This Is Not Normal

About the nicest thing you can say about Pres­i­dent Trump’s incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion is that it is with­out prece­dent. But there is anoth­er way of look­ing at it: it is not nor­mal.

Nor­mal, you might argue, is a bad thing when peo­ple are hurt­ing. In fact, there is enough polling about why peo­ple vot­ed for Trump to sug­gest that a vague “need for change” was a pow­er­ful moti­va­tor. Though opin­ions about what need­ed to change var­ied wide­ly — from eco­nom­ic issues to vague fears of a wrong direc­tion to naked white suprema­cy — the fact is enough Amer­i­cans did not want a “third term” for Oba­ma and vot­ed the Democ­rats out of pow­er. (That many did so appar­ent­ly uncar­ing about the con­se­quences for minori­ties is its own, sep­a­rate dis­cus­sion.)

Of course, there is a prob­lem with this mind­set: it is destruc­tive. Many Trump vot­ers, from wound­ed-ego Bernie or Busters to the alt-right Bri­et­bart trolls who want to burn down our soci­ety, sim­ply want cat­a­stroph­ic change and don’t care about the con­se­quences. That “nor­mal” in this coun­try has meant increas­ing access to rights and pro­tec­tions for minor­i­ty groups, that it has meant a rapid shrink in the nation­al deficit and record job growth, that it has result­ed in unprece­dent­ed pro­tec­tions for the envi­ron­ment and expand­ed access to health­care for 20 mil­lion Amer­i­cans, is not just imma­te­r­i­al to this crowd — it is intol­er­a­ble. They’re unhap­py, they’re hurt­ing, so they want to hurt back.

Again, there is a wide range for why so many peo­ple want­ed to do this, and that is its own dis­cus­sion. The fact is that Trump was elect­ed and now we need to process what this rejec­tion of nor­mal­cy will look like. It is a doozy. Trump was so con­vinced he would fail he nev­er both­ered to learn what being Pres­i­dent actu­al­ly means (down to basics like “hir­ing staff”). And because he did not pre­pare, all the nor­mal rules seem to be out the win­dow.

Nor­mal,” as a con­cept, mat­ters. The old adage that it is just the set­ting on a dry­er is not just wrong but mis­lead­ing. When some­thing is abnor­mal it is impor­tant to under­stand why. If a per­son is not nor­mal they could be bril­liant or they could be sick, and know­ing the dif­fer­ence is the dis­tance between life and death. In pol­i­tics, too, there is nor­mal and there is abnor­mal. An insur­gent can­di­date swing­ing a par­ty or the coun­try right or left is nor­mal — Mar­co Rubio win­ning the GOP nom­i­na­tion and the gen­er­al elec­tion would have been nor­mal, for exam­ple. But Don­ald Trump is not nor­mal. In fact, the things he rep­re­sents, the deci­sions he has made and is con­tin­u­ing to make, and the entourage he has sur­round­ed him­self with, are not nor­mal. They are so abnor­mal that they look like the open­ing stages of author­i­tar­i­an­ism — some­thing those of us steeped in the study of author­i­tar­i­an coun­tries rec­og­nize like a flash­ing light at a rail­road cross­ing.

The one thing author­i­tar­i­ans want you to do is to accept that their con­duct is nor­mal, even when it is not. They do not want you to yearn for a freer, less oppres­sive and less cor­rupt time, and they do not want you to think it odd when, say, a gov­ern­ment agency is purged or a bunch of pro­test­ers are arrest­ed and van­ish into the pris­ons with­out ever see­ing tri­al. They want you to think it is nor­mal when the Pres­i­dent is open­ly sell­ing your inter­ests out to a for­eign pow­er, or when he is using the levers of gov­ern­ment to mate­ri­al­ly enrich and empow­er his fam­i­ly. The pre­sump­tion of nor­mal­i­ty dur­ing abnor­mal times is one of the most pow­er­ful weapons the author­i­tar­i­an has, and that is why it is so impor­tant to rec­og­nize how pro­found­ly abnor­mal Don­ald J. Trump will be as pres­i­dent. So I assem­bled a list.

