“What is this ‘white trash’?” asked the model. “They’re people just like me,” said Trump, “…only they’re poor.” – Fire and Fury
The Gridiron Club Dinner was a ritual of confirmation. It didn’t make Trump acceptable. Normalization was a process that had been gradually unfolding for a year since the election – indeed, since the beginning of the primary season, or possibly for years. It publicly confirmed the end of the process, as the ceremony of awarding a doctoral degree confirms the acceptance of a dissertation that proves one’s expertize in an academic subject. It confirmed the dominance of norms over values.
Values are consensual social agreements about about right and wrong, just and fair, good and bad. Some values found universally across cultures are compassion, honesty, integrity, love, fair play, friendship, the rule of law, etc. Specifically American values include freedom, equality, opportunity, hard work and competition.
Norms are unwritten codes of conduct, authentic patterns of more-or-less acceptable behavior – how people, especially in groups, actually act. American norms include white supremacy, gun violence, celebrity worship, detachment from politics, black/white thinking, literalized religion, scapegoating of otherness, segregated housing and blaming the poor for their condition.
In moments of honesty, we may admit that most Americans do much of this, either directly or through passively tolerating such behavior and speech. Edward S. Herman writes:
…doing terrible things in an organized and systematic way rests on “normalization.” This is the process whereby ugly, degrading, murderous, and unspeakable acts become routine and are accepted as “the way things are done.”
This is the behavioral expression of the myth of innocence.
Of course you and I don’t act this way. We have values, and our behavior reflects them…And I have a bridge to sell you.
Gatekeepers are the individuals who are selected, or who self-select, to engage in the rituals that confirm and celebrate society’s values and norms. It seems to me that their function is archetypal; that is, such roles are so ancient that they represent a basic aspect of the psyche, both personal and universal.
For many thousands of years (and in some remaining indigenous cultures) this was one of the roles of the village elders, singers and poets. Then, for four thousand years in mass societies, priests and some kings held this role. But with the decline of religion and royal authority and the rise of science in the past 3-400 years, the media (and in the U.S., media-enabled religious figures) have taken on the role of gatekeepers.
On a different level, the United States has a very long history of working class whites who find work as gatekeepers in the streets. This is the genesis of “gun rights” as well as of the police. Others have volunteered for such work, from the Ku Klux Klan in the South and the vigilantes in the West to the Militia and Minutemen who patrol the Mexican border.
But our American media gatekeepers have a particularly important function: to shore up the gaps that regularly appear in the fabric of the myth of American Innocence and remind (or convince) us that we all share the same values and norms, that despite our differences, we all care about the general welfare, that we are all Americans.
They do this in two major ways:
1 – Marginalizing: defining what’s outside, unacceptable, dangerous – and potentially contagious. My book and most of my essays describe how and why Americans have repeated the stories of the fear of the Other for 400 years, so as to continually define themselves by what they are not. Our gatekeepers often present false equivalences between, for example, Obama “birthers” and scientists who question the official 9/11 or Kennedy assassination narratives. In between, we are told, lie the terms of acceptable debate. For more on these issues, look here, here and here.
2 – Normalizing: defining what’s inside, acceptable, non-controversial and safe. The rest of this essay will describe how the gatekeepers have (reluctantly at first) confirmed Trump’s status.
For gatekeepers of conscience, the imperative to normalize the abnormal creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Jay Rosen acknowledges that most journalists who cover Trump are perfectly aware of these factors:
He isn’t good at anything a president has to do.
He doesn’t know anything about the issues with which he must cope. Nor does this seem to bother him.
He doesn’t care to learn.
He has no views about public policy, just a few brute prejudices.
Nothing he says can be trusted.
His “model” of leadership is the humiliation of others.
I would add that, quite beyond Trump himself, they are also well aware of the sham debates, the softball questions, the unwillingness to follow bogus responses with factual information, the sound-bite time limits of discussion, the range of acceptable debate (from mainstream, loyal Democrats to far-right Republicans), the abject subservience to thugs masquerading as public servants and the patent insincerity, the parade of commentators (here are nineteen of them) who were wrong about Iraq and “weapons of mass destruction” yet who continue to pontificate on TV as experts on foreign policy.
Any child (before he or she is fully socialized) can see that neither the Emperor nor anyone around him has any clothes. But being told, repeatedly, that such people are worthy of our respect, that they are normal – despite what we see and hear – is one of the ways we become crazy.
