Misreading the Politics of “Normalcy”

These are profoundly abnormal times.

Scenes from America, circa 2021.

In Kansas, anti-vax protesters are showing up to meetings wearing yellow stars, equating themselves with the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

In San Antonio, worshippers at a service at the Cornerstone Church chanted “Let’s Go Brandon,” — code for an obscenity directed at the president.

Meanwhile, retired general Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser to the president declared: “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”

He does not specify the religion, but Ohio GOP senate front-runner Josh Mandel is all-in.

Over the weekend, we also got news about the way the Trump White House interfered with the CDC’s COVID planning in the early crucial days of the deadly pandemic.

The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection.

We are also learning that there was yet another memo outlining a strategy for overturning the presidential election. The memo, by Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, was emailed by the former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows to Vice President Mike Pence’s top aide. It was, says one prominent journalist, a “blueprint,” for an “authoritarian coup” by the former president.

Polls suggest that as many as 21 million Americans think that the use of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.

On Sunday, Wyoming Senator John Barrasso refused four separate opportunities to distance himself from Trump’s defense of chants to “Hang Mike Pence.”

Stephanopoulos: So he says "hang Mike Pence" is common sense. Can your party tolerate a leader who defends murderous chants against his own vice president? 

Barrasso: Well, let me just say the Republican Party is incredibly united right now, and it's because of the policies of this administration, and I think the more that the Democrats and the press becomes obsessed with President Trump, I think the better it is for the Republican Party. 

Barrasso made it clear that the GOP is indelibly bonded to TFG. “President Trump brings lots of energy to the party,” Barrasso insisted. “He's an enduring force.”

His comments underlined (once again) the GOP’s increasing tolerance for both violence and the threat of violence. “In effect,” the NYT reported last week, “the Republican Party is mainstreaming menace as a political tool.”

[In] Congress, violent threats against lawmakers are on track to double this year. Republicans who break party ranks and defy former President Donald J. Trump have come to expect insults, invective and death threats — often stoked by their own colleagues and conservative activists, who have denounced them as traitors.

From his retreat in Mar-a-Lago, Trump is demanding retaliation against any Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, promising to back primary challenges even against some of his loyal supporters.

Across the country, Republican officials are rushing to ban books from schools, and despite the deaths of more than 762,000 Americans from COVID, are spending their time attacking Big Bird, and actively blocking basic pubic health measures.

The GOP is all-in on climate change denial.

As I wrote a few weeks ago: “The Republican Party — populated with cranks, crooks, clowns, bigots, and deranged conspiracy theorists — has spent five years alienating women, minorities, and young voters.”

The party — and its entire leadership from the grassroots to Congress — remains in thrall to a disgraced, defeated, one-term president, who is reduced to issuing increasingly crazed screeds from his exile in Mar-a-Lago. Every day we learn more about Republican complicity in the events of Jan. 6 and their attempts to whitewash an attempted coup.

The GOP is the party of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz and Louie Gohmert.

And yet….

The GOP has opened a massive lead in the polls —and appears poised to win landslide victories in the mid-terms next year.

This is the way it looks:


So this morning, Democrats need to ask themselves an urgent question: Why can’t we beat these f*%#ers?

There are obvious answers, including inflation, Afghanistan, supply chain problems, rising crime, problems at the border, the ongoing pandemic, wokeness, and a certain tone deafness towards the public’s concerns. All of them have contributed in a material way to Joe Biden’s fall from grace.

But the numbers also suggest a more fundamental flaw:

Biden was elected to restore a sense of “normalcy.”

But these are not normal times, and perhaps the reality is that a normal approach to politics in profoundly abnormal times is a formula for political disaster.

This is a year that began with an attempted coup, and yet Biden has sought to govern in a more or less conventional way; dusting off progressive policy proposals and maintaining a low-profile, non-intrusive style of governing. (As my colleagues Sarah Longwell and Ben Parker have noted, he has, so far, made little use of his bully pulpit.)

The result is a dramatic disconnect in our politics.

Consider today’s split screen: (1) President Biden will sign the $1 trillion infrastructure bill, hoping that the legislation will help jump-start his political recovery (2) Trump master-mind Steve Bannon will brazen out his perp walk.

The Democrats would like to imagine that the first scene will drive the political narrative. But Bannon knows the reality.

