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Normalizing Trump

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In late March, ABC News reported that the Republican National Committee has spent nearly $1 million at Trump properties since the election. In total, “Republican-affiliated” groups have “spent more than $3 million at various Trump properties” in the less than 18 months. There are broader implications of the transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of Trump®, continued RNC cash infusions into the Trump Organization is outright grift. While formally elected, Trump selected the current Chair of the RNC.

A few days ago, Trump engaged in some of his trademark xenophobic propaganda: at “an event on Thursday billed as a round-table discussion on tax overhaul, President Trump aired a litany of familiar — and often inaccurate — grievances on immigration, trade and voter fraud.” Trump’s rhetorical war against putatively unfriendly news organizations as enemies of American democracy, an omnipresent feature of his presidency, now focuses on the Washington Post and its owner Jeff Bezos. Trump, in a tactic associated with democratic backsliding, has made repeated threats to harm Bezos’ market juggernaut, Amazon.

Meanwhile, as more and more news of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s rank venality and petty corruption comes to light, CNN reports that Trump continues to back Pruitt because he’d still like to give Pruitt Attorney General Jeff Session’s job. Despite his odious policy preferences, Sessions is one of the few high-ranking Trump officials—along with, for instance, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis—who is not corrupt, incompetent, or both.

This is the kind of stuff that commentators generally mean when they write about “normalizing” Trump and the Trump administration. As Jared Yates Sexton argues:

What we are seeing, unfortunately, is a normalization of abnormal and dangerous behaviour that is quickly eroding the American system of government. In the recent past, it would have been unthinkable for a sitting president to allude to assaulting a political rival, much less a woman. Now it’s not even a headline.

He continues:

The sad truth is that democratic norms are being tested every single day by the Trump administration, and though journalists and citizens are doing their part, there is a price to pay with staying informed. This restless onslaught takes a toll as each new development and encroachment desensitizes the country and ultimately makes possible future trespasses.

If this sounds like a slippery slope, it’s because it is. With every news cycle, and one reckless tweet at a time, we are sliding closer and closer to a place where, once we reach the bottom, we may not even recognize where we’ve fallen. Authoritarianism, after all, isn’t a spontaneous state of being – it’s built on a foundation of creeping trespasses.

We might call the dynamics Yates discusses “political normalization”: the process of legitimating breaches of basic liberal-democratic and legal-rational norms by writing and talking about Trump and his administration as if they are normal. But I’ve lately become interested in another, albeit related, form of normalization. Let’s call this “analytical normalization”: the act of explaining and assessing Trump’s presidency as if we were dealing with a typical president and a typical administration.

If you want to understand not just what analytical normalization looks like, but the disruption that can follow when someone deviates from the standard mode of analyzing presidents and their policies, take a look at this video. It features a debate among Stephen Biegun, Peter Brookes, Sarah Kendzior, and James Kirchick in Estonia in 2017. There’s little remarkable about it until Kednzior starts speaking at around the 18 minute mark.

Kendzior describes Trump as, “at heart” a “kleptocrat,” who is out for his own fame and fortune, has no understanding of foreign affairs, and seeks to build a “dynastic kleptocracy.” At this point, the chair interrupts her and asks her to “stick to foreign policy.”

Consider the debate about whether Trump has been tougher than his predecessors on Russia. I was interviewed for a PolitiFact article that rated Trump’s claims to this effect “mostly false.” At the time of the interview, I described Trump’s policies as mostly on trend in terms of the increasing US pressure on Russia that developed after the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. In other comments—that also didn’t make it into the piece—I questioned the value of the exercise: foreign relations are dynamic. The relevant baseline is not  Obama policy in 2010, or even 2016, but what we might expect from Obama (or, more relevantly, from Clinton) in 2018. There’s also another problem. As Susanne Wengle points out in the article, the Trump administration has adopted a range of ‘hardline’ policies toward Moscow. But many of these, including today’s announcement of additional sanctions, are likely occurring independently of Trump. Some may even be happening despite him.

This last point gets at one risk of analytical normalization. In this day and age, we don’t expect the United States to adopt policies toward a great power—let alone a geopolitical rival—with, at best, the grudging acquiescence of the president. This makes it rather difficult to use the usual metrics. Moreover, how do you do so with a president who acts impulsively, shifts his positions on a whim, lies about seemingly anything and everything, and sometime deploys rhetoric radically detached from his policies?

Trump gets much of his information from FOX news, rather than his own government’s intelligence community. On this point, Matthew Yglesias writes:

Trump-era Fox has frequently been compared by its critics to a state broadcasting network in an authoritarian regime. But the Soviet Union’s top leaders were not relying on their own propaganda outlets for information about the world. For the president to govern effectively, actual problems need to be brought to his attention. But in the propaganda bubble that Trump prefers to inhabit, there is no endless darkness in Puerto Rico or falling life expectancy amid a growing opioid crisis.

The fact that “FOX & Friends” functions as Trump’s “daily briefing” makes his information environment unlike that of any past president. Charles Blow describes the program, not unfairly, as having a “kindergarten-level intellectual capacity” devoted to “parroting conservative policies.”

When you add all of this up, it paints a very clear picture: nothing is “normal” about how the president of the United States makes or implements policy. There is no functional deliberative process. Trump cannot credibly commit to pursue consistent foreign policy. Within days, he flits from ordering the US out of Syria to insisting that Assad will pay a heavy price for the use of chemical weapons. His behavior is reminiscent of an unstable personalist dictator, but he lacks the ability to routinely translate his whims into government action.

Many of our post-war presidents suffered from deep dysfunctions of one kind or another. All of them placed a high premium on their own political position. But none—perhaps not even Nixon—cared so little about their responsibility to their fellow Americans and to the country. As Kendzior noted in her roundtable, the alpha and omega of Trump’s interests are twofold: self-enrichment and feeding his need for adoration. Evaluating Trump foreign policy requires different guidelines than those that Beltway pundits, foreign-policy analysts, and reporters reflexively turn to. It’s time to stop using them.

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