We Must Guard Against Normalizing Trump

As many have noted, we are in uncharted territory with Donald Trump as president. Over the course of my lifetime, there have been president’s that I disagree with on almost every issue. But none of them has ever made me question whether or not our democratic republic would survive.

The eternal optimist in me says that I shouldn’t fear that with Donald Trump either. That’s not based on any confidence in him, but in the American people. The magnitude and breadth of the current resistance is what keeps that hope alive.

But the other side of the coin is the prospect of a creeping normalization of what is happening to both the executive and legislative branches of our government – and potentially to the judicial if this administration survives. We’ve seen how the norms of what have kept these institutions functioning for decades are being slowly eroded in a way that too often goes unchallenged.

A perfect example was the silencing of Sen. Elizabeth Warren last night on the Senate floor when she attempted to read Coretta Scott King’s letter in opposition to the nomination of Sessions to be the Attorney General. While those of us who follow these kinds of things closely were appalled, most Americans will either never know it happened or will simply assume that it is business as usual in a divided Senate. That is how this kind of thing gets normalized.

When it comes to normalizing our new president, Ron Rosenbaum – author of Explaining Hitler – tells a cautionary tale. In attempting to answer the question of how the media played a role in the rise of Hitler, he zeros in on the story of the Munich Post – who defied that trend.

The Munich Post never stopped investigating who Hitler was and what he wanted, and Hitler never stopped hating them for it.

As Hitler sought to ingratiate himself with the city’s rulers (though never giving up the threat of violence), the Post reporters dug into his shadowy background, mocking him mercilessly, exposing internal party splits, revealing the existence of a death squad (“cell G”) that murdered political opponents and was at least as responsible for Hitler’s success as his vaunted oratory.

And in their biggest, most shamefully ignored scoop, on December 9, 1931, the paper found and published a Nazi party document planning a “final solution” for Munich’s Jews — the first Hitlerite use of the word “endlösung” in such a context. Was it a euphemism for extermination? Hitler dissembled, so many could ignore the grim possibility.

The Munich Post lost and Germany came under Nazi rule — but, in a sense, the paper had also won; they were the only ones who had figured out just how sinister Hitler and the Nazis were. I believe Hitler knew this.

Rosenbaum recounts how, after a failed military attempt to take over in Germany in 1923, Hitler was barred from politics for five years. But eventually he was allowed back in.

As it turned out, Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They “normalized” him.

But the Munich Post never bought it and “never stopped reporting on this ultimate aim and on Hitler’s use of murder, decrying any attempts to “normalize” the tyrant.”

It is important to be clear that Trump has never offered anything like a “final solution,” nor has he openly or subversively engaged in murdering his opponents. But the difference is one of degree. During his presidential campaign the president did talk about things like a Muslim registry, a deport ’em all response to  undocumented immigrants and he toyed with the idea of using nuclear weapons against ISIS (to name just a few of his more alarming ideas). Should we simply ignore those things and assume that he would never actually follow through? That is the dilemma we face – especially in light of the executive orders he signed in his first two weeks. But perhaps even more insidiously alarming:

Suddenly, after the inconceivable (and, we are now beginning to realize, suspicious) Trump victory, the nation was forced to contend with what it would mean, whether the “alt-right” was a true threat or a joke to be tolerated. Did it matter that Trump had opened up a sewer pipe of racial hatred? Once again, normalization was the buzzword.

At one point Rosenbaum insinuates that Trump (like Hitler) is “canny and savvy” in knowing how to play this kind of game. That is not something I’m prepared to accept. I think he’s a mentally unstable person with an authoritarian world view, but not the brightest bulb (if you are ever tempted to assume otherwise, read this). For a “canny and savvy” strategy, it is important to recognize the role being played by his current co-president – Steve Bannon – who has likely studied not only Hitler’s rise to power, but Putin’s as well.

Like many of you I suspect, there is a battle going on inside of me. On the one hand I reject the idea of over-dramatizating our current situation. But on the other, I also reject any normalization of what is happening. Because we are in uncharted territory, there is a need to maintain clear eyes that are not deluded with any assumptions that cloud our vision. The narratives we’ve created from our past are more likely to be exploited by Trump/Bannon than provide us with a guide in the present.

So I’m prepared to live with that battle for a while. I will not succumb to being a chicken Little chasing after any indication that the sky is in the process of falling. But I will recognize that our democracy itself is being challenged – perhaps in a way that it never has been before – and continue to sound the alarm.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.