As we near the end of the first calendar year of the Trump era of American history, it’s a good time for political observers and activists who are not of the MAGA faith to reflect a bit on how they cope with the various controversies surrounding the 45th president. This year began with all sorts of warnings about “normalizing” Donald Trump and the right-wing populist cause he seemed to represent. Now, progressives are being told to avoid hysteria in chronicling Trump’s presidency and/or in interpreting unfolding scandals like possible election-year collusion with Russia. Here’s the New York Times’ Frank Bruni:
When Trump’s opponents react to so much of what he says and does with such unfettered outrage, how does that howl not become background noise, and how do we make sure that his unequivocally foul maneuvers stand out from his debatably foolish ones? When we constantly conjure the direst scenarios, don’t we risk looking like ignorable hysterics — and bolstering his grandiose claims of martyrdom — if events unfold in a less damnable fashion?
Fury isn’t strategy, and there’s no need to extrapolate beyond the facts already in our possession.
Similarly, Andrés Miguel Rondón, drawing on his experience in dealing with the left-wing populist demagogue Hugo Chávez in his native Venezuela, argues that freaking out about Trump just feeds the beast of his movement, which is all about demolishing enemies rather than achieving anything in particular:
Trump, now in power, paints himself as a fighter under siege — even more so than as last year’s outsider candidate. The Russia scandal, the occasional betrayal by members of his own party, the condemnation of so many of his acts are all attempts to “stop” him. What you call scandal is only a sign that he is fighting back. Indeed: that he is fighting you. To his supporters, this is no scandal at all — he’s doing exactly what he promised he would do …
That’s how populism works. As long as Trump is still swinging back, scandals help him to polarize the country further. The scorn of his adversaries, in the eyes of his supporters, proves that he’s doing exactly what they voted him for to do: dismantling a rigged system that they believe destroyed their hopes.
Both Bruni and Miguel Rondón have the same counsel to offer: Don’t get hysterical about Trump or look for extreme measures like impeachment; get even at the ballot box, in 2018 and 2020.
I agree, up to a point. Bruni takes issue with Nancy Pelosi referring to the just-passed GOP tax bill as “Armageddon.” That’s rhetorical overkill unless you are willing to argue that the fiscal and economic agenda of the entire Republican Party for decades quite literally threatens the extinction of the human race. But the other reason this is a mistake is that there are other things that Trump might do that really are apocalyptic. If he stumbles into a nuclear exchange with North Korea because he cannot resist a testosterone contest with Kim Jong-un, that could well represent Armageddon. From the perspective of America’s past legacy and future prospects, a credible Trumpian threat to civil liberties could also be apocalyptic.
But that probably would require something deadlier than nasty remarks about journalists on Twitter or Islamophobic slurs. And perhaps a movement toward impeachment should be reserved for contingencies where continuation of this man in office would likely provoke a Trumpian counterrevolution that could itself lead to war or fascism.
Yes, it’s complicated to calibrate one’s anger and outrage toward this strange man who defies presidential norms with every breath. And without question, calming oneself down in the face of routine outrages has the effect of “normalizing” them to a certain degree. But that became inescapable once the Electoral College lifted Trump to the presidency — the ultimate normalization of a phenomenon that was so outlandish that it sounded like the product of science fiction.
In the end, Trump’s critics and accusers will not be able to capitalize on any particular scandal so long as they treat his very presence in the White House as scandalous. The closer we get to midterm elections that could radically reduce Trump’s power or to a presidential election that could remove him from office altogether, the less sense it makes to hyperventilate over everything he says and does.
We should save our capacity for outrage for the possibility that Trump might try to engineer a national “emergency” to frighten voters preparing to go to the polls in 2020, or worse yet, might refuse to acknowledge an adverse result (as he threatened to do in 2016).
Perhaps none of that will happen, and when his term is over, the president will peacefully return to Mar-a-Lago, dissipating our lurid fears about him and celebrating the fact that he did not, after all, wreck the country he promised to return to greatness. As Bruni says, that would be optimal:
[T]hat’s where I, for one, want him: in the rearview mirror, growing tinier and tinier as we zoom, pedal to the metal, toward a saner, more dignified horizon.
That doesn’t mean giving Trump a pass on the big and terrible things he might yet do. It just means not assuming the worst just because you know he’s capable of it.