“Normalizing” Trump: The Great Escape (From Reality)

I write this post at the end of 2016. Today is New Year’s Eve, and I reflect on surviving my 72nd birthday and another Christmas.  The holidays have been relatively nice, enjoyed with family and friends. There was a fresh blanket of lightly fallen snow two nights ago, blanketing the colored lights decorating the small evergreens that flank our front porch. It is a beautiful and comforting sight. Still, a pall of disturbing unreality overlays the scene this year, making it seem almost surreal.

The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States remains a shocking development, filling most of us with a great deal of heavy apprehension, if not dread. Although there is much to worry about, most of my concerns are economic.  I grew up during the post-WW II prosperity in America, and my life neatly encompasses what might be called “The Rise and Fall of the Middle Class.” I expect that I am more worried right now than most Americans, even older people like myself, for I have spent my entire career on the front lines of economic class warfare, regulating prices for essential services, including electricity, natural gas, and telephone services. For more than 45 years, I have witnessed first-hand how regulatory and technological changes have affected our standard of living and our way of life. In recent years, I have studied the tremendous growth of economic inequality, and assessed its impacts.

A sudden widespread alarm over the effects of stagnation over the last two or three years is only now materializing, and the media, so focused on e-mails and tweets, has yet to comprehend and reveal the full severity of our economic problems. We have already seen, with Trump’s appointments and the plans they are rolling out for the new administration, a massive betrayal of what those who voted for him took to be campaign “promises.”  People who voted for Trump were in rebellion against both the Democratic and Republican parties, because of their declining incomes and employment. Sadly, Trump has quickly lined up establishment right-wing politicians and billionaires to double down on the GOP playbook responsible for our plight. Donald Trump is a seasoned con man, and he carefully concealed his actual intentions behind a barrage of bluster and anti-establishment rhetoric.

Most of us are floundering now, in varying degrees of shock and confusion, trying to understand how such a dishonest man, so poorly qualified for the job, could have been nominated and elected. The presidency of this country is a one of the most important jobs in the world, requiring sound judgment and emotional maturity. That kind of maturity and judgment has been missing for years in a Republican-dominated Washington that has principally served the interests of the wealthy, and has become increasingly influenced by anarchists and libertarians who simply want to dismantle the functions of the federal government.     

Given the great political power of money, a return to Republican rule has not exactly been unexpected. For many, however, the Trump presidency has raised a new specter, the specter of an ultra-right “proto-fascist” government reminiscent of Hitler’s Germany or Mussolini’s Italy. But this swing to the hard right is not new with Donald Trump: A movement toward fascism is probably the only sensible way to interpret the great influence of Grover Norquist, a very influential advocate for cutting taxes for the wealthy and corporations, just as Trump intends to do, who has famously said: “Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub.” (Grover Norquist Quotes, here). The new administration will be administered by ideologues who, like Norquist, regard budget deficits to be the result of too much spending, not too little taxation. These people, given the choice between funding government and anarchy, choose anarchy.

Trump’s across the board appointment of people who want to severely limit or eliminate the agencies they will be appointed to lead should dispel any doubt about whether Donald Trump is another billionaire cut from the same cloth. At the top of the list of services to be severely trimmed or eradicated early in his term are health care, social security, and environmental protection.

Dismantling vital government programs is predicated upon the Republican-promoted trickle-down view of growth and prosperity that has, for decades, been repeatedly disproved. There is not one new appointee in the entire group that is aware of the depressing effects on growth of the additional inequality these measures will cause. Targeting 3-5% annual income growth, they believe (or at least assert) that it can be accomplished by waving a magic wand, persuading more investment where none would have otherwise been undertaken, and by enforcing protectionist trade policies.

It is truly unfortunate that even wealthy Democrats do not understand macroeconomics, because this is simply impossible. Sure, the mega-wealthy at the top could start returning the trillions of dollars they have purloined thus far over the past four decades, but they haven’t yet given any indication that they might. That would be “trickle-down,” costing them a great deal of money, and they prefer to keep their money rather than to give it back.

