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The case for normalizing Trump

Foreign populists have been beaten by talking issues, not personality.

Donald Trump Holds Meeting At The New York Times
Just another Republicans
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Donald Trump alleged the existence of massive voter fraud in an election he indisputably won. Tuesday morning, seemingly inspired by a Fox News segment, he tweeted that flag burning should be not only illegal (a popular stance widely if sporadically held by Republican politicians) but punishable via loss of citizenship. The previous night, he retweeted a teen Trump fan’s attacks on CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny. That was just a warmup for his own bizarre slam on CNN, a cable network that sidelined its regular stable of conservative pundits during the 2016 campaign in favor of a new crop of Trump-boosting specialists that including a former Trump campaign manager who was literally still cashing Trump’s checks during most of his tenure as a political commentator.

These antics intersect with two ongoing debates about Trump in politics and media.

One is to what extent we should regard Trump as deliberately using social media controversies to distract attention from other issues. The other is to what extent political actors should be pressured to not “normalize” Trump — remaining focused on what is outlandish, offensive, and bizarre about him rather than doing boring things like writing about his humdrum pick for transportation secretary.

Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues.

But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, what his opponents need to do is practice ordinary humdrum politics. Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people’s work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.

Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners. His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.

Corruption alone won’t win the argument

Donald Trump paid out millions of dollars to former students he allegedly defrauded at a fake university. He never apologized for having said that the judge in the case couldn’t preside over it objectively because his parents emigrated from Mexico. Trump then went on to explain that there’s no need to worry about his massive financial conflicts of interest because they’re not technically illegal as a matter of existing law.

To critics, this kind of corrupt behavior seems to self-evidently invalidate Trump’s promises to drain the swamp in Washington and serve as the people’s champion. But Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton political scientist who recently published an excellent little book about authoritarian populist movements, finds that Trump supporters’ indifference to Trump’s corrupt leanings is actually rather typical. Even when clear evidence of corruption emerges once an authoritarian populist regime is in place, the regime’s key supporters are generally unimpressed.

“The perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them,’” he writes, “hence it is a pious hope for liberals to think that all they have to do is expose corruption to discredit populists.”

George Mason University’s Justin Gest is the author of a recent study of white working-class politics in the United States and United Kingdom, and one of his major themes is that there is a pervasive cynicism about politics and government among the people he interviews.

“Today’s working class, Rust Belt voters are disenchanted by what they perceive to be a political and economic culture of exploitative greed and gridlock,” he writes, “and are waiting for someone to adopt their cause.”

Per Müller, their enthusiasm for Trump doesn’t necessarily reflect a misperception that he is honest or that he will eschew greed and corruption. Rather, their view is that he is on their side and that the protestations of his opponents merely reflect the self-interested defensiveness of the establishment. Highlighting themes of racial and ethnic conflict as central to American politics further feeds this dynamic. Trump may be a sonofabitch, the thinking goes, but at least he’s our sonofabitch.

How Berlusconi was beaten

Luigi Zingales is an idiosyncratic economics professor at the University of Chicago who’s been deeply interested for years in issues related to how corruption and crony capitalism can undermine free markets. His interests in this field derive in part from his understanding of the course of events in his native Italy, where back in the early 1990s an uncouth businessman named Silvio Berlusconi managed to kick aside the leadership of the country’s traditional center right and then install himself as prime minister.

Back in 2011, Zingales presciently wrote that the country should be glad that Trump decided not to run for president because he had enormous potential as a Berlusconi-like figure who would mix business connections, media savvy, and discontent with existing political parties into a potent cocktail.

He explained that Berlusconi governed successfully as a “pro-business” figure who helped incumbent businesses entrench their positions, without pursuing reforms that would encourage competition and growth:

How, then, did Berlusconi get elected and reelected? He created an unlikely coalition between the business elite, which supports him for fear of the alternative, and the poor, who identify with him because he appeals to their aspirations. In a country where corruption and lack of meritocracy has all but killed the hope of intra-generational mobility, citizens chose to escape from reality and find consolation in dreams. Berlusconi adeptly fosters the illusion that he can turn everyone else into billionaires. His political career is something like Trump’s Apprentice program, only on a national scale.

