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Don’t Be Shocked by Donald Trump

The pundits say he's an aberration. Modern history proves otherwise.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY / Getty Images

In The Washington Post, in May, E.J. Dionne Jr. offered a novel avenue of resistance to members of the American political establishment still unwilling to accept that Donald Trump had secured the Republican nomination for president. “Many forces will be at work in the coming weeks to normalize Trump,” he wrote, “and yes, the media will play a big role in this. On both the right and the left, there will be strong temptations to go along,” to grant Trump a legitimacy not won by merely dispatching 16 rivals and entering Cleveland with a sound majority of delegates. “Trump’s Republican primary triumph means that this cannot be a normal election,” insisted Dionne, and it was therefore “urgent” to “resist capitulation to every attempt to move Trump into the political mainstream.”

It’s still unclear precisely what Dionne wanted. He was not, after all, advocating any kind of political action. There was no mention of a convention coup, as some had called for, nor an endorsement offered for any candidate emerging from the caucus of Bill Kristol’s imagination. There was no call to extra-political action either. When pundits call for resistance, they usually mean more strongly worded condemnation, not anything so messy as protests in the street. Those are sanitized and sanctified later.

Rather, Dionne appeared to want something slightly metaphysical. Quoting his friend Leon Wieseltier, denying Trump mainstream acceptance required the gatekeepers of our political life to express their “shame, anger and resistance,” to “preserve the shock,” in essence to withhold their grace by way of sustained incredulity.

The punditry heeded the call. Through May, June, and early July, coverage of Trump continued as it had for most of the year before—a frenzied and not terribly challenging hunt for signs that the Republican nominee was a selfish, unstable, ignorant bigot, neither qualified nor evidently too interested in governing the United States of America. Last week, Vox’s Ezra Klein renewed the call explicitly, writing that Trump’s rambling announcement of vice presidential nominee Governor Mike Pence “helped” Dionne’s cause: “Trump’s introduction of Mike Pence was shocking. Forget the political mainstream. What happened today sat outside the mainstream for normal human behavior… We need to stay shocked.” Klein followed up the following Thursday, after the nomination of Trump: “I am, for the first time since I began covering American politics, genuinely afraid.”

This was, more or less, the consensus view of the punditry, who have covered this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland with a mix of horror and satisfaction, at once overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of provocations by which to stay shocked and newly bolstered in their confidence: They had, after all, predicted a mess like this, and after a year of humiliation at the hands of Trump, some vindication was sorely needed. First, it was Melania Trump’s plagiarism of Michelle Obama. Then, Chris Christie’s impromptu trial for Hillary Clinton and the subsequent suggestion by a Trump adviser that the trial be skipped altogether in favor of summary execution. Ted Cruz, an odd representative for the forces of stay shocked was widely praised for refusing to endorse Trump and being booed off stage for his trouble. Ben Carson used his short speaking slot to suggest that Clinton worships the Devil, and these were only the marquee attractions: speeches from grieving mothers, washed up stars, and an avocado saleswoman were declared embarrassing by default—exploited, self-seeking nobodies subbing in for the sensible Republicans who refused to attend.

All of this, however, was overshadowed by the Thursday release of a New York Times interview with Trump, wherein the candidate said that he would not necessarily honor Article V of the NATO treaty, leaving Baltic member states like Estonia and Lithuania to fend for themselves against a theoretical Russian invasion. Here, it took no special effort for the sensible to stay shocked. The comment was “reckless,” “ill-informed,” and “disturbing.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp called it “the scariest thing he’s said,” writing that “with a few thoughtless words, [Trump] made World War III—the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in nuclear holocaust—plausible.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie asked if this was “the most dangerous thing a modern POTUS nominee has ever said.”

But it wasn’t. Not even close.

“Let’s move beyond the statement to the larger point it seems to be getting at,” the political theorist Corey Robin wrote in an essay responding to Bouie and others, “that Trump is like nothing we’ve ever seen before in the realm of foreign policy”:

This is a country, remember, where it was the operational policy of the government, at the highest levels, to be able to fight and win a nuclear war. That wasn’t just the crazy talk of Dr. Strangelove. That was the reality that Dr. Strangelove was satirizing.

Up through at least the first term of the Reagan Administration—and probably beyond—high officials in the national security establishment were talking about fighting and winning a nuclear war.

Robin goes on to offer a range of quotations, from Reagan, from Goldwater, even from the U.S. Army field manual, each of which is more overtly inclined toward the possibility of nuclear holocaust than Donald Trump refusing to escalate should Russian President Vladimir Putin annex Latvia. Robin sums up: “It should be possible to talk about the very real and undeniable dangers of Trump without ignoring or reinventing the insanity of American history.”