Trump and his people seem gleefully unaware that they will be destroying our economy as they polish off what’s left of the middle class, effectively betraying the interests of all of the American people, not just breaking the promises his supporters thought he made. Ominously, Trump and his people seem completely indifferent, at this point, to all political opposition, and appear to feel immune to criticism. They must be giddy with their new-found power, and feel unstoppable. If they know what they are doing, and are intentionally setting out to “drown the government in a bathtub,” something they know they can accomplish, this has to be regarded as a major victory in the “Class War,” perhaps the biggest con job in human history – and their plans for the next four years represent a scorched earth program which is the moral equivalent of General Sherman’s 1864 “March to the Sea.”

Understanding Reality  

But might they merely be ignorant of the effects of their policies? Possibly, but unless the entire downfall of democracy is a giant conspiracy of wealth, which I do not think is possible, so are Trump’s most vocal critics. Many continue to emphasize that Trump did not receive a majority of votes cast in this election. But what if he had? These critics are looking for a change in attitude in Washington, remaining clueless as to what must actually be done.

Regardless of whether we are facing full-blown fascism, there are growing signs of the terrifying realization that we will soon be in serious trouble. You see it in the newspapers and on media news every day. People are afraid and uncertain, but don’t know what can be done. Here’s a clue: Tax the rich. The Class War winners have far too much money, and starting with Ronald Reagan’s presidency, they have been allowed to keep too much of it. Donald Trump plans to take this approach to a new extreme – and he said so throughout his campaign.

This post relates two items I found In the Albany Times Union of December 28, 2016, items that highlight this public and media sense of malaise and helpless confusion:  

Giving Trump a Chance

“Give The Donald [a] chance to be normal, even if he revolts” (here), a commentary by Doyle McManus, reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, opened ominously:

President-elect Donald Trump is being normalized before our eyes. On Monday, the electoral college cast its votes in the customary way; despite pleas and demonstrations, only two Republican electors rebelled. Soon, Trump will have an entire Cabinet list ready for nomination, just like an ordinary president. And on Jan. 20, less than a month from now, he’ll take the oath of office and give an inaugural address. … Just like normal.

At every step, anguished opponents have appealed to the public, to the media and to Congress: Don’t normalize Trump.

It seems disquietingly  strange to emphasize “normality” at this juncture. To “normalize” Trump, in this sense, means to regard him as a “normal” president, even though he is not:

In a narrow sense, they’re right: When Trump violates norms of public conduct — by lying about nonexistent voter fraud, refusing to accept evidence of Russian hacking or dismissing concern over conflicts of interest — nobody should pretend that’s normal.

What we should be asking ourselves, however, is whether such behavior is acceptable in a U.S. president. But what if it is unacceptable? The only remedy in this country would be impeachment, a highly unlikely scenario, especially given the fact that both houses in Congress, and a majority of state governments, have been taken over by like-minded Republicans. President Trump likely could not be removed for such behavior in any event, and it would be unheard of to attempt to remove him for arguably breaking vague campaign “promises.” What this state of political affairs shows, unfortunately, is how precariously American “democracy” has teetered on the edge of proto-fascism.

But “normalizing” Donald Trump amounts to far more than reconciling ourselves to unacceptable behavior. We must convince ourselves that, somehow, the system can work for the general welfare, and not just for the interests of a small handful of billionaires. And when it does not, the “normalizing” process can only amount to refusing to accept, in our own minds, the reality that the system amounts to a failed democracy. Here is where the “normalizing” meme breaks down. With respect to things that Trump will do that are not merely “odd” but are clearly inappropriate in a civilized democracy, we’ve got a clear battle on our hands.

First, it’s too late, McManus argues, to challenge the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency:

“Not My President,” the signs and hashtags say. Too late; the battle over legitimacy is over. However flawed the election, Trump is about to be your president.