In this mad time, even telling us that the Emperor is not worthy becomes a form of normalization, at least when “good taste” dictates the use of euphemisms. Journalist Kyle Pope laments:
We continue to spend our days, and our audience’s time, reacting to the president’s bumbling with a level of disbelief and outrage that has boiled over into a stinking froth…Often, the strategy seems to be to simply give Trump the forum in hopes, in hopes that he’ll pay us back by saying something outrageous enough to win us clicks or viewers. If the mission a year ago was to keep Trump from leading us around by the nose, I’m afraid we have failed…Narrative has become a maligned word of late, but we find ourselves today in a news environment where the narratives are established, and the days’ Trump coverage seems largely in service of reinforcing (for the left) or debunking (the right) that narrative. We say this, the president says that, we’re at an impasse.
He has a point. Here’s another one. Over on the left side of the dial, why do Amy Goodman and other Pacifica radio commentators regularly report that Trump or some other reactionary said something and then immediately assault us – repeatedly – with sound clips of him saying that exact same thing? Is this unintentional normalization? And what’s the alternative – not reporting the statement at all?
This isn’t rocket science. The alternative is to report – in the strongest language possible – that the SOB is lying again, period. Again, any child can see this – Trump is a pathological liar, and the media’s reluctance to report this simple truth is equally pathological. Consider the verbal gymnastics that reporters have gone in the past year to avoid using that simple word: “issued a series of escalating and contradictory false claims;” “falsely asserted;” “proved to be inaccurate;” “walks a rhetorical tightrope;” “unfounded statements;” “appeared to backpedal;” “misleading;” “This White House just keeps not telling the truth over and over and over again;” and (my favorite) “undermines veracity.” This phrasing, writes Reed Richardson,
…has become corporate media’s default alternative to directly accusing the powerful of lying. But the journalistic instinct to vary a story’s language also works in favor of the powerful, allowing euphemisms for official lies to multiply throughout coverage. And rarely do these replacements do anything but weaken the indictment against the liar.
On the marginalization side are those writers and activists outside that range who are never allowed to be heard because they are too persuassive. The best example, of course, is Noam Chomsky. In 1969 – yes, almost fifty years ago – William F. Buckley allowed Chomsky onto his TV show for a debate. The Jew Chomsky kicked the ass of the Yale man Buckley, who never allowed that to happen again. Nor did anyone else.
Chomsky went on to become one of the most cited scholars in history and was voted the world’s leading public intellectual in 2005. But that was not enough for mainstream TV. Other gatekeepers have complied: Wikipedia reports that “University departments devoted to history and political science rarely include Chomsky’s work on their syllabuses for undergraduate reading.”
By contrast, consider how Megyn Kelly (on NBC, not Fox) normalized Alex Jones. It should be more distressing to note that Jon Stewart regularly normalized Bill O’Reilly and other right-wingers simply by interviewing them, joking with them and tossing them the usual softball questions. O’Reilly often returned the favor, hosting Stewart for more jocularity. Was this the liberal press in action, showing (usually) men with reasonable differences in calm debate, or was it normalizing a racist warmonger and misogynist? Back to Jay Rosen:
It’s not like items 1-6 have been kept secret. Journalists tell us about them all the time. Their code requires that. Simultaneously, however, they are called by their code to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict…If nothing the president says can be trusted, reporting what the president says becomes absurd. You can still do it, but it’s hard to respect what you are doing. If the president doesn’t know anything, the solemnity of the presidency becomes a joke. That’s painful. If they can, people flee that kind of pain. In political journalism there is enough room for interpretive maneuver to do just that. This is “normalization.”
“Americanness is a sponge, not an ethnicity”, writes Hua Hsu:
…normalization is a key part of how it works. It resides in the way that we speak, in the ideas that get refined and reworked and encoded in ordinary words until they seem harmless enough. It’s the ability to fit things into a narrative that flatters our ability to reason.
Finally, for now, Pete Spiliakos writes:
…we normalized Trump long ago…It would be comforting to think that we had seen some collapse of moral standards and reasoned debate during the last few years. But Trump prospered because too many Americans learned long ago to accept dishonesty, demagogy, and even criminality in their leaders.
Read Part Three here.