“My campaign is not going to let Donald Trump try to normalize himself,” Hillary Clinton said two years ago. Clinton lost the election, but the campaign not to normalize Trump continues. “This is not normal,” say critics from fired FBI director James B. Comey to the feminist website Jezebel, which ran an article that repeated the phrase 437 times. Nothing unites the anti-Trump “resistance” like the desire to protect the standards of American life from the president’s inexhaustible taint. It’s an understandable, even empowering impulse in unstable times. The resistance recognizes that we the people must set the terms of engagement, rather than sit back and rely on the usual umpires, who are being dragged off the field.
Yet as the congressional campaigns take shape, those who oppose Trump and the GOP should rethink their habit of endlessly declaring that the president is “not normal” and defining their own objective as averting his “normalization.” Of course, norms matter. Trump menaces laws and practices that are crucial to the functioning of liberal democracy. One hardly wants him to define the contours of American politics, now or in the future. But the way to prevent this is to defeat Trump politically — which means offering a better country, not a normal one.
The anti-normalization agenda emerged during the election that Trump won. Those facts may not be coincidental. To the extent Clinton and her supporters had a message, it was that Trump was uniquely unfit for office — in short, not normal — and must return to the margins from which he had come. Yet citizens have the right to decide who should represent them, and to change norms through their votes. Trump’s racism, xenophobia and misogyny deserve the strongest condemnation, but to say they are “not normal” is a faint censure. What is typical may be wrong. Abnormality is, moreover, the wrong grounds on which to exclude people and ideas. For one faction to anoint itself the arbiter of normality is not only a hallmark of conservatism, it‘s also undemocratic: It implies that certain citizens are unacceptable because they are unusual and don’t deserve a say in determining the standards of our common life. Might as well call them deplorables.
Such condescension plainly mobilized Trump supporters, yet his opponents chose to deepen it after he claimed the presidency. Just after Election Day, the writer Masha Gessen penned the urtext of the resistance. Believing Trump and his supporters to be bent on installing autocracy, she urged a program of daily counterforce. Much as the Clinton campaign had assumed it would win, Gessen neglected to mention future elections. What was needed, she implied, was to rally Trump’s existing opponents, not to create new ones.
A year and a half later, the United States remains a liberal democracy, despite profound strains. Self-appointed norm-worriers admit that Trump has so far wrought more evolution than revolution. The main task today is to win elections and build a program to help the American people. But cries of “this is not normal” reinforce Trump’s message. They mimic what he has always said about himself: that everything he does is unprecedented, that he embodies the one chance to shake up establishment normality. In a country where 7 in 10 people are dissatisfied with the way things are going, and have been for more than a decade, why claim the mantle of the status quo and cede change to Trump?
The problem can’t be solved by tweaking the slogan; it requires rejecting the concept. Normality is inherently conservative, which is why conservatives have historically invoked it. After World War I, Republican Warren Harding ran for president promising a “return to normalcy,” meaning, among other things, draconian immigration restrictions, higher tariffs and tax cuts for the rich. In 1932, as Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the New Deal, Republican Herbert Hoover countered by pledging to “restore this American system to its normal functioning.” How strange that the anti-Trump resistance has adopted the mantra of austere conservatives. It’s not as though other formulas are unavailable; the last disastrous president, after all, was roundly repudiated not through bitter cries for normality but through credible pledges of hope and change.
True, Donald Trump is not George W. Bush, and many who say “this is not normal” do so less for a strategic purpose than because it rings true. After the dignified presidency of Barack Obama, who spoke of a long arc that bent toward justice, Trump marks a shocking reversal of progress and a genuine moral emergency. But any serious reckoning with him cannot begin by assuming him to be outside history. On issue after issue, Trump has roots in the American past and in global politics. His racism hardly stands out, historically, in a country that perfected chattel slavery and still cannot agree that “black lives matter.” His militaristic bluster is a feature of regimes fearing decline and of American neoconservatives since the 1970s. His legislative accomplishments have mostly followed the Republican Party playbook that preceded him.
The point isn’t that Trump is perfectly normal or even more normal than not. It is that normality is the wrong yardstick, analytically and politically. “This is not normal” offers a false diagnosis and sorry comfort that Trump came from nowhere and will revert there soon. It disarms his critics from taking full measure of the problem and developing adequate solutions.
Like it or not, Trump will become “normalized” if he wins a second term and a significant number of Americans believe him to be a successful president. This outcome won’t be prevented by repeating that it shouldn’t happen. To the contrary, touting his supposed singularity inflates his aura. As the economist Luigi Zingales has argued, Silvio Berlusconi managed to rule Italy for a decade mainly because the opposition fixated on his oddities. “It was so rabidly obsessed with his personality,” Zingales writes, “that any substantive political debate disappeared; it focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity.”
American liberals risk making the same mistake with Trump. They should forget whether he is normal and fight for what is right. Then they will have a chance to win elections and preserve norms, not as an abstract good but as a product of a more important cause: to serve the needs and aspirations of the American people.