Note to Self: Do Not Normalize the Trump Presidency


You’ve already heard and read much about what the stunning result of Tuesday’s U.S. election means. Opinions are about a-plenty, so I won’t make this complicated.

I’ll ask instead for one thing.

The one thing I would like you to ask through the upcoming years of a Donald Trump presidency is this: do not normalize it.

Do not pretend, as much of the media and most Republicans in Congress are doing, that there will be a return to the normal business of politics after January 20. That after a vitriolic and erratic campaign the only person ever to win the presidency who has not had any experience in either government or the military will be a normal president just because the weight of the office forces this on him.

It’s already begun. Truth be told, it’s been going on in the media for a good long while. In a way, the whole election campaign was just a lead-up to this: the normalization of Donald Trump. There’s a cover story in People Magazine. The Huffington Post, bastion of the progressive internet bubble, decided to remove its reminder that Trump was a racist, misogynist liar. There’s been a rush to paint the transition to the Trump administration as a typical part of the script.

Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol Building

I caught myself thinking along the same lines. I thought about cabinet positions, the ramifications of Congresspeople and Senators agreeing or disagreeing on points of foreign policy, all of it. But neither was this campaign politics as usual, nor will the upcoming presidency of the most – literally, not hyperbolically – unqualified person ever to hold the office be in any way normal. The simple truth, beyond delusions by his supporters that he will immediately fix all their problems and “Trump-is-Hitler” rhetoric from detractors is that Trump is an unknown quantity. The alarmists may be on to something, or Trump supporters may be, or both because depending on your perspective, these two things could well be the same.

The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is.

Very likely, no living president voted for the man who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from January on. This should give us pause. Not one person still alive who once held the job found Trump fit to hold it. A record number of officials from Trump’s own party called on him to drop out, refused to endorse him or withdrew their endorsement. Or did whatever the devil it is that Paul Ryan did or did not do. This is new in modern American politics. Whatever it might come to mean, it contributes to uncertainty.

As humans, we are wonderfully adaptable. We can respond to changing situations and make them the status quo. It’s a survival instinct. It will not serve us well here. There is a high likelihood that President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress will pass at least some legislation that candidate Trump put up on his campaign website. Aside from that, there is simply no way to know what else he will attempt to do beyond what’s written down, perhaps cut to size somewhat to make it digestible by Congress.

The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is. It has protected some, however imperfect, version of democracy for over two centuries. Yet it, too, is fragile, susceptible to just the right kind of perfect storm. To assume otherwise invites hubris. Nothing made by actual humans can lay claim to perfection or eternity in any part of it.

Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

I have studied the culture, politics, and history of the United States for a decade and a half now. In addition, I have spent the last three years on a research project about books diagnosing society, many of which fall into the realm of futurology. Writings by people trying to predict the future. If you do this as a historian, you are in for a few good laughs along the way, and you shake your head because of apparently obvious signs that people missed much more often.

The most important takeaway I have from all this is as stunningly, annoyingly simple as it is constantly ignored: the future cannot be known. Stop yourself from thinking you can predict the future. No one can. Yes, there are ways of divining probabilities and reducing risk, and they’re useful and necessary. But the people who apply them to future problems have no iron-clad knowledge of what is going to happen. Ever. Call the worriers paranoid, but don’t for a second believe that you know something about what will actually happen that they don’t. You may have more information about what might happen, but it will always be based in past and present experience.

As a historian, I am happy that one of the few voices who saw this election result coming was also a historian, American University’s Allan Lichtman. Now Lichtman is suggesting that Trump will be impeached before too long because establishment Republicans – and it’s them who hold seats in Congress despite the success of Trump’s outsider upset – prefer a president Mike Pence. Let me just say that stating this is the definition of “no-sh*t-Sherlocking.” Of course they would prefer a career politician, someone who knows how government works, and who has not just ridden in on a wave of grassroots support.

Establishment Republicans would prefer a more “normal,” more controllable president. While I hope that Lichtman is correct (and yes, that means I am coming out saying that Pence would be a better choice for president despite, among other things, his record of statements and actions against civil rights for gay people), neither Lichtman nor anyone has much to go by when making this prediction. Lichtman himself ran in the Democratic primary for one of Maryland’s two U.S. Senate seats in 2006 and lost. If he had extra special mojo when it comes to all politics, we have to ask why he would have run in the first place.

There was never an aberration in the political system quite like the Trump presidential run before. You therefore cannot have past experience about this kind of situation, anecdotal, numerical, or otherwise. Yes, I’ve pulled out the Andrew Jackson comparison, and Ronald Reagan surely comes to mind, especially since the Trump campaign recycled one of his slogans to great effect. There are parallels. Context is everything in order to understand history, though. Context changes from one day to the next, from minute to minute, and surely, very surely from two centuries ago to now. There are no equivalencies to be had here. Jackson was president at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a weak, newly founded nation. Reagan was a Cold Warrior in the Cold War. Neither of them lived in the age of Twitter. Context has changed.

It also has changed in terms of this election’s result of an Electoral College that will elect Trump while more people voted for Clinton by a margin that is actually higher than the winning margins of two candidates who became presidents. Protests, in such a climate, are not futile shows of unhappiness. They send signals. They need to be addressed in some way and therefore can change outcomes. Public discourse is a funny thing, it changes when enough people make this possible. Far from being only empty rhetoric, words of protest matter. They mattered when Trump enabled people to swing discourse away from political correctness to open race-baiting. This is something he did that no other major party presidential candidate has done or even attempted. Words matter from the other side as well. They can surely send the message that the man who will end up in the White House was not in fact supported by a majority, or even a plurality of voters, and that those who do not agree with him will fight back.

There are unknowns going forward. (Another Donald’s accidentally comical but spot-on take on unknowns comes to mind here.) In the face of the unknown, we have to make assumptions and we will often be wrong. I’m okay with being wrong when erring on the side of worry. Don’t just hope for the best, also warn of the worst. That is how you defend democracy, even on good days. Worry now because if you worry too late it won’t do any good. This is one lesson past experience through the ages truly suggests with force and might.

So I am putting this here as a reminder to myself and to others who may come across it: do not normalize the Trump presidency.

Don’t normalize this. It’s different.

Torsten Kathke
Torsten Kathke is a historian specializing in the United States and Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. His book "Wires That Bind: Nation, Region, and Technology in the Southwestern United States, 1854–1920" is available from Transcript publishers in Europe, and from Columbia University Press elsewhere. Torsten earned his doctorate in American Cultural History from Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany in 2013. He subsequently worked at the German Historical Institute in Washington, DC and at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne. He is a lecturer in American Studies at the Obama Institute for Transnational American Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz.

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