A Partial Timeline of Normalization
I really did have the feeling that the sense of gravity, and how big the problems are — it was sinking in, washing over him…I think he wanted the public to know that he understood that he had to shift gears and pay attention to the responsibilities now. – Leslie Stahl, 11/13/16
– 9/23/15: Trump appeared on Stephen Colbert’s very first CBS show. Colbert had cruelly satirized Trump long before the interview and has made a living doing so five nights a week ever since. In taking a time out to engage in friendly banter with him, he was showing us that Trump was not so scary after all. In behaving well, Trump reinforced the new message.
– 11/07/2015: One year before the election, Trump (not for the first time) hosted Saturday Night Live. The opening monologue featured him making fun of his own clownish persona as he stood between two Trump impersonators. The implication was that “it’s all in good fun.” More importantly, it reminded everyone that in this new world politics is actually indistinguishable from entertainment.
– 2/29/16: Cui Bono? Follow the money. Well into the primary season, CBS President Les Moonves predicted that Trump would be receiving literally billions in free publicity and acknowledged a grosser form of normalization:
Moonves called the campaign for president a “circus” full of “bomb throwing,” and he hopes it continues…”Most of the ads are not about issues. They’re sort of like the debates…Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?…The money’s rolling in and this is fun…I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
We can read his statement as an opening into mystery. I use this word deliberately because Moonves was acknowledging one half of something quite extraordinary. He was admitting – bragging, even – that the news media are first and foremost a business. And in selling its consumers – you and I – to its advertisers, it generates huge profits for its stockholders. This is the main reason why it exists.
His statement appeared at the beginning of the primary season, so we have no idea if he knew that Trump would win the nomination, let alone the general election. But from the perspective of this business function of media, and from his fiduciary duty to those stockholders, he certainly would have wanted Trump to win. Indeed, for over two years since his statement, CBS and all other major media (except for Fox of course) have feasted on the 24/7 tweet storms, insults, lies and staff scandals that define this president. It’s been a perfect revenue storm.
But “mystery” requires two sides that invite the possibility of a third. The second half of this mystery is the normalization process that had begun a year before his statement and has continued into the present. Even as the media have been nearly unanimous in demonizing Trump, especially with the unending Russiagate accusations (a new Cold War has also been great for ratings), it has gradually welcomed this nouveau riche poseur into the pale.
Around this time, Alec Baldwin began impersonating Trump on Saturday Night Live.
– 9/9/16: The second presidential debate. Republicans had begun to back away from Trump after news broke of the “Access Hollywood” tape. But Trump placed women in the audience who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual assault. Liberal critics pointed out that this was pure political theater, but many of them had ignored the accusations against Clinton back in the 1990s, and Trump’s people knew this. These complaints, writes Spiliakos, “were furious and self-righteous, but they were also a confession. Liberals didn’t say that Bill Clinton was innocent, whereas Trump was guilty.”
Later, Michael Wolff would write, “A close Trump friend who was also a good Bill Clinton friend found them eerily similar—except that Clinton had a respectable front and Trump did not.” Matthew Yglesias described this attitude:
We normalized Trump when we overlooked the accusations against Bill Clinton. We didn’t normalize lying when we elected a president who fibbed about whether his steak company was still in business. We normalized lying when we decided that perjury and obstruction of justice were not high crimes when committed by a popular president.
This writer was being too kind to journalists, who, decades before during the Watergate scandal, had said nothing when Richard Nixon denied being a “crook.”
– 9/15/16: NPR editorial director Michael Oreskes defended his news organization’s refusal to use the word “liar,” asserting that it constituted “an angry tone” of “editorializing” that “confirms opinions.”
– 11/08/16: Hillary Clinton’s concession speech could have been a warning about an ugly future and a call to immediate resistance, as such speeches often are in Latin America. Instead, she hoped that Trump would “be a successful president for all Americans” who would defend “the rule of law…We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.” To not complain about voter suppression, computer fraud or FBI meddling, to take the high road and be a good loser to one who’d promised to contest the results if he lost, who’d called her a liar, stalked her onstage and threatened to jail her was to normalize, to give the Establishment’s initial stamp of approval.
– 11/13/16: Five days later, Trump appeared for a TV interview on the venerable 60 Minutes show. Carlos Maza writes that this was
…a master class in normalizing a dangerous demagogue – inviting…Trump to reintroduce himself as a reasonable politician…asking softball questions, fixating on Trump’s personal feelings about becoming president, and repeatedly minimizing Trump’s most dangerous promises as mere campaign talk…at the expense of more serious questions about what he actually plans to do as president…They also came at the expense of questions about ongoing controversies, lawsuits, and conflicts of interest surrounding the president-elect…
– 3/1/17: Less than an hour after Trump addressed a joint session of Congress and honored the widow of a slain NAVY Seal, Van Jones claimed on CNN that “He became President of the United States in that moment, period.”
