Defining Normalcy Down
Plus: What will anti-anti-Trumpers do now?
Daniel Patrick Moynihan once described the phenomenon of “defining deviancy down” — lowering the bar of what is considered normal and acceptable behavior.
He had in mind the growing acceptance of unwed births, dumbed down educational expectations, and a growing tolerance for crime and other anti-social behavior.
"We are," Moynihan wrote in the mid-1960s, "getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us."
But you can’t redefine deviancy without also redefining the idea of normal, which brings us, sadly enough, to our current political moment.
As my colleague, Will Saletan, noted on our Monday podcast, we are now watching the process of defining normality down.
Consider this extraordinary artifact of early 21st Century political/cultural goalpost-moving from Senator Tim Scott on Sunday morning. Appearing on ABC’s This Week, Scott was pressed by host Martha Raddatz for a reaction to the $83.3 million defamation verdict against the man he so desperately wants to join on the presidential ticket. A jury had already found that Donald Trump sexually assaulted E. Jean Carroll, and then embarked on a tantrum of lies and libels against his victim. Perhaps Scott had some reaction?
MARTHA RADDATZ: Does that give you any pause in your support?
SCOTT: You know, myself and all the voters that support Donald Trump supports a return to normalcy, as it relates to what affects their kitchen table. The average person in our country, Martha, isn’t — they’re not talking about lawsuits. As a matter of fact, what I have seen, however, is that the perception that the legal system is being weaponized against Donald Trump is actually increasing his poll numbers.
To her credit, Raddatz kept pressing him, and there’s a lot more. But let’s pause here for a moment to ponder Scott’s answer.
Trump was impeached twice, incited an attack on the Capitol as part of his efforts to overturn the election, paid hush money to a porn star, stole and misused classified documents — including war plans — and faces charges for racketeering, fraud, and conspiracy. Now a federal court has found that he’s a lying rapist, and a jury has awarded his victim a massive verdict.
And yet to believe the Esteemed and Distinguished Senator from South Carolina, Trump should be returned to the White House because Americans crave a return to normalcy.1
I suspect that Dr. Moynihan would like a word.
Saletan also highlighted the moral vacuity of Scott’s definition of “normal.”
Despite posing as a Christian who stands for values, Saletan notes, “When [Scott] says ‘kitchen table’, what he means is no moral question matters. What matters is do they make the trains run on time?”
Where have we heard that before?
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Will Saletan: The New Nikki
On our Monday podcast, Will and I discussed Nikki Haley’s new, tougher tone, Tim Scott’s denialism, and the GOP cave-in to Trump on the border.
You can listen to the whole thing here. Or watch us on YouTube.
What now for the anti-anti-Trumpers? (Spoiler alert)
Even as Nikki makes her surprisingly robust last stand, the end is in sight. It’s still Trump’s party, and he is within weeks of wrapping up the GOP nomination. The usual suspects will fall into line, while the Never Trumpers will remind everyone that Never actually means Never.
But what of that doughty band of anti-anti-Trumpers, who have spent the last few years wandering in the wilderness of whataboutism? They had hoped that someone like Ron DeSantis might rescue them. Instead, we’re back to 2016, except that everything is so much worse.
So, what will they do now?
Check out this remarkable exchange between Mother Jones’s David Corn and National Review’s Rich Lowry on the “The Dilemma of the Anti-Trump Conservatives.” Corn is not talking about the Never Trumpers (ahem), but rather the conservatives who “see Trump as bad for the republic, but… cannot yield that age-old position (or reflex?) that the greatest threat to the nation is from the left.”
“This can tie an anti-Trump-but-more-anti-anti-Trumper into knots. As I witnessed just the other day.”
I was invited to appear on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the New Hampshire election results. The other guest was Rich Lowry, the editor-in-chief of the National Review, which was once the flagship publication of the conservative movement….
Prior to the 2020 election, NR could not bring itself to endorse Trump, noting he threatened “to drag conservatism down to a consequential and avoidable defeat.” But it also could not bring itself to state that right-leaning voters should reject this narcissistic, unprincipled autocrat-wannabe by voting for a Democrat. After Trump tried to subvert American democracy and incited the January 6 riot, the National Review held him culpable and concluded he had “disgraced the office of the presidency”—though it still managed to blame “past Democratic misconduct [that] helped to set the stage for the riot.” That was rich, but clearly a sop to its readers.
So now what do these anti-Trump-and-anti-libs conservatives have to say about Trump’s crusade to regain the White House?
I only wish the debate was longer, because it’s so revealing.
Corn: A few weeks ago, [your National Review] did an editorial basically saying vote for anyone but Trump in the Republican primary. And [it] said that Trump had committed “serious offenses against our constitutional order.” If it’s going to be Trump [as the GOP nominee], I’m wondering where constitutional conservatives like Rich are going to end up here. Will they advocate, in a race against Biden, [that] voters and American should put into office a man who, on their own terms, committed “serious offenses” against our constitutional order?