  • Using your Pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion web­site to pro­mote your own busi­ness prop­er­ties is not nor­mal.
  • Call­ing for mil­lions of fed­er­al employ­ees to sign nondis­clo­sure agree­ments apart from stan­dard gov­ern­ment forms is not nor­mal.
  • Blast­ing jour­nal­ists with prod­uct place­ments for the labels your child, who is on your tran­si­tion team, is wear­ing is not nor­mal.
  • Hav­ing a wide range of senior fig­ures in your own polit­i­cal par­ty dis­tance them­selves from your tran­si­tion team, cit­ing the pro­found irreg­u­lar­i­ty of it and wor­ry­ing about future ugli­ness, is not nor­mal.
  • Plac­ing your chil­dren in charge of your busi­ness empire, then plac­ing them on your tran­si­tion team, then seek­ing top secret secu­ri­ty clear­ances for them, is not nor­mal. The con­flicts of inter­est that this rep­re­sents are almost too many to count, but at a basic lev­el: you do not give some­one with a finan­cial inter­est to work against U.S. pol­i­cy access to sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion — at all, ever.
  • Putting one’s chil­dren into senior posi­tions of a gov­ern­ment is the behav­ior of a banana repub­lic, not a con­sti­tu­tion­al democ­ra­cy with strong insti­tu­tions. This is not nor­mal.
  • For a pres­i­dent who ran on his busi­ness acu­men to refuse to dis­close his tax­es to the pub­lic, which in turn denies any­one the abil­i­ty to see if finan­cial con­flicts of inter­est are dri­ving his pol­i­cy deci­sions, is not nor­mal.
  • Ask­ing if he can decline the Pres­i­den­t’s salary, so as to avoid pay­ing tax­es, is not nor­mal.
  • Owing hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in busi­ness debt to a for­eign bank and refus­ing to ful­ly divest your­self from those finances is not nor­mal.
  • Ascend­ing to the White House while your eldest son, who is also on your tran­si­tion team, and for whom you also seek a top-secret clear­ance, seeks out sev­en-dig­it busi­ness deals in Rus­sia, is not nor­mal. When Rus­sia then names the Pres­i­dent elect an “hon­orary Cos­sack,” it is not nor­mal.
  • Ask­ing a hos­tile for­eign intel­li­gence agency to hack into the emails of your oppo­nent in the cam­paign is not nor­mal. Refus­ing to com­ment while they expand those hacks into oth­er insti­tu­tions is not nor­mal. Watch­ing that same gov­ern­men­t’s pro­pa­gan­da net­work dra­mat­i­cal­ly change its tone in order to ben­e­fit the incom­ing pres­i­dent is not nor­mal. That this for­eign gov­ern­ment is also the sub­ject of numer­ous inves­ti­ga­tions into the Pres­i­dent elec­t’s improp­er busi­ness con­duct is not nor­mal.
  • Threat­en­ing to cut off Europe from NATO if pay­ment is not received, like a gang­ster demand­ing pro­tec­tion mon­ey, in a way that ben­e­fits said for­eign gov­ern­ment, is not nor­mal.
  • Chant­i­ng for the sum­ma­ry impris­on­ment of your polit­i­cal oppo­nent despite repeat­ed con­clu­sions that she has com­mit­ted no crime is not nor­mal. Refus­ing to back down from that call to sum­mar­i­ly imprison her is not nor­mal. Essen­tial­ly sug­gest­ing a show tri­al before you’ve even assumed office is not nor­mal.
  • Hir­ing an avowed white suprema­cist and proud anti­semite to be the chief of strat­e­gy at the White House is not nor­mal. That the new White House chief strate­gist has bragged, open­ly, of his desire to destroy the Unit­ed States is not nor­mal. That the cofounder of the Simon Wiesen­thal Cen­ter raised mon­ey for this is not nor­mal.
