There are many words Donald Trump loves. Most of them are small words. Words like “fake” or “huge,” for example. But his favorite words—the words he utters with a particularly self-satisfied smile, putting triumphant emphasis on syllable after syllable—are big. Words like “magnificent” and “extraordinary.”
The latter has gotten especially heavy use over the past months. At the end of June, Trump tweeted that Rep. Maxine Waters is an “extraordinarily low IQ person.” The French national team, he wrote a few days ago, played “extraordinary soccer” at the World Cup (which, thanks to its Russian host, was “one of the best ever”). So it was only logical that Trump would also use his go-to superlative to describe the prospects for his one-day summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki: Obviously, he predicted just before their one-on-one meeting, the relationship between the two men would turn out to be “extraordinary.”
This, at least, is one promise which Donald Trump has already lived up to.
It is impossible to know which artifacts of the Trump era future historians will seize upon to illustrate the full craziness to which we bear daily witness on our television screens. Perhaps some things that are escaping our notice among the incessant onslaught of depressing news will, with the benefit of hindsight, turn out to have terrifying significance. Perhaps all of the insanity of the past months will seem minor in comparison to what is yet to come. Or perhaps, as comedian Kumail Nanjiani points out, the very people who are committing daily outrages against our most basic values will one day get to write the history books. And yet, it is hard to believe that any hour of video could better sum up the extraordinary mind meld between the president of the United States and one of the world’s most ruthless and effective dictators than the press conference which concluded their meeting.
Trump’s statements in Helsinki have already been dutifully chronicled in the press and all over Twitter. Asked whether he trusted his own intelligence services or the Russian president, Trump said that he had “confidence in both parties” and called Putin’s denial of responsibility “extremely strong and powerful.” Asked about Putin’s absurd idea of founding a joint cybersecurity unit with Russia to investigate Russian interference in American elections, Trump called it an “incredible offer.” And given opportunity after opportunity to criticize Putin’s attacks on America and its allies—from the annexation of the sovereign territory of another country to the poisoning death of a British civilian—Trump instead spent his time attacking the Democratic opposition, the free press, and the FBI. The last substantive sentence Trump muttered before leaving the stage drives home the remarkable contrast between his reluctance to criticize the politics of Russia and his delight at assaulting American institutions: “If anybody watched Peter Strzok testifying over the last days, it was a disgrace to the FBI, it was a disgrace to our country, and you would say: ‘That was a total witch hunt.’ ”
But if the content of the Trump–Putin press conference was extraordinary, then the resigned reaction to it on behalf of journalists and politicians was even more so. There was outrage, of course. There were viral tweets slamming the president for his all too obvious failures. There were a few carefully worded criticisms from congressional Republicans. And yet it all felt perfunctory.
We have come to expect Trump’s outrages. We know they will barely affect his standing in the polls. We have long ago realized that the Republican Party will fail to hold him to account. And so our sincere anger is tempered by an even more powerful dose of numbness.
In one sense, the warnings against normalization that filled so many column inches in the direct aftermath of the presidential election have come to look paranoid: even today, it seems heart-piercingly abnormal that Donald Trump is representing our country on that stage in Helsinki. But in another sense, they have come to look naïve: As recently as 18 months ago, it simply did not occur to us that people who fully understand just how abnormal the president is could nevertheless become willing tools of his power. And that’s why it isn’t Trump’s refusal to stand up for the values or the interests in the United States that make his summit with Putin so extraordinary; rather, it is just how ordinary the consequences for his abject failure are likely to be.
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