The normalization of President-elect Donald Trump is well under way. Exhibit A would have to be the new issue of People magazine -- the publication that just a few weeks ago was reporting that a female journalist who'd traveled to Mar-a-Lago to report on Trump's happy new marriage to Melania was sexually assaulted. Now it's cover is a glamorous, back-lit "President Trump" (can't that wait until Jan. 20?) with the story of his "astonishing journey" to White House. It's the most dramatic case of people and publications who'd cast Trump as unfit to be president -- especially to have his finger on the nuclear button -- now welcoming America's grand and glorious traditions of peaceful transition of power, blah blah blah.
Some people -- myself included -- want to hold onto that pre-November-8 thought that nothing about Trump becoming 45th president of the United States is in any sense normal, a thought that some are expressing with the hashtag #NotNormal. Of course, others have said to keep an open mind and at least give Trump a chance. This weekend, we saw the first stirrings of a Trump White House.
The president-elect has tried and failed to not produce the kind of provocative and not helpful Twitter posts that marred his campaign. On Thursday, the future commander-in-chief tweeted that "(n)ow professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!" He then backtracked, only to launch a few salvos this morning at the New York Times, including "Wow, the @nytimes is losing thousands of subscribers because of their very poor and highly inaccurate coverage of the 'Trump phenomena'."
Well, for starters, the president-elect sent out a lie, since the Times is actually adding subscribers at a rapid pace, presumably from folks alarmed over Trump's "astonishing journey" and now seeking reliable information. Also, the words from the president-elect are clearly aimed at chilling legitimate protest as well as aggressive reporting on Trump's presidency -- the initial salvos of what is sure to be a White House war against the 1st Amendment that many Americans still cherish.
Meanwhile, Trump consigliere Kellyanne Conway went on national TV this morning to suggest that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could be sued for criticizing our new dear leader. Obviously, Americans need to watch what they say, watch what they do in Trump's America.
This is #NotNormal.
All of that was before tonight's announcement of his two top aides. His chief of staff, the Republican national chair Reince Priebus, was a sop to the D.C. establishment (and probably not "draining the swamp," but whatever...) but his new senior counselor and strategist is a straight-up white nationalist from the alt-right, Steve Bannon. As one of my colleagues noted tonight, Bannon's hiring is "(n)ot racially charged. Not insensitive. RACIST."
Others said that Bannon -- publisher of the far-right website Breitbart who this summer became a Trump campaign strategist -- is a "(w)hite supremacist, anti gay, anti Semite, vindictive, scary-ass dude" or warned: "Just to be clear news media, the next president named a racist, anti-semite as the co-equal of the chief of staff." Who were these crazy left-wing pinkos saying that? Actually they were two prominent Republicans, strategist Ana Navarro and the former Sen. John McCain top adviser John Weaver.
"ANTI-SEMITE GETS TOP TRUMP POST," screamed the Huffington Post tonight, based on a sworn statement from his ex-wife that Bannon -- a former Goldman Sachs executive -- steered their daughter away from certain private schools because "he doesn't like Jews." The website Think Progress also quoted someone who knows Bannon very well:
Ben Shapiro, who worked alongside Bannon for four years as Breitbart's Editor-at-Large, wrote that Bannon "openly embraced the white supremacist alt-right." According to Shapiro, "Breitbart has become the alt-right go-to website… pushing white ethno-nationalism as a legitimate response to political correctness, and the comment section turning into a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers."
Did I mention, folks, that this is #NotNormal? Of course, this probably ensures Bannon on next week's glam cover of People -- "Trump's Bomb Thrower!" or some such thing -- and a lot of inside-the-Beltway suck-up profiles of Bannon by journalists desperate for access to the corridors of power.
This is what terrifies me -- the rapid normalization of things that are completely abnormal to the American way of life. And it's going to come up on us fast. Read up on past leaders with strongman visions similar to those that Trump articulated during his "astonishing journey." It didn't take them four years to accumulate power in an authoritarian manner. Usually less than four months. Especially with a good minister of propagand....excuse me, I mean "senior counselor and strategist."
I've read some really good essays since the unfortunate events of 11/9, but none better than this in the New York Review of Books: "Autocracy: Rules for Survival," by Masha Gessen, an expert on Russia's Putin and other authoritarian regimes. Every American should read this. Here's just one of Gessen's rules for surviving:
Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler's anti-Semitism was all posture. More recently, the same newspaper made a telling choice between two statements made by Putin's press secretary Dmitry Peskov following a police crackdown on protesters in Moscow: "The police acted mildly—I would have liked them to act more harshly" rather than those protesters' "liver should have been spread all over the pavement." Perhaps the journalists could not believe their ears. But they should—both in the Russian case, and in the American one. For all the admiration Trump has expressed for Putin, the two men are very different; if anything, there is even more reason to listen to everything Trump has said. He has no political establishment into which to fold himself following the campaign, and therefore no reason to shed his campaign rhetoric. On the contrary: it is now the establishment that is rushing to accommodate him—from the president, who met with him at the White House on Thursday, to the leaders of the Republican Party, who are discarding their long-held scruples to embrace his radical positions.
He has received the support he needed to win, and the adulation he craves, precisely because of his outrageous threats. Trump rally crowds have chanted "Lock her up!" They, and he, meant every word. If Trump does not go after Hillary Clinton on his first day in office, if he instead focuses, as his acceptance speech indicated he might, on the unifying project of investing in infrastructure (which, not coincidentally, would provide an instant opportunity to reward his cronies and himself), it will be foolish to breathe a sigh of relief. Trump has made his plans clear, and he has made a compact with his voters to carry them out. These plans include not only dismantling legislation such as Obamacare but also doing away with judicial restraint—and, yes, punishing opponents.
All of Gessen's points for Trump survival are spot on. Be wary of compromise. And, seemingly most important in this pre-presidency, do not normalize any of this. Because when one of your first two hires is a white nationalist, this is #NotNormal. And it hasn't even been a full week yet.