In a post-election op-ed, Zingales revisited these themes and observed that the two politicians who beat Berlusconi in elections — former Prime Minister Romano Prodi and current Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — had two important things in common: “Both of them treated Mr. Berlusconi as an ordinary opponent. They focused on the issues, not on his character. In different ways, both of them are seen as outsiders, not as members of what in Italy is defined as the political caste.”

The character campaign almost worked — but it’s too late

The strategy Zingales recommends is, of course, roughly the opposite of what Democrats wound up doing in 2016. They nominated one of the most experienced major party nominees of all time, a consummate insider, and then she ran a campaign that was very heavily focused on the notion that Trump was simply unfit to serve as president.

This strategy has been the subject of a million pixels’ worth of recriminations, but as Tara Golshan has written, it’s no mystery why Clinton stuck with it: Her data was telling her it was working.

And, indeed, both exit polls and post-election polls confirm that in one sense it really did work — Trump is the least popular president-elect on record, with underwater favorable ratings and about 2 million fewer votes than his main opponent.

But he has, in fact, won the election and has already embarked on beginning the business of governing the nation. To the extent that he actually goes out and does something shocking and terrible, he should, of course, be criticized. But the tendency of his critics — and much of the mainstream press — to go into hyperventilating mode over things like his Twitter war with the cast of Hamilton or the New York Times can be counterproductive.

As Zingales writes, opposition that’s grounded in Trump’s norm-violating personal behavior risks “crown[ing] Mr. Trump as the people’s leader of the fight against the Washington caste.”

Remember why Republicans support Trump

The Trump era has featured frequent plaintive cries from liberals who just can’t understand how honorable, decent Republicans could support a man who openly courts Vladimir Putin, tweets attacks on individual journalists, poses with taco bowls as Hispanic outreach, and engages in massive financial conflicts of interest.

But Republican Party elected officials, whether you agree or disagree with them, have some pretty clear reasoning. They were obviously uncomfortable with making Trump their party’s standard-bearer, but having won both the nomination and the general election, he is now pursuing a very recognizable version of the GOP’s partisan agenda. Trump has indicated his desire to implement:

These are all big things that are politically difficult to accomplish. But the results of the 2016 election give the Republican Party a chance to implement most of them. That’s a rare and valuable political opportunity that the GOP’s elected officials have decided they would like to seize, even if it means ignoring or downplaying some of Trump’s other problems or eccentricities.

Of course, if Republicans decide they want to change course on this and start reeling Trump in, Democrats should happily join them and cooperate in a bipartisan drive against lawlessness, corruption, and subversion of American foreign policy by the government of Russia. But as long as Republicans are backing Trump, ignoring his partisan agenda in order to avoid normalizing Trump is an enormous danger because it ignores the main reason Trump is able to get away with abnormal behavior.

A November 22 Quinnipiac poll revealed both the risks and the opportunities currently facing Democrats. It showed that attacks on Trump’s character have set in, and most people agree that Trump is not honest and not levelheaded. But it also showed that a majority believe he will create jobs, that he cares about average Americans, and that he will bring change in the right direction. Yet at the same time, Quinnipiac also finds that most voters favor legal abortion, oppose tax cuts for the wealthy, oppose deregulation of business, and oppose weakening gun control regulation.

Which is to say that the most normal, blandly partisan parts of Trump’s agenda are also among the least popular. And yet Trump’s support for them is what immunizes him from Republican criticism and oversight over the abnormal stuff. Defending the basic norms of American constitutional government is important, but doing it as a partisan agenda won’t work — it turns off Trump’s core supporters and signals to wavering ones that his opponents are focused on abstractions rather than daily life. As long as Trump is enjoying the lockstep support of congressional Republicans, his opponents need to find ways to turn attention away from the Trump Show and focus it on his basic policy agenda and the ways in which it touches millions of people.

Watch: It’s now on America’s institutions to check Trump