The United States of Amnesia

I’ve been watching a fascinating documentary — Reporting Trump’s First Year: the Fourth Estate — and brooding on the challenge that faces any serious newspaper contemplating the Trump presidency. The more outrageous he gets, the greater the temptation for a weary public to shrug its collective shoulders and mutter “there he goes again”. That temptation is understandable — after all, most people have no interest in politics and getting on with their lives is challenge enough. What’s admirable about the New York Times (and the Washington Post) at the moment is that they are refusing to accept the ‘normalisation’ of Trump.

But then I started to ponder the question of whether resistance to normalising him might actually lead one into the trap of thinking (as some people still do) that Trump, Orban, Erdogan et al just represent the swing of the pendulum, and that eventually things will return to normal. Because the only thing of which I am really convinced is that we are into the political/social/ideological counterpart of what physicists call a phase transition. And if that’s the case then there’s no swing of the pendulum that will get us back to where we were pre-2016.

A little later Tyler Cowen pointed me to an interesting essay by the political scientist Corey Robin on the idea of ‘normalisation’ . Here’s the money quote:

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized — it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully. Convinced the present is a monster, a stranger from nowhere, or an alien from abroad, they look to history for parent-protectors, the dragon slayers of generations past. Still others take strange comfort from the notion that theirs is an unprecedented age, with novel enemies and singular challenges. Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

Or so we believe.

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Later in his essay, Robin turns to the episode during the Democratic National Convention in 2016 when Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, electrified the Convention with his declaration that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country. Trump riposted aggressively, wondering aloud why Khan’s wife had stood quietly by as her husband spoke, and suggesting that she had been silenced by the alien force of Islam.

This outraged many people, among them James Fallows — who reached back to that moment in 1954 when Senator Joseph McCarthy — the Trump of his day — was allegedly unhorsed by the Army’s counsel, Joseph Welch, who said “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Fallows sees this as the end of McCarthy’s power, the moment when Dorothy’s dog Toto unmasks the Wizard of Oz. Within six months of Welch’s attack McCarthy was censured by the Senate; less than three years later, he was dead. The implication was that surely something similar would happen to Trump.

But it didn’t: he went on to be elected President, despite the unpardonable callousness of his response to the Khan family.

Corey Robin sees Fallows’s citation of the McCarthy moment as just an outbreak of golden age nostalgia.

In the years before Welch’s salvo, McCarthy had been riding high, aided and abetted by the most senior members of the GOP. McCarthy was the Republicans’ useful idiot, helping return Congress to their control in 1952. By 1954, he was no longer useful. He was just an idiot — and a liability. Not only was he going after the military, he was turning on Republicans too. He had done their dirty work; now he was doing them damage. The ism could stay; the man had to go.

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

Of course the problem with this is that while the Republicans might have initially have regarded Trump as a useful idiot, it’s rapidly becoming clear that in fact they are his useful idiots. And their utility will remain until after they have rejected a case to impeach him. After that, who knows what might happen?