After all, many of the people telling themselves that things aren’t “that bad” insist they are as offended as ever by the racist tweets and sexist taunts. They’d prefer someone more civil in the Oval Office, of course.
But . . . the government, and the world, carry on. He insults our allies, but they remain on our side. He imposes tariffs, but unemployment stays low. He threatens defaults, but the debt ceiling is raised. Maybe, people think, a second term wouldn’t be the end of the world.
I’d argue such complacency is not justified. First, because a second term could be a lot more dangerous than the first. There would be more Trump judges on the courts to validate his lawlessness, no Jim Mattis or (God help us) Jeff Sessions in the Cabinet to curb his authoritarian whims, no worries of voter anger to restrain his bellicosity. A second mandate surely would embolden him; at worst, we could find that his jokes about a third term were no joke.
But complacency is misplaced also because — and here’s where the normalization comes in — things are that bad, even now. If people discount the damage, it’s due to a combination of fatigue and relief: fatigue, because it’s almost impossible to maintain outrage when the outrages are so incessant; and relief, because we are constantly aware that things could be worse.
Take North Korea’s missile launches last week, for example. Congress and the media would be scorching any other president right now for allowing North Korea to continue its nuclear and military buildup unimpeded. But we are so grateful that Trump has not blustered and stumbled into a war — into “fire and fury” — that we bite our tongues.
It’s the same around the world: Our ankle-high expectations for the man keep us from noticing how completely he is meeting those expectations. Our two key allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, are at loggerheads; a marginally competent president would be helping to mend fences.
Our most important allies in Europe are spinning apart as Britain plunges toward a disastrous Brexit; a normal president would be helping our friends salvage something workable for the future.
When Ebola emerged in West Africa, the Obama administration mobilized; now Ebola is spinning out of control in Congo, and the United States is absent. A Darfur-scale tragedy has unfolded among the Rohingya in Myanmar, also known as Burma; Trump doesn’t know who they are. A human rights violation of epic scale has taken shape in western China — the cultural genocide of an entire people, with as many as 3 million people in concentration camps — and Trump takes no notice. Journalists are murdered and imprisoned, and Trump sides with their murderers and jailers.
To the world, it is not just Trump taking these positions. It is America. The damage will be long-lasting.
And his ignorance and cynicism reverberate through some of the biggest stories of our time: the confidence of authoritarian strongmen in China, Russia and beyond; their distortion of technology from a liberating force into a malevolent tool of surveillance and suppression; the destructive warming of the climate, which the United States ignores and abets. None of these is easily reversible.
The story is similar, if more familiar, at home. The constant, willful lying; the attacks on the press and on the very idea of truth — these are not harmless. They draw from but also foster a lack of trust that will persist long after his presidency.
So does the racism. So do the ugly attacks on immigrants. So do the contempt for science and the refusal to stand up to foreign attacks on our elections. So do the disparaging of public servants and the casual threats to wield the vast powers of the federal government against perceived political enemies. These things used to be not okay. Now they are okay. There will be no easy return.
Yes, we’ve avoided recession, the nation is (mostly) at peace, the government will not default. Naturally, we are thankful.
But when we need to be thankful for avoiding disaster, we don’t really have so much to be thankful for. Things are that bad. We have a right to expect better.