  • Staff par­tic­i­pat­ing in author­i­tar­i­an vic­tim-blam­ing and anti­se­mit­ic con­spir­acism is not nor­mal. Col­lab­o­rat­ing with cable news chan­nels in that anti­se­mit­ic con­spir­a­cy about protests is not nor­mal.
  • When one of the new admin­is­tra­tion’s most senior prox­ies and spokes­men calm­ly dis­cuss­es com­mit­ting war crimes in the Mid­dle East, it is not nor­mal. When he is short­list­ed for the Depart­ment of State — despite lob­by­ing for ter­ror­ists who killed Amer­i­cans, despot­ic regimes in the Mid­dle East, and the tyran­ni­cal gov­ern­ment of Venezuela — it is not nor­mal.
  • When that proxy is sim­ply fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of the new Pres­i­dent-elect, who has called for rein­stat­ing tor­ture and sum­mar­i­ly exe­cut­ing the fam­i­lies of alleged ter­ror­ists, it is not nor­mal.
  • The lead­ing can­di­date for the depart­ment of edu­ca­tion (who him­self has no back­ground as an edu­ca­tor or in edu­ca­tion pol­i­cy) open­ly sug­gest­ing to cen­sor speech on uni­ver­si­ties is not nor­mal. Nom­i­nat­ing an oil exec­u­tive as the Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or is not nor­mal. Nom­i­nat­ing a cli­mate change denial­ist fund­ed by the oil indus­try to run the EPA is not nor­mal. When the lead­ing can­di­date for Defense Sec­re­tary hav­ing a long his­to­ry of open­ly racist com­ments toward his own staff it is not nor­mal.
  • The FBI inter­ven­ing deci­sive­ly in the last week of the elec­tion to alter its out­come for one can­di­date is not nor­mal. But the FBI refus­ing to address the pres­i­dent elec­t’s vio­la­tion of sanc­tions against a com­mu­nist coun­try is also not nor­mal.
  • When a woman accus­es a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date of hav­ing raped her as a child, but then refus­es to go for­ward with her alle­ga­tions because of a bar­rage of death threats yet still receives almost no media cov­er­age, it is not nor­mal.
  • It is not nor­mal for a pres­i­dent-elect to have 75 pend­ing law­suits against him, rang­ing from busi­ness fraud to ille­gal hir­ing prac­tices. It is not nor­mal for his lawyers to demand those law­suits be delayed until after his inau­gu­ra­tion for not dis­cern­able rea­son oth­er than to retreat behind the immu­ni­ty of the office.
  • Relent­less­ly attack­ing the legit­i­ma­cy of the media (to be dis­tin­guished from crit­i­ciz­ing media con­duct) is not nor­mal. Threat­en­ing to sue the media because you don’t like being crit­i­cized is not nor­mal.
  • Being so steeped in the lan­guage of fas­cism that you and and your staff mir­ror Hitler (“make the trains run on time”), appeas­ing Hitler (“Amer­i­ca First”), or Mus­soli­ni (“drain the swamp”) is not nor­mal.

Look, I gave up at this point. I’m sure all of you can find more dis­turb­ing, deeply abnor­mal things he has said and plans to do.  The point is that this is not nor­mal: it is abnor­mal. It is a series of giant warn­ing sirens about some­thing fun­da­men­tal­ly going wrong with our coun­try. It has noth­ing to do with right or left, with Repub­li­can or Demo­c­rat — huge num­bers of Repub­li­can vot­ers are appalled by what Trump rep­re­sents.

The only response I can think of for this: refuse. Refuse to accept this. Refuse to make it nor­mal. Refuse to let him and his cronies rede­fine how the coun­try works. Refuse to let our coun­try be stolen from us. Only by refus­ing to let this feel nor­mal can we hope to reverse it.

So: I refuse. Will you join me?

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.