Kavanaugh, Normal, and the New Bottom
I made a resolution a few months ago not to comment on the horseshit of daily politics churning about my Facebook feed. New columns pop up every day, written by well-meaning critics for the New York Times or some other publication. I have friends that share two, three, five, eight of them every single day. When I spent hours sitting at a desk everyday, I clicked on a few. I like Charles Blow and Michael Gerson but, at their very best, they use clever means to tell me things I already know.
The White House is in chaos, the man at the top is morally bankrupt, his party equally so, his administration a pool of putrefying corruption and incompetence. All of this is exceptional, but there’s a certain point at which it should be normalized. I’ve grown to loathe that word, in part because it’s overused, but also because the way in which it’s used is counterproductive. Many of my friends use it as an accusation – Don’t normalize this administration! This is not normal! But it is. To acknowledge something as normal is not the same as accepting it.
When we trumpet the daily corruption and criminality of the White House as abnormal, we imply a certain gravity that I don’t think exists. There’s no inertia in politics, no normal to which we’ll snap back after the abnormal is excised. Acknowledging the way in which Trump is establishing a new normal means acknowledging that he and his Republican enablers are doing real and lasting damage. They aren’t running around with firecrackers in the backyard; they’re lighting matches with the gas on and playing with sledgehammers in the living room. Whatever they leave us with, we’ll need to live in. That means we’ll need to have the insurance in order, rope off the damaged spaces, sleep without a roof for a while.
Regimes that seize power by undemocratic means also rely almost exclusively on states of exception – they weaponize the abnormal. They create disorder to better position themselves as the guardians of order, sow chaos to give citizens an anxiety for which they can be the only salve. The Republican Party and the Trump administration are no kind of exceptional. Trump campaigns against corruption but makes it worse. Republicans ridicule identity politics but repeatedly run on a noxious concept of white identity. Both mocked Democrats for their dynastic tendency after nominating Hillary Clinton, but seem perfectly content to allow Trump’s children all sorts of roles, both formal and informal. Republican claims of rigged elections and shoddy handling of classified information are almost too silly now to contemplate.
Trump, his administration, and his party are not abnormal or exceptional or special. They are the very thing they claimed to be campaigning against – just incalculably worse. They are not outsiders, fundamentally foreign to our politics. They are politicians, essential components of a system they claim to despise, breaking institutions under the weight of their cynical desire to remain insiders – their ambition toward yet deeper influence.
But it’s still important to note when “normal” finds a new bottom. The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court is a new bottom, in part because the process has revealed the extent to which the depravity of the party in power is a new normal.
Donald Trump exemplifies the extreme and bizarre aspects of the Republican Party, but he was completely superfluous to the process. He picked from a list assembled by conservative activists and presented by the leader of the Republican Congress that was likely less than a dozen names – only three of which were likely taken seriously – about whom he likely knew absolutely nothing. He had little role in the decision to push the nomination forward without allowing the necessary time to review hundreds of thousands if not millions of pages of documents related to Kavanaugh’s time in the Bush White House. He commented only briefly and offered only lukewarm support when Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault.
Republican legislators – many of whom were party institutions while Trump was still a Democrat – defended Kavanaugh far more aggressively and with far more reprehensible arguments. Republicans called his accuser a liar and minimized the seriousness of what she alleged. Republicans joked about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Kavanaugh, and sexual assault in general. Republicans said they’d bring her into testify but wouldn’t ruin a man’s life over the accusations of a woman (as though allowing him simply to remain one of the most powerful judges in the country could be “ruin”). Republicans refused to call any other potential witnesses to testify to their knowledge of the incident. Republicans obfuscated, excused, and claimed conspiracy when another accusation surfaced. Republicans have the ability to force Kavanaugh’s withdrawal and, by extension, replacement by Thomas Hardiman or some other ideologically similar but likely decent human being. Republicans choose everyday not to.
Donald Trump’s departure from office will not signal the end of a sickness. Policies of family separation at the border are exceptional, links to Russia are exceptional, individual events and phenomena and trends can be exceptional. In the context of the Republican Party, Trump is ordinary except as a matter of degree. In the context of American nationalism and identity politics, the Republican Party is ordinary except as a matter of degree. The misogyny and cynicism of both is ordinary except as a matter of degree – of brazenness, shamelessness. None of it makes them exceptional; just disappointingly, disgustingly, depressingly normal.
The notion of a cruel, populist demagogue is so normal that the founders saw it coming two and a half centuries ago. The notion of a mob amongst the people is so normal that the founders saw it coming two and a half centuries ago. The notion of that mob controlling a political party, of that party legitimizing the politics of faction, is so normal that the founders saw it coming two and a half centuries ago. Guardrails existed to prevent all of this from happening. Exceptions nurture delusions of innocence, but demagoguery and tyranny of faction are utterly normal. We just didn’t put the guardrails up in time. This failure is our own. At some point we have to figure out how to balance the idea that our situation is both a new normal and utterly broken. Exceptions flash in the pan, normal requires lasting repair.