We’re nearly a full year into the Trump presidency. Steve Bannon has been removed from the NSC Principals’ committee, and then purged from the Trump circle. Stocks are up, taxes are down—at least for most people, at least for now. The ATMs continue to dispense cash; there has been no nuclear war. Factor in that a complete interloper, an unreliable rule-breaker, has just vaulted into spectacular prominence with a mega-selling new book crammed with salacious warnings that the president is succumbing to the first stages of dementia.
All in all, it’s the perfect time for a round of thoughtful conservative punditry boldly to challenge conventional wisdom and proclaim that the Trump presidency, like the old joke about Wagner’s music, isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
The reversal of the conventional wisdom would be welcome to many news consumers. It’s fatiguing and upsetting to be told every day that something has gone dangerously and importantly wrong with the government of the United States. And after all, people have business to do with the administration: bills they want signed; regulations they want relaxed. Other people work for that administration. Nobody wants to be made to feel like an enabler or collaborator for shrugging off a few irregularities and getting on with his or her work. And isn’t that work the real story—much bigger and more important than the president mumbling the words of the national anthem at a football game?
If abnormality continues long enough, it becomes normal. Chronic illness; a barrier that closes a once-open border; the death of a loved one: There is nothing that cannot lose its power to surprise and shock. The phrase “President Trump” once supplied a joke to The Simpsons. By now, we have all got used to hearing and saying it. It is our reality.
We have gotten used as well to the publicly visible consequences of that reality: the lying, the bullying, the boasting. It seems useless to keep complaining, and so by and large the formerly unacceptable has been accepted. Trump’s “very stable genius” remark got traction because it was so much more extreme than usual; his usual stream of thoughts, any of which would have generated headlines coming from previous presidents, now largely pass unnoticed. We have gotten used, too, to a routine level of disregard for the appearance of corruption: the payments from lobbyists and foreign hotels to Trump-branded properties; the flow of payments to the presidential family from partners in Turkey, the Philippines, India, and the United Arab Emirates; the nondisclosure of the president’s tax returns.
We have gotten used to the president’s party in Congress sabotaging and discrediting the investigation into foreign manipulation of the U.S. presidential election. We have gotten used to the dwindling of the State Department, the paralysis of the National Security Council, and presidential attacks on the independence of prosecutors, the FBI, and the Department of Justice. We have gotten used to the party of the president pushing through vastly significant laws without hearings and even without accurate estimates of their costs and consequences. We are becoming used to state parties rewriting local election laws explicitly to impede voting by people who might vote against them.
When we worry about democratic decline in the United States, it’s important to be clear what we are worrying about: corrosion, not crisis. In a crisis, of course we’ll all be heroes—or so we assure ourselves. But in the muddy complexity of the slow misappropriation of the state for self-interested purposes, occasions for heroism do not present themselves. On the contrary, the rhetoric of “resistance” comes to seem disproportionate, strident, cranky. Most things continue to operate more or less as they used to do. When the administration seeks to do something improper, oftentimes it is prevented—by the bureaucracy, by the courts, by the administration’s own bottomless inefficiency and distractedness. And if a few things get through, or more than a few—we can tell ourselves that soon enough things will return to normal. The adults who are failing to discipline Trump in the here and now can surely be trusted to clean up after him in the by-and-by.
Yet the unacceptable does not become more acceptable if it is accepted by increments. If you flow with the current, you’ll be surprised where you end up. “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world,” George Bernard Shaw observed a century ago. The saying is true, but it was not meant as a compliment. It will take a strong dose of unreasonableness to save the country from the destination to which it is tending.