This admonition is intended for Democratic politicians and executives boycotting the president, and reporters declining to provide coverage the Donald might expect. But what is “normal” here? The legitimacy of Obama’s presidency was never conceded, and the Republican Congress consistently refused to cooperate with him, so challenging Trump’s legitimacy is hardly “abnormal.”

Second, McManus argues, the rest of us, including Republicans and the press (which is admonished to cover him “aggressively”), need to “turn the tables and demand that Trump normalize himself – because he’s the only one who can.” This includes demanding that he “try to unite the country,” and holding him to his campaign promises: “That’s how a normal president gets judged.”:

We should ignore the abnormal advice of his aide Anthony Scaramucci, who said this week: “Don’t take him literally, take him symbolically.” No dice. We should hold him to the standards a normal president has to meet, including truthfulness — literally.

This entire discussion of “normalizing” Trump seems clearly to be satirical, for how could we, the public, hold Trump accountable for anything?  Perhaps McManus is not being sarcastic when he speaks of holding Trump responsible for meeting “normal” standards of civility, for his thoughts are presented as serious commentary, which concludes with this:

We should give Trump a chance — a chance to normalize himself, in the sense of complying with the norms every president should observe. Giving him a chance doesn’t mean giving him a break; quite the contrary. It means subjecting him to tough scrutiny, holding him to high standards and judging him against his own promises. In short, treating him like a normal president — whether he likes it or not.

Living in an Orwellian World

The real issue here is not whether Trump “likes” tough scrutiny, but the extent to which he can withstand it. The GOP threw everything but the kitchen sink at Bill Clinton, yet he served out his two terms.

It is terrifying to realize that there is no effective remedy,  in our republican form of national government, for violations of the public trust  by the executive branch. Thus, what is so disturbing about our current predicament is not that the American people were not smart enough to avoid being taken in by an expert con man, or even that Trump won the top job without a popular mandate. What is truly scary is that we are likely to be stuck with him for four years. What would it take, we must ask ourselves, to extend this proto-fascist system over a longer time period? Could it be that what is actually happening “before our eyes” is an advanced stage of the demise of representative democracy at the hands of big wealth?  Isn’t this, in fact, the scenario Orwell sketched out in “1984”?

A rogue presidency, effectively, is on the same footing as a rogue Supreme Court. We are deluding ourselves if we do not recognize the many ways big wealth has rigged government processes and economic law to serve its interests, frustrating the interests of ordinary citizens. By the early 1990s, there were signs of a revolution in corporate regulation that enabled corporations to put short-term profits, derived both from commerce and from reorganization, above behavior consistent with the public interest.

With the growing threat of public pushback at the polls lurking in the background, we should not have been surprised when the Supreme Court, in Citizens United v. FEC, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) greatly increased the power of money in American elections. The Court in that decision held that corporations were constitutionally protected against limitations on spending to influence elections, and that such spending effectively constituted protected free speech. In effect, the Court held, corporations have the constitutional rights of people, and money is entitled to the protections afforded to speech. In effect, with this decision the ruling class locked down the power to determine our government and its priorities. This was, of course, a devastating blow to democracy.   

Since we have no effective recourse against a rogue president, I wonder what the title to the McManus piece could mean. How might we somehow not “give the Donald a chance,” and what would provoke him to “revolt”? What would he revolt against, exactly? McManus is clear that by “normalizing” he does not mean “describing something odd as if it were OK” (in other words, fooling ourselves) but “changing something abnormal into a more normal state.” But how can “we, the people” do that?

Whether Trump likes himself is not the issue here: The issue is whether we approve of Trump, and what we can do about it if we do not. I’m sorry, but we can only endure the Trump presidency. We cannot expect Donald Trump to change in response to criticism. The McManus commentary has served only to increase my awful sense of foreboding about the Trump years ahead.

Waiting for a Future Retrospective

On the same page of that issue of the Times Union a letter to the editor, “Looking Forward to Looking Back” by Kevin O’Dell of Ballston Spa (here)  underscored my malaise very nicely: 

Americans should be proud to take credit for the recent presidential election’s prospective historical value. The president-elect’s supporters and, more importantly, those who did not make an effort to vote, surely look forward to telling their children and grandchildren of their role in effecting the imminent presidential term now facing us all.

