The Good Fight

Normalizing the Abnormal

We haven’t stopped finding Trump bizarre, we’ve just gotten used to him. That may be worse.

A black swan.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; KMahelona/iStock.

This article is part of a weeklong series on President Trump’s first year in office.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that the president of the United States paid $130,000 to a famous porn actress to stop her from revealing details of an alleged affair between them. For Barack Obama or George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or George H. W. Bush or Ronald Reagan or Jimmy Carter—or really, for just about any of their predecessors—the mere hint of such a payoff would have become the defining scandal of their presidency. But somehow, the sordid story of Stormy Daniels has barely entered public consciousness. Few papers featured it on the front page. Within 48 hours, the conversation had already moved on to the next Trumpian controversy. The normal rules of politics simply do not apply to this particular president.

Granted, the payoff to Daniels is hardly the most egregious of Trump’s misdeeds. If nobody cared about it because the political class was too busy chronicling the larger and more consequential outrages committed by his administration, there might have been something redeeming about this silence. But it doesn’t seem as though this is what’s going on here. Instead, we have simply revised down our expectations—big as well as small, public as well as private.

This alone shows that there was something to the biggest fear that the burgeoning class of Trump-watchers expressed after his ascent to the highest office in the land: that America might quickly start to normalize the president. “In the face of the impulse to normalize,” Masha Gessen wrote the day after the 2016 election, “it is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock.” “Washington is going about its business talking about who’s going to get what jobs,” David Remnick observed a few days later. “You would think that Mitt Romney had won. It’s a hallucination.”

Thankfully, though, the most extreme fears about normalization have not materialized. In part because of Trump’s insistence on acting like the worst cartoon version of himself—and in part because many of us took Gessen’s and Remnick’s warnings to heart—the president, by and large, continues to be treated as the aberration he really is. Newspapers that had once insisted on quoting two points of view on every conceivable issue openly state when the president lies. Business leaders who were initially willing to play ball with the administration have deserted his advisory councils in droves. Even Republican congressmen and senators who have supported his legislative agenda time and again have repeatedly felt the need to distance themselves from his most shocking comments.

But while we have mostly managed to resist treating Trump as a normal president, I’m increasingly worried that we have simultaneously fallen into a more subtle trap: Even the private citizens, the business executives, and the politicians who are fully conscious that the president of the United States is a peculiar aberration have not changed their behavior in the day-to-day; despite knowing everything that there is to know about Donald Trump, they go about their personal and professional lives as though we lived in perfectly ordinary times.

Many Republican congressmen and senators, for example, have not only distanced themselves from Trump’s most outrageous comments in public; in private, they have also acknowledged that he is a dangerous fool who will most likely do immense damage to their party, their country, and the world. And yet, they have spectacularly failed to walk that wise talk, neglecting to put real limits on Trump’s ability to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or launch nuclear weapons.

Many of the country’s CEOs are concerned about the ways in which this administration creates uncertainty about economic policy and undermines the rule of law. And yet, the markets barely seem to have priced in the possibility of real disruption: over the past year, the stock market has soared from one record to the next as though these risks did not really exist.

Self-declared members of the #Resistance outcompete each other with apocalyptic predictions about the effect Trump will have on the American republic. And yet, public protests against the president have become smaller and smaller with every passing month.

The journalists who cover the administration are probably in the best position of anyone to understand the deep dysfunction at the center of power—as well as the extraordinary ways in which Trump has attacked the press over the past twelve months. But while they have broken some amazing stories, they too have proven reluctant to heed their lessons off the page.

And so the year-end memo which the White House Correspondents’ Association penned for the administration at the beginning of 2018 listed a series of “positive notes from the year now behind us,” lauding Sarah Sanders, the White House spokesperson, for such unremarkable courtesies as being “accessible to individual reporters” and returning “to the longstanding, bipartisan tradition of on-camera briefings.”

Even when the report acknowledges Trump’s severe attacks on the media, it does so in an astoundingly milquetoast manner. While the WHCA complains about the “public denigration of the free press,” for example, it does not call it a shocking and unprecedented attack; instead, it gingerly describes it as one of a number of “areas for improvement.”

All of these indicators point in the same direction: Trump himself has not been normalized. But the fact that the president of the United States is deeply abnormal has.

There is a hopeful way of reading this, and over the past weeks leading pundits have become increasingly tempted to indulge in this kind of optimism: Our institutions, they are starting to claim, are much more solid and resilient than the pessimists might have thought a year ago.

The first days of Trump’s presidency felt like vertigo. After an inaugural speech which George W. Bush fittingly described as “some weird shit,” the White House instituted a chaotic travel ban, floated a rapprochement with Russia, called the future of NATO into doubt, and threatened to end NAFTA. For a few weeks, it seemed as though Trump might move to change the country with scary speed and efficiency.