It’s worthwhile to extend Robin’s line of reasoning to the whole shock-preservation project. If it is imperative to prevent Trump from becoming normal, then we ought to be able to identify what it is about Trump that is so abnormal to begin with. Surely an odd and often embarrassing convention is not enough—this one, at least, did not feature any lectures directed at empty chairs. It remains to be seen whether the American people found the whole affair as embarrassing as the punditry.

The “Lock her up!” chants? Calling for the prosecution and imprisonment of political foes is hardly a new development in American politics. In living memory, Red Scares and McCarthyite purges subjected many Americans to investigation and often termination over their political beliefs. More recently, liberals have called for the war crimes prosecution and jailing of Bush administration officials, while conservatives impeached a sitting Democratic president on the flimsy pretense of perjury. Another president only escaped prosecution by resigning his office, and by way of a pardon that rightly outraged liberals. The merits of these cases and the case of Hillary Clinton vary, but the suggestion that the legal system can be weaponized for political ends is not “outside the political mainstream.”

The bigotry, then? Trump is surely a bigot, a sexist and a racist who cannot go more than a few weeks without new incident. But while bigotry in American political life might rightly shock us, it is not abnormal—not among Republicans, and not among Democrats, who have nominated a candidate who once referred to black teenagers as “super-predators” who must be “brought to heel.” Our history and our present policy are a history of racial plunder, one soaked and still soaking in blood. That Trump is unusually crude about this, that he is evidently incapable of speaking in the euphemisms ordinarily employed in the service of bigotry, does not mean “this cannot be a normal election.” Are we alleging that George W. Bush—or Ted Cruz—represented superior leadership in any fight against oppression?

Policy? Trump promises mass deportations, exclusion, a foreign policy that may falter in the Baltic but finds no such restraint in the Middle East: He promises to shred the Iranian nuclear agreement, to flatten Syria in pursuit of ISIS, to return torture to the American intelligence portfolio. But “return” is the operative word there: It was not so long ago that “normal” types, well inside the “mainstream” of our political institutions, justified the practice from the halls of the Justice Department; it is today that the United States reserves the right to incinerate the body of a foreign national without warrant and without declaration of war. Trump does not offer anything unusual but an unusually inept progression toward accepted conclusions.

None of this is to suggest that Trump is not dangerous. None of this is to suggest that Trump is not unqualified, incompetent, and grotesque. But it is to say that he is not some strange eddy in the current of American history. He is where the ordinary river flowed.

When the serious and the sober say that Trump is beyond the decency of the mainstream, they are talking ultimately about aesthetics. He is vulgar. He is rude. He is feckless and inconsistent; another man or woman might make the same suggestions, but so long as this person made them in more elevated rhetoric, so long as we believed he could competently execute his goals, we might call it dangerous, or wrong, but there would be no general call to “preserve the shock.” We’d have nothing but a partisan disagreement, heads shaken at the “usual mudslinging,” business as usual.

Trump must be fought. He must be defeated. But it cannot end there. The trouble with Dionne and the others is not that they have failed to recognize a threat. Trump is one. It is that by casting the threat as an aberration, as a challenge specific to the man, it is too easy to believe that merely dispatching that man will solve the threat he stands for; that if we “refuse” to make this normal, then normal can carry on.

But should it? The logic that undergirds Trump’s threat to NATO is that a world of American de-escalation is as dangerous as one where we will escalate over the Baltics. The threat is that we’ve rigged up an unsustainable nightmare of a world that demands permanent empire to avert nuclear holocaust, a “normal” politics where a loose comment from Trump can constitute such a grave threat to human life.

Trump may be dispatched. So what? The next Trump may speak a little better. The next Trump may seem normal, may not commit so many unforced errors that his opponent can remain the prohibitive favorite without advancing an agenda beyond “Well I’m better than that guy.” Extremists can stage a slick convention, too. It is not a coincidence that the rightward drift of the Democratic Party over the past 40 years has sent the GOP in search of oxygen in the extremities of its right flank. Trump is not a magician. He is not a hypnotist. How did somebody so inept turn the Republican Party into something so obscene? He didn’t. It already was that way. He just showed up.

If Trump loses, it will not be because the grandees of our op-ed pages thought he was way out of line. That is not, and never has been, how politics happen. Perhaps most people are not consciously afraid of American politics, but they are afraid of its consequences, and they have been afraid for far longer than Trump has been the GOP frontrunner and now nominee.

The task before us is not resisting a “new normal.” It is accepting that this is what normal has become. It is formulating a plan beyond the next election, beyond preserving the shock until this all goes away. The solution is not “anything better than this.” We cannot preside forever over a precarious world, hoping against hope that nobody like Trump ever wins an election. The “political mainstream” is the trouble. The point isn’t to protect it from the abnormal. The point is to see it as it is, and to change it, before a monster with a kinder voice comes along; before the already ordinary monsters take us even further down the road.