Donald Trump is a response to what many perceive as the tyranny of normal.
I’m not a fan of Adam Gopnick. I mildly appreciated his Paris to the Moon, but gave up late in the book when he started gushing with enthusiasm about Paris’s fashion industry, a subject that tends to bore me. If this article in The New Yorker is anything to go by, it’s time to acknowledge that as a political thinker Gopnick is definitely a lightweight. At the same time, he inadvertently exposes one of the deepest issues in US political and intellectual culture today, the one everyone is talking about: the status of truth in public discourse.
Here’s one quote that particularly struck me from this article: “This is not ‘I am not a crook’ [Richard Nixon]; it is not a claim that there are weapons of mass destruction [George W. Bush]; it is not ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ [Bill Clinton]. These are all ways of parsing reality, or normal fibs told by normal people.”
Let’s begin by acknowledging this as the worship of normalcy or a fanatical faith in the status quo. Nixon—aided and abetted by Henry Kissinger—committed the equivalent of genocide in several places around the globe, but in Gopnick’s eyes he was “a normal person” telling what he appears to think is an innocent lie. In a certain sense Gopnick may be right: Nixon didn’t say “I’m not a murderer”—he simply denied being a crook.
Bush’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were for Gopnick an equally “normal” example of conversational exaggeration. Never mind that his lie resulted in millions of deaths and displacements and resulted in the ongoing destabilization of an entire region more than a decade later, the consequences of which are not only still being felt, but have given Donald Trump one of his best and most effective delusional themes: banning an entire religion from entry into the US.
The Normal Lie
Gopnick seems to believe that Nixon was normal because his lies were linked to crimes that didn’t upset the status quo. But also because it was the kind of lie one expects from someone accused of a serious offense, just like Clinton’s lie. And, of course, that wasn’t the only time Nixon or Clinton lied. Those are just the lies everyone remembers.
Gopnick wants us to accept those lies as normal. But the WMD lie of Bush was far worse in its historical implications than anything Trump has done, in particular because the so-called respectable, truthful New York Times, Washington Post et al. not only bought the lie but promoted it with zeal, whereas none of the mainstream press—not even Fox News—is repeating Trump’s lies, which in that sense makes them much more innocent. The only think they seriously violate is “normative thinking,” which Gopnick appears particularly attached to.
In the final analysis, it would be reasonable to suppose that Trump himself doesn’t expect anyone to believe his lies. It’s just a way of intimidating people, making them kneel to the “boss man’s” authority, grabbing the public and the press by their minds in the same way he believes himself entitled to grab ladies by their private parts. It’s the “professional pathology” of a man who thinks everything is about negotiating from a position of force. The strategy is simple: establish your position of force and then begin negotiating. In the course of negotiation, positions will change and what you claimed earlier will soon be forgotten.
Trump may have been astute enough to perceive that over recent decades American democracy has increasingly trended toward holding the people in contempt. The establishment has its reasons, which are too complex for the public to even try to understand. This was part of Hillary’s image and the main reason why, in spite of her normalcy, she was never perceived as a leader and couldn’t inspire the slightest enthusiasm in her candidacy, even among those who were loyal to her.
Trump has taken contempt to a higher level and applies it to everyone: politicians, the press, foreign leaders, the intelligence community and indeed anyone who doubts his word. He may well see himself as following in a great tradition. He is perfecting the techniques that work for those in power. He may even see it as a necessary test of his power. Gopnick cites those who say Trump isn’t Benito. But you could make the case that there’s a fair measure of Caligula in him.
So Gopnick is right about one thing. Trump lives in another universe. He isn’t normal. Which means his one merit is to force us to think about whether “normal” is as reassuring as Gopnick seems to think it is. The problem of the democratic/liberal elite to which Gopnick belongs is that they simply cannot see that for most people—including practically the entire millennial generation—”normal” is no longer what they are hankering after.
Trump is not the answer, but he is a response to what many perceive as the tyranny of normal. In many ways he’s a comic response. An Ubu Roi response. An Alice in Wonderland response. A bipolar response. He’s the manic side of the bipolar logic as opposed to the depressive (i.e. normal) side, which Hillary Clinton represented.
In terms of its political institutions, the US has become a bipolar nation. A disturbed bipolar nation. Both of the camps, Republican and Democrats—the supposed champions of the ideals of “normal” Americans—failed miserably in the 2016 election. The Hillary establishment failed to secure a victory in the Electoral College. And the Trump insurgency failed to gain a majority of the popular vote. Many registered voters abstained. Many who voted were motivated mainly by fear of the other candidate.
With a bit of statistical analysis it should thus be clear that most people don’t actually fall into one of the two official bipolar categories, but Gopnick clearly believes they should. The parties no longer represent the voting population in any significant way. So, to correct myself, it clearly isn’t accurate to affirm, as I’ve just done, that the nation has become bipolar. On the other hand, the voices one hears in the media have become so.
The nation has become surreal, or rather hyperreal (i.e. when fiction effectively displaces the real and implants itself in the popular imaginary.) Whether it’s WMDs or 3 million illegal voters, imaginary reality routinely take the place of any and perhaps every aspect of tangible reality. One of the features people of other nations find difficult to grasp in US culture is the notion—felt rather than theorized by most Americans—that what’s important is not what is but what you believe. It’s the sentiment that founds the idea of self-reliance. Believe in yourself. Assert what you believe in. Don’t back down. Show them you mean it. And the corollary of that is “don’t waste time thinking about it.” Action is all that matters.
In such a culture Gopnick’s distinction between Trump’s “sinister” lies and what Gopnick sees as “normal” lies—a distinction worthy of some decadent form of scholastic philosophy—loses all its meaning. Not just because lying about WMDs should also be considered sinister—in what moral universe wouldn’t that be the case?—but because lying has become the new normal. In some sense, and especially in politics and business, if you don’t lie, you don’t exist. If your lies pass, it’s a proof that you have attained power and privilege, the concomitants of wealth and fame, which every American secretly aspires to.
Bookmakers now consider it practically an even bet that Trump will be impeached. In some sense, it’s American culture as a whole that’s up for impeachment, which may be the reason impeachment will ultimately fail. Let’s hope that intellectuals such as Gopnick, who apparently have not let the surprising results of the 2016 affect their “normalized” worldview, will finally learn from the ongoing saga of President Trump the essential truths about their own culture.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: magnez2