Some Trump opponents argue that we shouldn’t “normalize his election.” It’s a losing argument and not likely to convince anyone of anything. In fact, it’s likely to make some people defensive who can otherwise be brought to oppose Mr. Trump or at least some of his most egregious actions.

The intention behind the argument

Trump’s campaign was based on an unprecedented appeal to racism, xenophobia, and violence. (Or “unprecedented” for the candidate of a major party since World War II.) A good number–perhaps small, but still too many for comfort–of his supporters identify openly with the “alt right” or other white nationalist creeds, and one of his “senior” advisors used to be an editor for an online magazine that gave a voice to some alt right groups. Further, it appears that Mr.Trump has either declined to disavow them, waited too long to disavow them, or has been too equivocal in disavowing them. (For a dissenting view, see Scott Alexander.)

There are other sins, too, and I haven’t even touched on the in some ways more disturbing implications of Mr. Trump’s presidency for foreign policy.

Those who say “don’t normalize” the election are saying this is no ordinary transfer of power. They’re pushing back against a tempting story that goes, “well, two people ran for election and one of them won, so let’s all come together and support the new president, and better luck next time to the losers.” The “don’t normalize” people are saying that approach is insufficient. It doesn’t represent the gravity of what has already happened and doesn’t create a bulwark against what might happen. In a very real sense, that approach makes “normal” that which ought never be normal and until recently wasn’t even openly sayable.

An unnecessary hurdle

But raising the “don’t normalize” argument creates an unnecessary hurdle for Trump opponents. With the “don’t normalize” argument, they now have to explain what normalization is, why it’s bad, how not to normalize, and how any given action a “normalizer” undertakes actually constitutes normalization–all that before and in addition to criticizing anything of substance.

And the what’s, why’s, and how’s are more difficult than it might seem from a Trump opponent’s perspective. For one thing, what does it mean as a practical matter to “normalize”? As Noah Millman has said,

If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.

I’ll add that it’s impossible NOT to normalize (for certain values of “normalize”) without making some very difficult decisions. If you have a 401k or an investment account, are you prepared to disinvest from any stocks or bonds that have a stake in “normalizing” the new presidency–which is pretty much all of them? Are you prepared, as Millman says, to refuse to pay taxes, etc.? Do we start a civil war? If so, who do we kill? (For the record, I disavow killing or civil war. I’m pointing out that one reductio to which the “don’t normalize” talk can go is to a call for violence. Again, that’s not something I’m willing to endorse.)

More from the same Millman article:

I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work.Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.

What is to be done?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps because Trump hasn’t even assumed office yet, “don’t normalize the election” might be a more winnable or at least plausible argument because he hasn’t had a chance to do much yet other than signal certain policies and criticize people’s acting ability. Maybe when the time comes, we can follow Matt Yglesias’s suggestion and focus on the actual policies and humdrum of politics.

Or maybe we could do more than that (although we should probably do that). Take Rebecca Trotter’s blog. She’d possibly disagree with my admonition against the “don’t normalize” argument, but even if she does, she offers concrete things we can do in her series of “daily acts of resistance” posts and her ideas on “what resistance to Trump looks like.” I’m don’t read her as often as I should–and I’m not prepared to say I necessarily agree with her ideas for resistance–but she’s offering something concrete.


Maybe Trump is an authoritarian who may bring us closer to the coming next presidential tyranny. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the weak-willed, thin-skinned, incompetent his actions so far suggest he is. A third possibility is that he’s just a regular politician who’ll both modify, and fit in to, the institutional norms and incentives that are the presidency.

I realize there is real fear out there. Perhaps events will prove that fear unfounded, but I can’t and won’t deny that the fear is genuine and plausible. I’m not part of the demographics most likely to be targeted by what’s going on, and I realize that this fact gives me a detached view that others can ill-afford to take. My historian’s sensibility warns against judging people who are in circumstances I can never understand perfectly. But I do believe the “don’t normalize” argument at best will simply not work and at worst will help foster a defensive reaction in favor of Trump.

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12 Responses to “Don’t normalize” is a losing argument

  1. Oscar Gordon says:

    If accepting that he won the election is normalizing his most reprehensible behavior, then any kind of approval of Bill Clintons presidency serves to normalize powerful men screwing young female interns.

