.
In conversations about social justice, normalization often exists in opposition to intolerance or bigotry. A law or cultural product may pathologize (portray as sick), demonize (portray as evil), or exoticize (portray as alien). You can fight these othering impulses by harnessing empathy and imagination to recast difference as commonality. For instance, we can normalize transpeople by deploying gender-neutral pronouns and we can normalize those with disabilities by making sure our workplaces provide wheelchair ramps and accessible bathrooms.
When members of the media cry out against “normalizing” Trump, I suspect they are tapping into a parallel tradition, one with origins in critical theory. From Ezra Pound exhorting poets to “make it new” to Derrida expounding on “differance” to Walter Pater promoting “the addition of strangeness to beauty,” artists have long tried to shock and move their readers through defamiliarization. Investing the ordinary with weirdness commands attention and enhances perception. It compels audiences to look closer, to think and wonder and refuse to take the world for granted.
But de-normalizing (what we’re supposed to do with Trump) is more, well, normative than defamiliarizing. It presumes there’s an in-crowd to be venerated and an out-crowd to be shunned. And it makes that veneration and shunning a matter not of principle but of consensus.
We have excellent cause to shun Trump. He is a racist, sexist, Islamophobic liar. His many disqualifications for the office of the presidency could fill 100 copies of the “failing New York Times” and embarrass the ghost of every single founding father. We’d like to think that Trump’s cornucopia of hatreds and incompetencies place him outside our accepted norms. But railing against Trump’s “normalization” just plays into his grubby hands.
Here is a man who built his case to the nation on the idea that some human beings are “normal” and some are “other.” Yet our response to his political anointment is to harp on his distance from the mainstream. When we talk about whether Trump is or isn’t normal, we’re having the debate on his terms, and doing so in a way that spit-shines his rebel brand. Worse, in framing this as an issue of “normalization,” we’re engaging in wishful thinking: We want our fellow citizens to know and understand that Donald Trump is aberrant, just as we want countries to interact peacefully, and we want transpeople to have the same rights as everyone else. But we can’t dream Trump away. We can’t deny that the United States drank his poison. The problem with Trump isn’t that he’s abnormal. It’s that he’s abominable.