Bannon’s strategy is no mystery. "The Democrats don't matter,” he once explained. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit."

And, indeed, he has.

Vox’s Sean Illing calls this “manufactured nihilism,” and it has become the central political reality of our time.

The media cycle is easily commandeered by misinformation, innuendo, and outrageous content. These are problems because of the norms that govern journalism and because the political economy of media makes it very hard to ignore or dispel bullshit stories. This is at the root of our nihilism problem, and a solution is nowhere in sight.

This manufactured nihilism is also the central problem for the loose coalition of pro-democracy forces, who have imagined that the post-Trump era would involve a return to the normal rules of politics. The zone has been flooded with shit, and there is no easy way out.

And, frankly, right now, it is not clear that Joe Biden is the man for the moment. We all love Mister Rogers, but if your house were on fire, with molten magma seeping through the floor, Mister Rogers is not the first call you would make.


So what does this mean?

Biden and his allies need to disabuse themselves of the notion that we will see a return to “normalcy” anytime soon.

That means a re-calibration not only of his agenda, but his rhetoric, and the let’s-return-to-the-old-norms approach of his Justice Department. (Grand juries, anyone? Special Counsels?)

Perhaps Democrats could also take a break from their own internecine bloodletting long enough to make the case that the GOP has become an extremist, nihilistic, and reckless danger to the Republic.

If democracy really does face an existential crisis, perhaps the Administration and Congress should act like it.

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Some personal news.

Quick Hits

1. The Claremont Institute, Harry Jaffa, and the Temptation of Theory

Thomas W. Merrill writes in today’s Bulwark:

Although some writers have suggested that the Claremont school is a cause of, or bears some intellectual responsibility for, the current Trumpified conservative movement, I am inclined to think that the relationship is the other way around. The Claremont school is likely more a reflection of the mood of today’s conservatism than a cause of it—a lagging indicator rather than a leading one. . . .

The characteristic danger of the intellectual is not simply in having a theory of the world. The danger is that you might become so invested in your theory that you can’t see what’s in front of you clearly. Rather than being more reflective about practice, you become more doctrinaire, more likely to allow your partisan attachment to shape your sense of reality. Precisely if you think there is one correct theoretical answer, and if you are moved by the beauty and vulnerability of that answer (and why wouldn’t you be), you will have a strong tendency to place a great deal of weight on lower-level, tactical or factual disagreements. That weight will distort your judgment of those lower-level disagreements. You’ll be prepared to read everything in the world as if it were all part of the same basic story; because for you there’s basically only one story.

In that frame of mind, where others see an incompetent and incoherent establishment, you might see a unified and malevolent force.

In that frame of mind, you might persuade yourself that literally everything rides on a single election.

In that frame of mind, you might persuade yourself that the candidate on “your” side, no matter how unattractive in other respects, is the last hope for the principles for which you stand.

In that frame of mind, you might find it hard to believe that your candidate lost the election, because, if that were the case, it would mean that the “silent majority” is actually not on your side. That would mean that people that you think you are saving don’t want to be saved by you at all.

In that frame of mind, you would think that you were standing up for the true nonpartisan principles of the American regime while to everyone outside your circle, you would look like you were using those principles in the most partisan way possible. You would think that you were standing up for free and fair elections; to the rest of the world, you would look like the sorest of sore losers.

This is the corner into which the Claremont school has painted itself.

2. Exasperation and dysfunction: Inside Kamala Harris's frustrating start as vice president

Make sure you read this piece by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Jasmine Wright. Brutal.

Worn out by what they see as entrenched dysfunction and lack of focus, key West Wing aides have largely thrown up their hands at Vice President Kamala Harris and her staff -- deciding there simply isn't time to deal with them right now, especially at a moment when President Joe Biden faces quickly multiplying legislative and political concerns.

The exasperation runs both ways. Interviews with nearly three dozen former and current Harris aides, administration officials, Democratic operatives, donors and outside advisers -- who spoke extensively to CNN -- reveal a complex reality inside the White House. Many in the vice president's circle fume that she's not being adequately prepared or positioned, and instead is being sidelined. The vice president herself has told several confidants she feels constrained in what she's able to do politically. And those around her remain wary of even hinting at future political ambitions, with Biden's team highly attuned to signs of disloyalty, particularly from the vice president.

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