But that, of course, is not what transpired. The travel ban was, again and again, overturned by the courts; the version that is now being implemented is much-changed and somewhat-attenuated. America’s alliances have undoubtedly suffered a real battering, with levels of support for the United States in countries from Germany to Greece at record lows; but NATO still exists and the U.S. has so far continued to take a tough stance on Russia, selling weapons to Ukraine and implementing sanctions against Putin cronies. Finally, Trump has talked smack about China and stopped the ratification process for the Trans-Pacific Partnership; but for now, the global trade order mostly remains intact. Even Trump’s attacks on independent institutions have ultimately proved reasonably ineffective: though he still insists that he can do what he wants with the FBI, for example, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller is, for now, continuing apace.

Perhaps, then, it is perfectly rational for all of us to play-act normality. Since our institutions are capable of functioning reasonably well even with a strange and terrible chief executive—since the economy is humming along, since America’s courts continue to adhere to age-old procedural standards, and since a devastating war has not yet broken out—it would seem to make sense both to recognize how bizarre Trump is and to keep going about our daily life as though he weren’t. Eventually, Trump will lose re-election, a more traditional politician will move into the White House, and the nightmare will run its course of its own accord.

This is perfectly plausible. A large portion of Americans long ago made their mind up about the president—and about 50 percent cannot stand him. So long as Democrats run competent campaigns this year, they should make big gains in the House and the Senate. And so long as they run a candidate who isn’t widely hated in 2020, they should have every chance of winning back the White House less than three years from now. Trump’s humbling may not be so far away.

Nor does it seem especially likely that Trump will manage to destroy American democracy in the next few years. While the past 12 months have done little to make me more confident about the stability of our institutions—the serious threat to the independence of law enforcement agencies and the shameful failure of congressional Republicans to hold the president to account are just two of the most obvious warning signs—it takes real competence and strategy to amass power in the hands of the executive. Unlike Hungary’s Viktor Orban or Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Donald Trump has so far proven totally lacking in these qualities.

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So the optimistic story has a lot going for it. And yet, I ultimate find it to be dangerously quietist. Why? Because it assesses the degree of danger we face, and the right way to respond to our dire situation, by the most likely outcome rather than the wide range of plausible outcomes.

As Nassim Nicholas Taleb persuasively argued in his book, The Black Swan, human beings are terrible at dealing with scenarios in which there is a very small probability of a very bad outcome. Every time I expose myself to a small risk of something really bad happening, and find that the worst case did not materialize, I am likely to conclude that I made the right decision in ignoring the possibility from the start. And yet, what I did was probably irrational for two reasons.

First, if I run a very small risk of a bad outcome over and over again, the cumulative probability of something very bad happening can quickly grow to be substantial. If the likelihood of me being hit by a car when I rush across the street is 1 in a 100,000, for example, but I do so 10,000 times over the course of many years, this gives me at least a 1 in 10 chance of being involved in a serious accident at some point in my life.

Second, it may be deeply irrational to expose myself to the possibility of something very bad happening even if the cumulative risk remains reasonably low. Out of 10 people who consistently run a small risk of getting run over in the street, nine will lead somewhat better lives as a result: They will spend less time waiting around at intersections, and perhaps they will even seize some opportunities that their more risk-averse compatriots missed. But unless they believe that those small benefits justify a 10 percent chance of suffering very serious injuries—or dying a premature death—they will have acted irrationally. In cases involving a black swan hindsight is not 20/20.

This is directly relevant to the Trump era. For in the end, all of the people who are acting cravenly, or cowardly, at the moment are likely to be vindicated. If we somehow manage to muddle through the next three years—if we avoid war with North Korea, if Russia does not go on any more foreign adventures, if the economy does not crater, and if our independent institutions manage to put up enough resistance to retain some degree of independence—they can point at the fortunate outcome and proudly pronounce their wisdom. “Weren’t you silly to get all freaked out?” they will say. “In the end, the threat wasn’t all that bad. After all, everything turned out just fine!”

But this would be far too self-congratulatory a way of reading our collective behavior during the Trump presidency. For the truth of the matter is that we are proving unwilling or unable to take the radical steps that would be justified by the very real danger of black swan events. That failure should give us pause. For it suggests that humanity’s tendency to act normal in circumstances that are anything but is a much greater political danger than we usually recognize.

If some of the worst-case scenarios do yet come to pass, we will have but ourselves to blame. And even if they don’t, our inability to react to the clear threat posed by Donald Trump should make us more skeptical about whether humanity will prove able and willing to confront dangers like climate change in the decades to come. If we are capable of living life as though everything was normal even though we know that a deeply dangerous man has his fingers on the nuclear button, we will also be capable of continuing to drive our SUVs even as Miami Beach is submerged in seawater.