Like President Franklin D. Roosevelt battling polio and President Ronald Reagan coping with Alzheimer’s, the president-elect will surely overcome his narcissistic personality disorder, with the symptomatic bullying behavior, to help him “make America great again.”

Like all bullies, he will crave the approval of alpha-males; witness Rex Tillerson, Gen. James Mattis and Vladimir Putin.

Similarly, the narcissistic bully will preserve a cadre of submissive, fawning supporters such as Rick Perry, Reince Priebus and Ben Carson to blindly do his bidding. Undoubtedly, he will correct his pathological behavior sufficiently to govern our country with the sober, unemotional wisdom required of the office of the president.

Best of all, his future tweets and rallies will reveal his well-considered thinking in real time.

Hopefully, a complete set of his performances will come out in CD. Then you and I can buy the set to proudly share with future generations when they ask us, “You elected this guy and then he did what?”

This is a clever piece of sarcasm, but clearly we cannot just accept the draconian reality any quasi-dictator might unleash. We laughed about the Trump candidacy at first, and we can and should joke about our ominous future under him, when we can. We all need to preserve our sense of humor. But lurking behind our jokes is a very real set of concerns. I, for one, worry that the president-elect’s psychological problems may not be limited to a narcissistic personality disorder. Maybe he suffers from other, perhaps more serious mental disorders.

During the Trump years, we can expect serious economic decline, a failure to meet global warming goals, much more environmental damage at the hands of the fossil fuel conglomerates now firmly empowered and in charge, and much, much more strife and dysfunction both at home and abroad. We cannot just sit back, as McManus appears to recommend, and accept that “the battle for legitimacy is over.” To actually effect change, however, will take hard work and concerted effort, perhaps more than America can muster.

An Overview of 2016

A decade ago, I was isolated among my family and peers as a rare “Chicken Little” pessimist. Now that the world I foresaw in the economic tea leaves has arrived, there are many more who now share my concerns. Friends who ignored me are now talking to me again.

This morning’s mail brought a solicitation from People for the American Way, an organization primarily focused on constitutional law, boldly proclaiming: “The election is over – and it’s put America on the wrong side of history.” Inside the newsletter is a short essay: “President Donald Trump: Where Do We Go From Here?” It opens with this:

Many of us thought this could never happen. Others feared it would. And now it has. This is not a terrible dream. On January 20th, Donald Trump will become the 45th  President of the United States.

What can we expect from the Trump administration? Although his campaign rhetoric was riddled with inconsistencies and lies, certain themes stood out clearly – themes that are incompatible with the Constitution and threaten the American Way that we have fought so hard to protect.

As we are now painfully aware, 2016 brought the biggest capitalization yet by the very rich on the fruits of the worst, anti-democratic constitutional holding in American history on the electoral system. It can, and likely will, get worse: Now, Donald Trump will have the power to firm up American proto-fascism, perhaps forever, with appointments to fill Supreme Court vacancies in the next few years.  

America is starting to wake up to these enormous and growing threats to our way of life, but far too slowly. The real world we live in has real and very serious problems. The billionaires, in deep denial about all the problems their wealth addiction is causing, probably will not see the truth until their wealth has vanished, along with everything else. Many will not care very much. 

You cannot “normalize” pathology, and most of the Trump agenda is utterly insane. It is based, fundamentally, on the insane “neoclassical” economic ideology that has developed over the last 150 years, and captured our collective mentality. That ideology was created, and exits, to maintain the supremacy of the wealthy elite in government and society.

All we can do is take 2017 one day at a time, and to continue to fight for the American heritage we are losing. To wish you all a “Happy New Year” would seem incongruous, this year, so I will offer only a wish for peace, love, and good luck in this new year, which in all likelihood will be even worse than the last.   

JMH – 12/31/2016


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