    • RTod says:

      yeah, because that we so very abnormal before 1996.

      • Oscar Gordon says:

        Powerful white men being dickbags to women, minorities, and the disabled isn’t exactly unheard of these days either.

        I take Gabriel’s point that accepting the reality of a Trump presidency has nothing to do with normalizing his behavior. Ignoring or choosing to not be critical of his bad behavior would contribute to the normalization of that behavior, but that is separate from accepting reality.

        • Yeah, that’s pretty much what I was saying. To be fair to those who advance the “don’t normalize” slogan, I think they mostly accept that Trump won according to the rules.

          The challenge of the slogan as an argument, however, is that it creates an unnecessary step. If someone holds too fast to “don’t normalize the election,” they’re setting too much work for themselves.

          The “don’t normalize” slogan is meta–just like my OP is meta–and therefore probably not very useful. But perhaps, as Mike Shupp below points out, there’s been so little of substance (in terms of policies) besides meta because the guy hasn’t assumed office yet. So perhaps meta is almost all we have. (Of course, it’s not that we have no substance. We have Trump’s awful behavior so far, his nominees, and whatever signals he’s been giving about his policy preferences.)

  2. Kazzy says:

    I don’t know that I’ve seen the specific phrase “(don’t) normalize the election”. I don’t even know what it means, frankly . The election happened. The results are what they are… regardless of where you stand on the various things that may or may not have influenced the results.

    What I have seen — and which I tend to agree and support — is not normalizing particular actions and behaviors. That is still a bit of a tricky hill to climb but I think a much more doable one than what you discuss here.

    As a teacher and a father (albeit of fairly young children), I think about the ways I can (and do) communicate to young people certain values. Should the President fail to uphold and demonstrate these values, there are ways to make that known and point out his failure in that area. And, if that’s your bag, this could be done largely apolitically.

    “It is unkind to tease.”
    “But the President made fun of that guy’s disability.”
    “Yes, and that was unkind of him. He should not have done that. Just because he is the President does not make all his actions acceptable.”

    Policy stuff? That’s much harder. What is “normal” tax policy? Fuck if I know. But, despite our many differences, we do have some generally agreed upon values for interpersonal interaction and for the behavior of the President. We generally look down upon verbally attacking people merely for disagreeing with you. We recognize paying people to applaud for you is a strange thing to do. So if and when Trump does these things, we should not stop short of saying, “That is not normal.”

    Can we stop him? No. But we can at least make it known — to whomever is listening (and different people will have different audiences) — what is and is not normal based on these generally shared values, ideas, and attitudes.

    • I think I agree. Part of my point is that we need to focus on specifics–the behaviors you mention and perhaps even policy–on their merits/demerits.

      There does seem to be a “two minutes of outrage” thing going on that when done doesn’t do much to convince anyone of anything.

    • Michael Drew says:

      I see it framed about 98% of the time as “don’t normalize Trump,” and 2% “Don’t normalize his behavior,” FWIW. There’s a lot more denunciation of his behavior than that 2 percent, of course, but it’s mostly not attached to the word “normalize.” that word is overwhelmingly to the man in my experience.

      And I’m totally with you in not knowing what it means, and with Gabriel in think people just need to move on from it.

      People will find that the office of the presidency in this media age is an implacable force of normalization of its occupant. He’s the president. Every fucking day, week after week after week. It just becomes normal. It’s going to happen.

      But that doesn’t mean you have to stop decrying any and all bad behavior. But that, too, is normal. Maybe the amount of it won’t be normal, and maybe that will lead to him never being normalized, contra me. If so, great.

      But it won’t happen by people repeatedly just repeating “don’t normalize him,” because no one really knows what that means.

      I think it’s a denial tactic, more than anything. If you don’t accept it as normal, then maybe somehow it’s not really happening?

  3. mike shupp says:

    Not counting this, of course. I have on several occasions elsewhere on the internet come across the argument “We had an election and Trump won, fair and square. Everything’s normal. Liberals should suck it up, stop their complaining, and move on.”

    And of course … this sends me right up the wall. I voted for Hillary Clinton, to be sure, but without great enthusiasm. I am still a registered Republican, as I have been for half a century.
    And I do not think the last twenty years of American political life, and in particular the last eight years, have been anything close to what Americans once considered “normal.”

