The Normalization of the Unforgivable — Trump and an America which is already half lost

With Donald Trump, we have been witnessing the normalization of the unforgivable.

The rise of an authoritarian leader in the United States, who through outrageous lies, thuggish behavior, and the assistance of a large-scale Russian intervention in the 2016 elections, became President, would be great material for a movie but in fact be unbelievable, unless of course it actually happened.

During his campaign in 2016, the transition, and now his four months in office, Donald Trump has erased the boundaries of the impermissible, the unthinkable, and the very concept of the truth itself.

Now, in 2017, we can for perhaps the first time in many decades understand what happened after 1932 with the rise of the National Socialist Parry and its leader in Germany. Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny” describes the gradual acceptance by ordinary and erstwhile upright and honorable men and women of behavior which in earlier years had been unthinkable.

What is astounding is how fast the standards of decency and democratic life have fallen victim to the mean-spirited and hate-filled ideology of Trump and his supporters, and the ever-growing number of yes-men and apologists who are found among Republicans in Congress and in the party as a whole.

Many critics of Trump lean over backwards to insist we try harder to understand the hardships and frustrations of  his core supporters. Few are willing or courageous enough to pass judgment on these voters, who made a Faustian bargain to accept Trump’s hate, his attack on the truth, and his attack on the institutions of our democracy, including an independent press, in exchange for what he seemed to offer.

He offered an endless profusion of illusory promises of jobs and making America great again, which persuaded his undereducated base. He also held out the promise of curbing immigration.  Others, guided by their own ideology of primitive capitalism, followed and continue to support Trump out of cynical calculations that under Trump they will be able to redistribute wealth and welfare to the rich.

So Faustian bargains, of two varieties, have given impetus to the authoritarian movement of Donald Trump.

At present, it seems that Trumpism has taken over the minds of upwards of 40% of those who vote. Snyder recounts how, during the rise of Nazism, individuals suddenly flipped to become Nazis, succumbing to the power of mass psychology. Eugene Ionescu, in his play “Rhinoceros”, depicted such metamorpheses by showing those who suddenly flippped as assuming the form of a rhinoceros.

In America today we can see many politicians who have now assumed the form of a rhinoceros. The unthinkable has become normal. They argue that the unacceptable must be understood. They lie.  They lie big time. They twist themselves into pretzels defending untruths.

Critics reassure themselves that everything is under control, and that the democratic institutions of the country will contain the excesses of Trump and Trumpism.

While in the end they may be right, an honest observer would have to admit that the outcome is uncertain.

Trump and his supporters could win the struggle for the soul of the country.

To appreciate that possibility we need only look at what they have achieved so far.

For example, they have achieved the normalization and acceptance of monstrous lies, such as those contained in Trump’s new budget proposal, or in the statements of those who defend the health care bill that recently passed the House.

They have rendered the democratic principles of conflict-of-interest and nepotism nearly meaningless.

They have turned American foreign policy on its head, jettisoning the defense of human rights while cozying up to authoritarian regimes. They have weakened NATO’s mutual self-defense commitments, while supporting those who would undermine the European Union.

Trump has already destroyed much of the fabric of civic life, where discourse in a democratic society can only be conducted with a certain respect for facts and the truth.

The most frightening fact is that after all his lies have been revealed for what they are, Trump continues to enjoy strong support among 35-40% of the population.

This is what has happened to America, in the last two years.

See David Ignatius, “Get ready for the ‘impeachment election’,” The Washington Post, May 23, 2017. Ignatius writes:

“Under our Constitution, the House and Senate are prosecutor and jury, respectively, for serious presidential misconduct. But this legal process probably won’t be triggered without a poisonously divisive election. If recent history teaches anything, it’s unfortunately this harsh fact: In the battle for America’s soul, Trump could win.”

What lies ahead can only be viewed with extreme foreboding, so long as Trump and the rhinoceri who support him retain their hold on power.

Each day they chip away a little more at our concepts of the truth, of decency, and of the bulwarks against authoritarian behaviors that exist in a democracy.

We are desensitized. The outrage is drained from our souls. We begin to make excuses for Trump and his rhinoceri.

We begin to acquiesce.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.