I once had great respect for Van Jones. He made his reputation as a social progressive. But he is now a member, even if the most liberal, of the punditry. And, let’s be clear about this, one of the duties of every pundit is to normalize Trump even as he appears to be criticizing him. Hundreds of thousands of innocent liberals watched their main man on TV (outside of Stephen Colbert), a black activist, describe a schmaltzy, nationalistic, made-for-TV ceremony as “one of the most extraordinary moments you have ever seen in American politics.”
– 4/6/17: Trump reassured the Deep State, and the media responded in kind. The Syrians had allegedly used chemical weapons on a rebel neighborhood. After viewing the photos of those “beautiful babies, ” Trump directed the military to obliterate an empty Syrian airstrip with some sixty cruise missiles (cost: $1.41 million apiece) and then drop a $300 million bomb on some caves in Afghanistan. Out of 47 major editorials, only one opposed this wasteful and pointless gesture.
I think Donald Trump became president of the United States last night…for the first time really as president, he talked about international norms, international rules, about America’s role in enforcing justice in the world.
We note that this endorsement of the new guy was strictly in terms of Trump’s willingness to (safely, from a long distance) project the phallic symbols of American machismo, to use force. The draft-dodger was now a real man. Cheap (if not inexpensive) as the act was, Zakaria’s statement was situated in an immensely old tradition of pseudo-initiations through violence.
Twenty-eight years before, the NYT had praised George H. W. Bush for attacking Panama (killing 5,000 people in the process). Bush had succeeded in a “Presidential Rite of Passage” by being willing to shed blood.
And it wasn’t just the US press and the corporate-owned US political establishment, writes C. J. Hopkins:
The rest of the global capitalist empire (Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the European Council, Spain, Italy, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, et al.) were quick to cheer Trump’s transformation into a grown-up, moderate, more or less rational, or at least obedient, globalist puppet.
Any lingering fantasies held by either the military-industrial complex or certain anti-war types that Trump might actually be a loose cannon (in the good way) and change any long-term American imperial patterns were put to rest. And it was great for ratings.
– 4/27/17: The Comedy Central network premiered The President Show, which featured Anthony Atamanuik as a bumbling, bragging, lying, insulting, sex-obsessed, incompetent, childlike – and ultimately adorable – Trump.
– 5/3/17: The NYT employed classic false equivalencies to downplay the public’s growing sense that this man is deranged at best and dangerous at worst. This typical puff piece never mentioned climate change, immigration, deportation, Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, racism, abortion, LGBTs, Yemen or the Mueller investigation and ended with the implication that Trump could still yet become a “near great president.”
– 2/11/18: The Showtime network debuted Our Cartoon President, which joined SNL and The President Show to make a troika of well-meaning satires which inevitably degenerated into situation comedies with Trump as an unlikable yet harmless protagonist.
All was in good fun, and the TV public, especially teenagers, received the unavoidable message, three times a week, that Trump was not particularly scary, Archie Bunker in a suit.
– 2/19/18: Two weeks before the ritual of the Gridiron Club dinner, the NYT informed the nation that the new tax overhaul
…now has more supporters than opponents…The growing public support for the law coincides with an eroding Democratic lead when voters are asked which party they would like to see control Congress. And it follows an aggressive effort by Republicans, backed by millions of dollars of advertising from conservative groups, to persuade voters of the law’s benefits…Lori Weigel, a partner with Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm (said) “That is certainly in part due to consistent communications about the tax plan and the news coverage of prominent companies investing in workers.”… Just under one in five respondents expect to see either a raise or a bonus thanks to the law’s business tax cuts. Early returns from public companies indicate that’s an overshot.
Note the euphemism: “that’s an overshot.” The Times, of course, had been the major source of that “news coverage.” And, characteristically, the article had little to say about how the new law would create truly massive shifts of wealth from the workers to the bosses.
By the way, I encourage you to subscribe to the email newsletter of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, publishers of Counterspin, an outstanding critic of the mainstream media that regularly decodes the normalization process in the NYT and the WaPo. As I write this, their lead article is: Why Are Progressives Cheering Cable News’ Parade of Hawks and Liars?
— 4/12/18: In a cruel and pathetic attempt to distract attention from the Mueller investigation, Trump bombed Syria again to punish it for alleged chemical attacks, as if such weapons were any more lethal or immoral than those that at least seven nations and many rebel groups had been using there for years. He ordered the attacks with the full support of the NYT, Wapo, etc, which had been egging him on all week, even as they continued accusing him of corruption and collusion. They were now situating themselves to his right on foreign policy. The new normal.
Read Part Four here.