The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How the unthinkable becomes routine — and why it’s so dangerous

President Trump points to the media as he speaks during a campaign rally in Charlotte on Oct. 26. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Humans have a survival-based instinct to adapt. As a species, we are remarkably resilient at just “getting on with it,” even in the face of rapid and perilous change. That’s usually good news for humanity. But when it comes to politics, that urge to accept even destructive change can become an existential threat to democracy.

In 2003, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan became prime minister of Turkey, he was described as a “modern, pro-Western democrat,” a man who would reinvigorate democracy as he pushed his country toward membership in the European Union. An editorial in the New York Times claimed that he “favors democratic pluralism” and was trying to “move closer to Western-style democracy.”

How wrong they were.

Fifteen years later, Erdogan holds virtually unchecked power. He has used his office — first as prime minster, now as president — to steadily dismantle democracy, piece by piece. Slowly but surely, he has gutted the judiciary, subdued the legislature and muzzled the press. When did Turkey’s already wounded democracy draw its last breath? It’s hard to say — and that’s precisely the point. Democracy can die a slow, gasping death — so slow that you grow used to its demise.

The benchmarks today are clearer: Erdogan has thrown more journalists in jail than any other leader on Earth. He has arrested tens of thousands of people who oppose him. His government has even prosecuted someone for sharing an unflattering meme of the insecure strongman. But the slow-burn process acclimated Turks to his destructive despotism. They got used to it. The scandals and the authoritarian attacks became routine. That helped Erdogan get away with it.

Two years into the Trump presidency, Americans are becoming numb to rapid, dangerous changes. We are accepting horrific, disqualifying, authoritarian behavior from Trump — and then just moving on to the next horror like zombies, all while growing used to the new normal around us because it is becoming routine.

There were many people who warned about Trump’s authoritarian impulses before he was president. Most were labeled as hyperventilating alarmists at the time. I know, because I was one of those people. But we weren’t alarmists. We were right.

In April 2016, the Boston Globe bravely ran a hypothetical front page that imagined headlines in the Trump presidency. “Deportations set to begin” was the main headline. They have begun — and Trump is now threatening asylum seekers with soldiers after already separating toddlers from their parents. “Markets sink as trade war looms”; that headline, too, has happened. “New libel law targets ‘absolute scum’ in the press,” reads a third hypothetical headline. Trump has called reporters “scum” (and has repeatedly demanded stricter libel laws that would enable him to silence his media critics). Yet not even the Globe would have predicted that Trump has continued using Stalinist rhetoric to demonize the press just days after a rabid Trump supporter reportedly sent CNN pipe bombs.

In April 2016, the Globe’s editorial stunt was decried by Republicans on sites like the Drudge Report as alarmist hyperbole. Trump called it a “make believe story” that was “stupid” and “worthless.” But those headlines were written precisely as a sort of worst-case scenario that used hyperbole to scare people out of complacency. Two years later, it doesn’t look like exaggeration at all. It looks like our Trumpian reality.

If, in 2016, Hillary Clinton had warned that Trump would be the kind of president to respond to domestic terrorism not with compassion but by “joking” about how he was the real victim because the subsequent press conference gave him a “bad hair day,” she would have been diagnosed by Republicans as someone afflicted by “Trump derangement syndrome.” But Trump just made that “joke” after Jews were massacred in Pittsburgh.

What about anyone who suggested that Trump was the kind of man who would explicitly praise a physical assault of a reporter, or provide political cover to a regime after it murdered and dismembered a journalist, or congratulate a far-right demagogue on his election victory? Trump derangement syndrome? Nope, all these things have happened.

And in a few days, those headlines will have disappeared.

In other words, the unthinkable becomes routine and then normal with remarkable speed during times of rapid change. It’s a human instinct and a coping mechanism. And that’s one of the reasons that Trump has managed to skate above it all: because we just move on. Remember Trump’s own lawyer standing up in court and accusing him of orchestrating a criminal conspiracy? That was two months ago. Remember the “anonymous” New York Times op-ed? That was last month. Remember Trump’s campaign chairman pleading guilty to “conspiracy against the United States”? That was 46 days ago.

That is precisely why the upcoming midterm elections are so important. They are the only brake that will stop us from careening from one scandal to the next, the only way to extinguish the growing flame of authoritarianism ignited by Trump.

A lot of Turks wish they could travel back to 2003 to put out their own fire before it consumed what was left of Turkish democracy. Americans can avoid that kind of regret by turning out to vote next Tuesday, before it’s too late.

Read more:

Brian Klaas: How to vaccinate U.S. democracy against Trump-style authoritarianism

Greg Sargent: Trump’s hate and lies are inciting extremists. Just ask the analyst who warned us.

Brandon McGinley: The hard, long work of healing a society

Max Boot: What’s happening now in America isn’t normal — and we shouldn’t accept it as such

Jennifer Rubin: What Michael Cohen’s lawyer is really saying