Refusing to Normalise Trump: Some Advice for the Chattering Classes



by Justin E. H. Smith

I went on the international cable news channel France 24 last night, and gave interviews to both the French and English services of the network in my capacity as a founder of the After Trump movement. I was nervous about having to speak French, and trying to get the talking points just right in my head as I sat down in the guest’s seat in front of the cameras. The host greeted me kindly, and asked me if I’d heard the latest, that Trump had just announced Mike Pence would be in charge of the transition, that Chris Christie was out, and that, it now appeared, certain elements of Obamacare were not so bad after all. He asked me if I thought it would be a good idea to discuss these things on air. Oh fuck, I thought, it’s happening already. He’s conscripting me in the inevitable process of normalisation. I began to nod weakly in the affirmative, but caught myself in time, and recommitted to  what I was there for. “I don’t think I have much to say about these aspects of the story,” I told him sincerely.

Then we went on air, and I told him, precisely, what it was I was there for. I told him that this or that bit of good news about Trump not being so bad as we expected is not of interest to us, and in fact to approach Trump’s rise to power in a policy-by-policy way is to aid and abet the process of normalisation that will, eventually, if successful, enable him to impose whatever policies he wants with no surviving democratic or institutional constraints to stop him and his boyars. The problem is not that he believes this or that particular thing, but that, to the extent that he articulates views in coherent language at all, he shows no commitment to the truth of these views, and no interest in holding to them. The only thing he shows, consistently, is contempt for and ignorance of American political institutions and the Constitution, notably freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. It is not that he is a bad president, but that he is a petulant child thrust into the role of president, and with nothing more than a faint buzz of ill will to those who oppose him guiding his political decisions. He is dangerous, and he represents a radical rupture with all American political traditions, liberal, conservative, socialist, and libertarian alike. That is the problem, I said, and that is what I am here to talk about.

Obviously, he needs to be watched by millions of hawks, and thankfully there are many who are committed to watching him on particular issues: backtracking on climate-change accords, chipping away at women’s reproductive rights, and so on. But by far the greatest threat he poses is to the survival of the institutions through which decisions, any decisions at all, can be made about matters like the environment, energy policy, health care, and so on. By far the greatest danger is the permanent destruction of the American political system to suit the temporary whims of an elderly caudillo. This is what the chattering classes must never lose sight of. To the extent that they fail to do this, they are abdicating their responsibility, and do not deserve the platform they are given. Many who were fierce critics have already capitulated, and said that it’s time to ‘give him a chance’, even that it’s our duty as American citizens to give him a chance. Meanwhile Masha Gessen, who has long been Putin’s most lucid and courageous critic, also understands what the US now faces. She is entirely right: we must allow no normalisation, and must oppose everyone who facilitates it. The list of normalisers is growing fast, and already includes, unsurprisingly, Obama and Clinton. Arguably, Obama’s position was the only one he could take, and I admit I was moved by his grace and firmness during his press conference at the White House next to that confused and addled old duffer. But we are not statesmen, and we are bound by no such need to project reassurance. Trump is an enemy to be defeated, and that is what he will be until he is defeated. Americans need to be prepared to confront a political reality that Anna Politkovskaja, Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha herself, and so many other courageous Russians have looked in the face and defied, for which they have paid with death, imprisonment, and exile.

Much of the normalisation began even before Trump’s victory, as with that craven worm on late-night TV, whose name I don’t recall, who was allowed to muss up Trump’s hair. Whoever he was (some Jimmy, I think), his capitulation was really only one step further from the tepid shit that has been served up under the banner of ‘criticism’ on ‘liberal’ comedy-news shows for several years now, not by the Jimmys but by the Jo(h)ns. Typically, their ‘takedowns’ have been followed soon after by viral online videos declaring that Trump has been ‘destroyed’ on last night’s episode of the Stewart, Colbert, or Oliver Program. Yet this word has been gutted of all sense, as, patently, Trump kept reappearing the following day. What are we now to make of this? Why were they assuring us of Trump’s destruction? By destroying him without destroying him, they paved the way to the current process of normalisation. We can’t let this continue. It is time to destroy him for real.

Part of the path towards this end is to refuse the terms the mass media will try to impose, even when we ourselves join the media as commentators or op-ed writers. If they don’t like the terms we impose, then we will not work with them, but instead will use alternative paths. But we will also do our best to slip through, even using bait and switch tactics to get into the studio (‘Sure, I’ll talk about Chris Christie’s prospects as a cabinet pick…’). The hosts of these shows are empty vessels, channellers of whatever is out there. So it’s up to us to change what’s out there. You might get yourself disinvited, or you might find, as I did last night, that your host appreciates ‘a little energy’. But always remember: Trump is not a bad politician, but a bomb thrown into the political system. Everything he does that kind of looks like the work of a politician is a parody of politics, and must never, ever be graded on a curve.

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