When Donald Trump took office, it was clear that one essential task, in the time ahead, would be to distinguish between the sickening and the horrifying—between things that, however much one opposed them or was appalled by them, were part of the normal working-out of the program of the Republican Party and therefore part of the normal oscillations of American power, and those that were completely without precedent, that subverted or assaulted the very premises and foundations of American democracy.
Three months into Trump’s Presidency, many people seem prepared to offer a mildly, marginally optimistic, if not exactly comforting, view of where we stand between those two terms: mostly, they say, it’s been sickening, but, with the horrifying kept at bay, the horrifying looking for the moment like the zombies who can’t, yet, get over the big high wall in a zombie movie. The judgment was best summed up, in somewhat broad terms, by Louis C.K., when he said the other night to Stephen Colbert that, where in the past he had compared Trump to Hitler, he now was inclined to think that Trump’s evil was not that profound or original, and that the President is simply “a gross crook, dirty, rotten, lying sack of shit.” That is what you expect Donald Trump to be; Hitler is what you fear.
There’s a general fair-minded sense that that might be so—and many indeed have moved their barometers away from the Hitler range. Trump so far has been more or less constrained by the normal constraints. The courts have acted and, at least for the moment, blocked the absurd anti-Muslim refugee policy; Congress has spoken in exactly the way Congress is designed to speak: that is, by not speaking—the choke points for radical legislation were meant to be many, and the choke points have held. And one might note that the most extreme elements in his own party were the ones who were most defiant, and the least easily intimidated by him. To those who practice the dark art of Trump Towerology, the crazies seem on the retreat, while the normal—like H. R. McMaster, the national-security adviser—seem to be advancing. On the cultural front, despite all his shrieks and threats, few remain frightened or intimidated. One of the most striking things has been how much of the spirited opposition to Trump has risen from outside politics: Chrissy Teigen, the model and Twitter personality, has been far more outspoken and fearless against Trump than Charles Schumer. Trump’s most egregiously disgusting acts, the lying early-morning tweets, have even, to an extent, been bracketed into the realm of Weird Things Presidents Do. Ronald Reagan confused movies and life; L.B.J. ordered his underlings to stand by the bathroom; Trump tweets.
Tragically, that conclusion seems to be one more instance of how quickly human beings become normalized to the abnormal, accustomed to the unacceptable. The assault of Trump on our constitutional foundations is, in fact, daily, insidious, effective, and cannot be bracketed off into the realm of the unthreatening, however keenly, desperately, we would all like to do that, for the sake of our own sanity and civic health—which depends, after all, exactly on not being compelled to pay attention to politics. A healthy polity lifts public life into a world of reasonable administrative and procedural reliability, alongside which we can expand our inner lives and interests without having, as people in autocratic governments must, to think about the boss and the secret police and what is going on inside the palace at every minute.
A simple index of it is to pick up a magazine and see what we, and observers abroad, now expect from our government. In the April 1st issue of The Economist—that most equable and distinguished of magazines, founded on a principle of free trade that places it in opposition to Trump—for instance, one finds, in a discussion of the perils in the way of Amazon’s domination of retailing under its founder, Jeff Bezos, this observation: “Donald Trump does not care for the Washington Post, a newspaper Mr. Bezos owns. In 2016, Mr. Trump said Mr. Bezos was using the Post to attack him because Amazon has a ‘huge antitrust problem.’ If Mr. Trump believes that—or even if he doesn’t—his administration might favour action.” Stop and think about those sentences for a moment, sentences made all the more, well, horrifying by the calm journalistic tone with which they are uttered: there is a presumption that it is perfectly possible that Donald Trump will act against a private company in order to take revenge against it for opposing him in print. This is exactly the kind of crime—misusing the instruments of government to intimidate political opponents—for which Richard Nixon was impeached. It is the kind of thing that is perfectly normal in an autocratic state, as in Russia, where one cannot mock the boss without fear of the police. Suddenly, that abuse is taken for granted here.
The same is true of the question of corruption. The Trump Administration is, already, the most corrupt in American history simply because corruption, properly defined, lies in the control of possible channels of influence as much as in money directly pocketed. A prospective deal that would have seen a politically connected Chinese company investing in a real-estate project controlled by the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner—at the very moment when, however absurdly, Kushner is supposed to play a role in China policy—only got called off after a raft of bad publicity, leaving no principle in place to protect us from more predation. Meanwhile, the Trump boys roam the world making deals on their father’s behalf, giving foreign governments and entrepreneurs every reason to believe that enriching the First Family is a precondition for earning American favor. This is exactly the way government runs in many Third World countries: the boss man’s family goes everywhere making deals on his behalf to enrich themselves, with the quid pro quo always perfectly apparent. Nothing—no ethical officer, no blind trust—stands between Trump and his own enrichment through office. One recalls the torturous mechanisms with which poor Jimmy Carter sought to seal off his peanut farm from the slightest appearance of conflict of interest—and the vengeful rhetoric of Republican conservative columnists scanning for signs of a failure—and one weeps for one’s country.
Perhaps the most tragic sins against democracy, to which we have already become accustomed, are Trump’s lies. When you have a President who lies as he breathes, for whom lying is simply the normal way of dealing with any difficulty, democratic governance becomes close to impossible. We all forgive fantasy, storytelling, self-justification, faulty memory, mythological insistence. America has survived them all. But telling malicious and scurrilous lies without remorse or regret is a venom that paralyzes the entire political system, for the simple reason that democratic politics are really just a proceduralized form of argument—my evidence here, yours there; our side’s claim like this, yours like that—and when lies are the first premise, the back-and-forth of rational contention becomes impossible. No sane response is possible to an egregious lie except silence, and silence lets the lie win. Trump accuses Barack Obama of wiretapping him, an obvious lie, but the lie becomes part of the fabric of the event, to be adjudicated rather than exploded. He blithely says that he thinks Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, may have committed a crime, and Rice, playing by rules that were suspended three months ago, says that she “won’t dignify” the remark with a counter-remark. The appeal to dignity is the classic appeal of those who live in an honor society where conduct and credibility are assumed to be inseparable. We are three months past dignity now. That’s the tragedy, and it has already happened.