Lowry: Obviously, we wanted anyone else. [Trump’s] conduct after the 2020 election was disgraceful. It was literally infamous. I don’t think it was a crime, in the way [special counsel] Jack Smith is alleging in that January 6 case, which I think is a disgrace…But Joe Biden has legislated on his own in an unconstitutional manner with the [student] loan forgiveness program [and] engaged in serious dereliction of duty at the border. The black-and-white letter of the law says, you come into this country illegally, you should be detained until you’re removed or your case is settled. He’s just letting people in, and he’s doing it deliberately. This is a crisis he totally made out of whole cloth by just ripping up all the Trump policies that were working for no reason. And if he had the votes in the Senate, would he pack the Supreme Court? Of course, they would. These are people who believe the Constitution is an endlessly living document that can be totally ignored or reinterpreted to your own reference. So Joe Biden has committed and would commit, if he had the power, serious offenses against the constitutional order.
You see what Lowry is doing here, right? I did, and the exchange continued:
Corn: Are you comparing these things to inciting a riot? This is the biggest case of what-aboutism I’ve ever heard. One guy incited violence that you even note in [the NR editorial] put the vice president’s life at risk to try to pressure him to do something he should not have done. And [with Biden] you’re talking about policy disputes. There are constitutional disputes all the time. That’s why we have a Supreme Court.
Lowry: It’s the basic foundation of our system that Congress legislates. The president doesn’t legislate on his own. That’s the whole point of things. Joe Biden did it with the loan forgiveness program.
Corn: But is that the same thing as inciting a riot?
Lowry: No. They’re both bad. And [Trump] didn’t literally incite a riot. I don’t defend his behavior. But if you defend the Constitution, do you oppose what Joe Biden did on the loan forgiveness program? Or is it okay because he violated the constitutional crisis in the way you like?
Corn: With every president, basically on the War Powers Act and much else, you can find an argument they violate the Constitution. That’s why we have the Supreme Court, and things get resolved there. None of this rises to the level of doing nothing while your own people are attacking the US Capitol. Come on.
At this point, our always-diplomatic host John McArdle politely cut us off, noting, “This debate could go on for a while.” That was fine by me, for I figured this back-and-forth had fully revealed the weak gameplan of Lowry and his comrades.
1. MAGA Has TDS—Taylor Derangement Syndrome
SOMETHING ABOUT THE KANSAS CITY CHIEFS making it to the Super Bowl has destabilized MAGA. Or maybe it was Taylor Swift’s first appearance at a Chiefs game last fall. Or maybe it was her being named Time’s Person of the Year in December. Or all of it combined.
Addled Trumpers are sounding the alarm. They’re not just warning that Swift is out to brainwash America’s youth into liberalism or theorizing that she and Travis Kelce are in a fake relationship. Now they’re telling us that the Super Bowl is going to be fixed. Got that? Just as in Donald Trump’s Big Lie, evildoers are conspiring against Trump and his supporters—but this time they are going to steal a football game instead of a presidential election.
2. Trump’s $83.3 Million Temper Tantrum
Instead of Trump being able to turn the trial into a martyrdom opportunity, Carroll’s lawyers leaped on his behavior to strengthen their case against him. “You saw how he has behaved through this trial,” advised Shawn Crowley. “You heard him. You saw him stand up and walk out of this courtroom while Ms. Kaplan was speaking. Rules don’t apply to Donald Trump.” The jury, they argued, would have to return a verdict big enough to bite even a (putative) billionaire, and should send the only kind of message he would understand that he must stop his spiteful, malicious behavior.
Trump was almost certain to be assessed damages over and above the original $5 million judgment from last year, but this whopping punitive verdict was entirely self-inflicted. The very stable genius has blundered as thoroughly as he could in this case. If he keeps up this level of strategy, he’s going to have a very tough 2024.
3. The Deeper Reason for the U.S. Military’s Recruitment Woes
The list of reasons recruitment is so difficult at the moment could go on and on, but arguably the most fundamental problem involves veterans’ views of the military. Veterans are often the military’s most effective recruiters—especially of their family members. The American military is predominantly a family affair, with 80 percent of service members hailing from military families. Yet only 63 percent of veterans would recommend enlisting in the military, a 12-point drop from 2019. While the difficulties veterans encounter transitioning back into civilian life and the persistent problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs both contribute to veterans’ disenchantment with the military, America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan and the unsatisfying ending (if it can be called that) in Iraq are underappreciated issues. Senior military officials must start addressing the legacies of those wars or risk losing the respect and support of many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans for good.
The slogan “return to the normalcy,” was the slogan that famous mediocrity Warren Harding deployed in the 1920 presidential election. It didn’t work out well the first time. As the Smithsonian Magazine notes: “Warren Harding Tried to Return America to ‘Normalcy’ After WWI and the 1918 Pandemic. It Failed.”
In a lamentable moment in presidential rhetoric, Harding poured out a steady stream of buncombe:
“America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy.” It might have been simpler to end it there, but normalcy was just the first in a series of antonyms that Harding suggested, expressing his goals in the negative: “Not revolution but restoration; not agitation but adjustment; not surgery but serenity; not the dramatic but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality."
Whatever the hell any of that meant.