The warnings started early: Just weeks before the 2016 election, after the leak of the Access Hollywood tapes that captured Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault, Michelle Obama told a crowd at a campaign event in New Hampshire, “This is not normal. This is not politics as usual. This is disgraceful, it is intolerable.”
“He is not normal. He is abnormal,” John Oliver declared on his show the Sunday after Trump won the election anyway. The sentiment seemed omnipresent in those early, heady days: “The first order of business must be to refuse to allow the normalization of Trump,” New York Representative Jerry Nadler wrote in a statement. Cautioning against complacency under autocracy, The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen told ProPublica, “Understand that ‘normal’ is going to drift and shift and all sorts of things are about to happen and part of our job is to notice and document how it’s happening.” You could find the same message on the pages of The New York Times, the lazy sketches on Saturday Night Live, and cheap T-shirts. Trump, everyone seemed to agree in the stunned aftermath of the last presidential election, was an aberration that marked a dangerous point of departure for the nation. The project would be to keep that knowledge close—to resist.
For the better part of four years now, the Democratic Party and the media have been content to continue that narrative. Liberals have meticulously logged each and every one of the norms that the president has managed to violate during his time in office; the most famous of these is perhaps the exhaustive list in The Washington Post by former Wall Street executive Amy Siskind. Among Trump’s many documented transgressions are his refusal to release his tax returns; his appointment of his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, to official White House positions; his constant vilification of the media; the revolving door of White House staffers and Cabinet members; and his meetings with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. Trump’s first term also saw the Stormy Daniels saga, the impeachment, and three separate, wildly controversial Supreme Court appointments. To this day, Trump has egged on white supremacists and refused to get a dog.
The last four years have been a depressing circus act in which the president has—beyond the malice of his policies and administrative edicts—openly flouted a number of conventions and bumbled his way through various disasters, leaving his political opponents aghast and generating one media firestorm after another. But it’s also the case that once you probe past the immediate spectacle of the first reality TV president, the achievements of Trump’s supposedly abnormal presidency have mostly been an unremarkable continuation of the long-running Republican agenda of austerity and racist minoritarian rule. And the Democrats, for the most part, have been unable or unwilling to stop it. Even much of the media, which Trump declared his personal foe from day one, was willing to cheer him whenever he cleared a low bar. (For instance, in 2017, after Trump had delivered a speech in honor of a Navy SEAL killed in combat, CNN’s Van Jones declared, now infamously, “He became President of the United States in that moment.”)
That suggests that for all of Trump’s breathlessly documented gaffes, social media outbursts, and faux-populist sloganeering, he wasn’t really an outlier. Crass, sure. But also, in so many ways, ideologically seamless. And this is another troubling legacy of his unfortunate presidency: Despite the Democrats’ cultivation of a perpetual state of emergency, Trump was ultimately successful in carrying out a number of rather ordinary—that is to say, entirely normal—right-wing objectives. The problem was never simply Trump himself, but rather, that America’s major political parties and institutions were set up from the beginning to enable, or at least absorb, him. Even his very ascent to the presidency after losing the popular vote by some three million votes was, of course, by the grace of the Electoral College, a centuries-old arrangement explicitly created to hobble democratic participation. Our elite institutions and system of so-called checks and balances weren’t built to hinder someone like Trump, they were built to bend and expand to accommodate him. To make him normal.
Trump’s time in office, if beset by never-ending scandal, has perfectly aligned with American politics as usual in a number of ways. There’s maybe no greater continuity between the president and the Republican Party that he supposedly spurned than the Trump administration’s 2017 tax cuts, which significantly reduced taxes on corporations and the wealthy. The bill was historically unpopular among the public but sailed through Congress with the enthusiastic support of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and every Republican in the Senate save John McCain (who was battling cancer at the time but had apparently promised to return to the floor if his party needed his vote to carry the bill over the line). George W. Bush, the last Republican president prior to Trump, had also signed into law a series of tax cuts that the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities determined had primarily benefited the top one percent of earners and fed the rise of inequality. The Trump administration’s signature legislation, in other words, was largely a standard-fare continuation of the Republicans’ perpetual fealty to business and the rich.
Trump’s White House likewise worked at a furious clip to shave down the social safety net, including by repeatedly attempting to cut food stamps during a pandemic and recession in which food insecurity doubled. In perfect lockstep with congressional Republicans, Trump has also sought to ax the Affordable Care Act, a move that would terminate health insurance coverage for as many as 23 million people. And despite his 2016 campaign pledge to preserve Social Security, Trump has nudged it toward the chopping block by proposing the elimination of the payroll tax that funds much of the program. All of these callous, ill-conceived policies guarantee more hardship for the majority of Americans—and are also completely par for the course for Republicans. None of these measures, furthermore, require anything like an autocracy; unethical dealings with Russia; or even, really, any actual violation of established political norms to be carried out.
The same goes for Trump’s three Supreme Court nominees, all of whom were chosen in close collaboration with (and much acclaim from) his party. Most recently and notoriously, Senate Republicans blithely fast-tracked Amy Coney Barrett to the bench while Democrats decried the hypocrisy of the same party that had blocked the nomination of Merrick Garland during the last year of the Obama administration. (Naturally, this complaint moved precisely zero Republicans.) It wasn’t some unprecedented corruption or sleaziness on Trump’s part that cemented Barrett’s appointment to the Supreme Court; it was the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the process itself, which grants an unrepresentative Senate the ability to install justices to lifelong posts.
All of this is to say that while Trump often made a sport of breaching decorum during his term, the tragedy of his presidency wasn’t in the parts that were anomalous (Russiagate, unhinged tweeting) so much as in those that were simply business as usual. Even his administration’s disastrous response to the coronavirus, which may yet seal his fate in this week’s election, was made all the more dire for the American public by a safety net shredded after decades of bipartisan attacks and our dismal system of employer-based private health care.
A Biden win this week will mean a chance to start undoing some of the damage of the last four years; yet, under a Democratic administration, we’ll still be living in the same political ecosystem that enabled so many of Trump’s worst excesses. It’s unclear, for instance, whether health care in America will change much, whether economic inequality will be mitigated, or whether the Washington swamp will ever be drained of corporate cash. Biden has committed to none of it, and so much of the Democratic Party and the media have signaled that it’ll be enough for him to simply oust Trump. But the garish and exhausting spectacle of Trump’s first term should tell us that defeating the cruelty of the right over the long term ultimately depends little on invoking political “norms” as a kind of vague etiquette that politicians can adhere to or violate. In fact, building the sort of mass, progressive coalition necessary to force real government accountability and remake our shamefully anti-democratic systems will mean overturning conventions more often than restoring them. If it works, it’ll be anything but normal.