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How the fight against “normalizing” the Trump presidency could totally backfire

Donald Trump doesn’t have to govern as an autocrat to damage democratic norms.

Chicago College Students Hold Walk-Out And Rally To Protest Donald Trump Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

What if the push against “normalizing” the potential horrors of a Trump administration ends up making the actual administration seem better by comparison?

In the 10 days since Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, critics — liberal and conservative alike — of Donald Trump and his inner circle have warned that his presidency will violate, undermine, and permanently weaken democratic norms. Comparisons have been made to the rise of Putinist autocracy in Russia (here at Vox and elsewhere), to the slow descent of Turkey into authoritarianism under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to Nazi Germany.

People fret that the Trump administration will crack down on a free press; that it will only serve to enrich itself; that it will try to keep itself in power indefinitely. You’ve probably seen warnings that we shouldn’t even assume there will be another presidential election in 2020, because President Trump might have found a way to suspend or amend the Constitution by then.

Given everything that’s happened this year — including what the past two weeks have revealed about the Trump administration-in-waiting — it’s hard to say that planning for the worst-case scenario is irrational. The people most alarmist have, generally, been the most correct. (One notable exception: There was violence at neither the Republican National Convention nor on Election Day.)

But what if the reality of the Trump administration turns out to be not quite the worst-case scenario? What if it is simply very bad in less unprecedented ways? Won’t that seem, by comparison, normal?

This is the real danger of a fight against “normalization” that assumes that the country is being drawn inevitably down the road to authoritarianism: The Trump administration could take another path and go unnoticed.

Donald Trump probably won’t cancel elections, but he could — and is relatively likely to — oversee a sweeping rollback of voting rights. His administration may not throw journalists in jail, but it could easily step up surveillance of domestic protesters. His appointees may not entrench a permanent oligarchy, but it could still — for millions of people in America — reduce the willingness and ability to participate in public life to zero.

These wouldn’t flout the law; they’d be under color of it and even in concert with it. But they would, nonetheless, be a tragedy for democracy.

The first few days of Trump’s presidential transition have been so chaotic that even minimal competence would seem like an improvement

When Donald Trump picked Steve Bannon to serve as his chief strategist, outrage against “normalization” of a man who mainstreamed white nationalism drove thousands of activists to mob congressional phone lines and demand their members of Congress speak out against him. In the past week, many Democrats in both chambers have done just that — with progressive hero Sen. Bernie Sanders giving a big speech to call for Bannon’s firing.

Bannon is an easy case. Not only are his views (or at least the views that he spent years mainstreaming as publisher of Breitbart) deplorable — to use a word Clinton leveled against Trump’s supporters — but he has no experience whatsoever in government. He is not only objectionable but unqualified. His primary qualification is loyalty to President-elect Trump.

This is an emerging theme of the Trump administration. The Trump transition team has projected so little interest in the basic work of governing that, if they get to the point of minimal competence by inauguration day, it will seem like a major achievement.

We’ve seen this before; it’s how the Trump team operates. Plenty of Republicans blew off the Trump campaign as incompetent during the primaries, then forced themselves to reconsider its wisdom when Trump won the nomination. Plenty of Americans are currently cautioning that even though they voted against Trump for president, they’re giving him a chance to change their minds — exactly the mindset that the anti-“normalization” crew is pushing against by pointing out how unusual the transition has been so far.

Eventually, though, the transition will probably get its act together at least a little bit. It will start holding meetings with Obama administration counterparts at the Justice and State Departments. And some of the people it nominates to top positions will be less obviously unqualified to serve than Steve Bannon.

But that doesn’t mean they’ll be normal.

Trump’s most qualified advisers still aren’t normal at all

Just as Bannon isn’t a normal pick for a position that President-elect Trump says will be an “equal partner” with the chief of staff, President-elect Trump’s pick for attorney general, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), is not a normal pick for attorney general.

Jeff Sessions CQ Roll Call/Bill Clark

The Senate Judiciary Committee refused to recommend him for a federal judgeship in 1986, after confirmation testimony revealed that he’d called the Ku Klux Klan “okay until I found out they smoked pot” (he claims he was joking); responded to a story about a white judge calling a white lawyer a “race traitor” for representing a black client with, “well, maybe he is”; and called one black co-worker “boy” while telling another to “watch what you say around white folks.”

At the time, the Judiciary Committee had only rejected one other potential judge in nearly half a century. Sessions was the second. And the committee was run by Republicans at the time.

