“A Racist … A Con Man … A Cheat.” Those were the words etched in the chyron as Michael Cohen testified. Yet that litany somehow fails to do justice to Cohen’s moral portrait of Donald Trump.
At the beginning of this presidency, the great fear was “normalization.” The shock of Donald Trump’s election, this theory held, would eventually dissipate. Once he sat behind the big desk, surrounded by oil paintings and heavy curtains, he would be bathed in the incantatory power of his office. The nation would absorb the shock of his misogyny, racism, venality, and dangerous vainglory, and then move on. Perhaps the fact that normalization has slipped from discourse is evidence that there was something to this fear.
Cohen, unabashedly self-servingly, describes his own time with Trump as a microcosm of this same experience. In his telling, Trump’s morality drags down everyone surrounding him, so that a “good person” like Cohen ends up committing terrible misdeeds. “Lying for Mr. Trump was normalized, and no one around him questioned it.”
Normalization is hard to resist. Knowing that the man who controls the nuclear arsenal and directs the surveillance state is unguided by an ethical framework and has a boundless capacity for petty cruelty can make it hard to shut one’s eyes at night. So despite the wildness of Trump’s tweets and the harshness of his policies, the mind inevitably suppresses what it knows about his character so that it isn’t overwhelmed by anxiety.