    We have, you might recall, a “Kenyan socialist” as President. Calling a political opponent silly names is an old American habit, but apparently a quarter of our electorate actually believes that our current President was foreign born and thus never elected to office. That’s not normal, anywhere in the world.

    We’ve had eight years of Republicans deciding to vote as a bloc against any legislation proposed by the Obama administration. We have attempts to refuse to pay government bills, and a general unwillingness to vote on appropriations — this is on the part of a party that routinely screams for balancing the federal budget (and just as routinely passes tax cuts to make good and sure that the federal budget will not be balanced. This is, by and large, government by good upper class white Christian gentlemen who attended universities where they were exposed to the political thought of Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, John Locke, and of course the American Founding Fathers. You think their behavior — pretending Congress has been transformed into the British House of Commons, complete with votes of confidence — is normal?

    We just had an election in which the head of the FBI went out of his way to let voters know one of the Presidential candidates was under suspicion for law breaking — while bending over backwards to avoid mentioning that the other leading candidate was under suspicion for illegal contacts with a foreign government. Trust me, if your memory is so bad, this is NOT normal.

    Now, I don’t ask that you or anyone else become a Hillary Clinton partisan. I’ll ask you to imagine that you are a high school English teacher — would you smile at your students as they described unlikely events as “normal”? As a history teacher, would you assure your students that contemporary politics are no worse and no better than in any other time? As an American tourist in Europe or Japan, would you insist to your hosts when questioned that this past election was completely typical of our country and that they should be immensely cheered by the thought of our sensible election rituals becoming a commonplace in their own lands? You’d do all that, eh?

    It strikes me, just a teensy weensy bit, that Hillary Clinton’s supporters have some slight reason to feel that she was unfairly treated during her campaign, and some grounds for bitterness. It also strikes me that people who can’t see point are suffering from sort of illness of their own. A lack of empathy, to put it politely. A sort of moral autism. (I’m trying to be charitable here, or at least neutrally toned.)

    The issue of what actions Trump’s opponents should take, or whether they should oppose him politically or outside of politics, I won’t go into. Nor will I guess at how successful attempts to defeat him politically or to reduce his stature in the eyes of his supporters.

    I just want to make the argument that “Suck it up. Move on.” is not going to be a winning argument. Trump opponents will probably be looking for ways to damage him 4 or even 8 years from now. That’s the New Normality, and conservatives built it.

    • Kazzy says:

      “That’s the New Normality, and conservatives built it.”

      After the election, when Trump began attacking everyone who criticized him, I said, “You can’t advocate burning everything down to the ground and then complain about all the ash in the air.” That somehow becomes truer and truer every day.

    • My main goal in writing this is to suggest how people should be smarter about how they challenge what’s happening.

      That said, I do realize have a knee-jerk lack of empathy for Trump opponents. That’s probably not a good thing, for the reasons you listed as well as others I could cite. But it’s there. So you’re not wrong to say what you did. (While I know some Trump supporters, I haven’t spoken to most of them personally or online, so I don’t often hear the “suck it up” argument. If I did, my attitude might be a little different.)

  4. mike shupp says:

    I think it’s a little early for Trump opponents to “challenge what’s happening” or even to decide on strategies. Circumstances will determine much. Will the 52 Senate Republicans vote as a bloc to approve everything proposed by the White House, or will they often split? Will prominent tele-evangelists continue to back Trump? Will voters who switched to him at the last moment stay loyal or suffer buyer’s remorse? Will Trump fire Cabinet members at weekly intervals, or provoke China into firing on US ships, or conspicuously write off NATO allies? Will Trump’s slashing of regulations revitalize the economy or simply make billionaires richer? Will charismatic Democratic presidential contenders emerge? Etc.

    It’s easy to imagine scenarios in which Democrats become viewed as petty, carping obstructionists who accomplish little and deserve to be scorned by sensible voters. It’s not so easy but possible to imagine situations where Democrats gain respect as sensible and prudent opponents of Republican excess, supported by most thoughtful voters in thre 2018 and 2020 elections.

    We’ll have a better notion in a couple of months.

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