But Sessions is now a US senator, and is likely to be given the courtesy in his upcoming attorney general confirmation hearings that senators usually give each other. Republican Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), regarded as of the few Republicans in the Senate willing to stand up to Trump, has already promised to vote for Sessions.

Senate Democrats aren’t mobilizing against Sessions in the way they mobilized against Bannon. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the leading Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, allowed in a statement that she and Sessions “differ on a great many issues,” she emphasized that hearings would be a “thorough vetting” of Sessions’s views — hardly a promise to oppose his confirmation.

Similarly, Rudy Giuliani, who’s rumored to be the leading candidate for secretary of state, is not a normal pick for secretary of state. He has no diplomatic experience whatsoever. But because he has at least been in politics and public life for a long time, he’s viewed as a relatively serious pick.

It’s true as far as it goes: Giuliani is not merely a Trump toady who serves no purpose other than to help Trump grow his business empire. By the same token, Sessions has a record of interest in issues the Department of Justice covers; he isn’t just going to use prosecutions to reward Trump’s friends and punish his enemies.

That doesn’t make either of them normal — or responsible — picks. But when people are putting so much effort into staying alert to signs that Trump will lead America swiftly down the road to Putinism, everything short of that seems relatively reassuring.

The Trump administration can damage America and democracy — without doing the worst things it’s been accused of

On Wednesday night, Carl Higbie, who ran a pro-Trump Super PAC during the campaign, replied to rumors that Trump would start a “Muslim registry” by defending Japanese internment during World War II.

The incident was widely reported as a “Trump surrogate” defending Japanese internment — implying Higbie is involved with the administration-in-waiting. And many of the responses, to both the Higbie incident and the rumors of the Muslim registry itself, have gone much further in assuming Trump will label, track, and detain Muslim American citizens than the Trump transition itself has said.

The plan that the Trump transition is rumored to be considering is still very bad. But it’s not going to be as obvious in its implementation as a call for all American Muslims to turn themselves in to the authorities. It’s not going to be something that non-Muslim Americans can easily jam by registering en masse; it might not be something non-Muslim Americans know much about at all.

This protest happened in 2003.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Many people warning against the “normalization” of Donald Trump are assuming that the institutions he’ll unravel will be the ones they’re paying attention to: the free press, NATO, the norm against using presidential power for personal enrichment. They assume that everyone will be affected equally by Trump’s seizing of power.

But what if a Trump administration is basically okay — or at least not disastrous — for at least some people? For white people?

The real danger is we’ll only see the harm done to people who have the biggest platforms

One of the things we’ve seen this year is that the democratic norms that the political class and media are most sensitive to, and the bigotries they’re most likely to condemn, are the ones that affect them and people they know directly.

As the New Republic’s Brian Beutler has pointed out, the most eloquent defense of democratic norms by the press in the days after Trump’s election happened when Trump slipped out for a steak dinner unnoticed by his “protective” press pool. In other words, journalists defended the norm when the norm helped journalists.

Journalists have long been sensitive to the prevalence of misogyny on social media. In 2016, they’ve become alarmed by anti-Semitism on social media as well. Journalists know and work among women; they know and work among Jews.

Many of them don’t know and work among many people of color. The amount of attention paid to racism on social media (or in real life) among journalists is, accordingly, often disproportionately small — or delayed.

In 2016, with Trump running for president, this has reflected itself in who elicits sympathy when they’re trolled on the internet, or harassed in person. In 2017, it threatens to make journalists blind to genuine threats to democracy that take the form of unsewing certain marginalized groups from public life.

When the Justice Department refuses to take states to court for passing laws that restrict the ability of black or Latino citizens to vote, it makes it harder for citizens to participate in democracy. When someone on a student visa from a majority-Muslim country knows that he is under “special registration,” it’s liable to chill his speech. Both of these prevent democracy from being “of the people.”

When immigrants don’t report crimes to police because they worry the government will deport them — when immigrant parents are afraid to come to schools for parent-teacher conferences, or even to bring their children to school at all, because they see public schools as part of the government too — that too undermines democracy. It prevents democracy from being “for the people.”

The Trump administration could still be a government of the people. It could still resemble a democracy. But it could quietly push America in the direction of government by, and for, only certain groups of people.

This shouldn’t seem normal, either. Normalization doesn’t just happen actively; it happens when everyone’s attention is turned to the same, single worst-case thing.

Watch: It’s up to America’s institutions to check Trump