On November 8 a sub-majority of American voters elected as president a 70-year-old New Yorker who has never held public office or worked in government, never served in the armed forces, and never had a boss other than his father. (After his inauguration in January he will have 300 million bosses, as June Casagrande observed on Twitter.) During his campaign he insulted Mexico, China, Iran, a federal judge, many reporters and news organizations, and, of course, his opponents; mocked a reporter with a disability; promised to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, and require Muslim-Americans to register in a database; and lashed out at the parents of a Muslim-American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. He boasted publicly that he would “bomb the shit out of” ISIS, said “torture works,” and called a political rival a “pussy.” His supporters showed up at rallies sporting T-shirts referring to his general-election opponent as a “bitch”; one of his supporters, an elected official in Texas, referred to that opponent on Twitter as a “cunt.” Another supporter is a former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
On November 9, hey presto: The new president-elect told a cheering crowd it was time “to bind the wounds of division.” (The phrase echoed, but did not credit, Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address.) Many reporters scrambled to relay the news in neutral, if not optimistic, terms.
This is “normalization”: the process, wrote Hua Hsu in the New Yorker on November 13, “through which wisdom becomes conventional and utopian ideals slam against questions of feasibility.”
Normalization is neither a new word nor a new concept. (And normal is omnipresent in book, play, and movie titles, as I noted in a 2013 post.) The OED has a 1848 citation that speaks of medical normalization of abnormal functions; in psychology, the term has been used since the 1930s to mean “the subconscious process whereby the mental image of a shape, pattern, etc., is changed to resemble something more familiar.” The political usage of “normalization” also dates to the 1930s: it originally meant “the achieving of stable political relationships between two parties, esp. between a major power and a weaker or dependent country.” In late-apartheid South Africa, to normalize meant “to remove racial bias from” something, especially sports.
Versions of “normal” resonate in American political history as well. Contrary to popular belief, President Warren G. Harding didn’t invent normalcy in 1920 (“America's present need is not heroics but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution but restoration”), but he certainly normalized its usage, at least in the U.S. (Elsewhere, the preferred noun is normality.) This summer, the billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel said that “Trump’s America is about making America a normal country. A normal country doesn’t have a half-trillion-dollar deficit. A normal country doesn’t fight five simultaneous undeclared wars. In a normal country, the government actually does its job."
Not everyone has accepted post-election normalization. Harry Reid, the Senate’s Democratic leader, issued a blunt statement on Friday that in its first paragraph asserted that the election had “emboldened the forces of race and bigotry in America.” He went on to warn against normalization:
We as a nation must find a way to move forward without consigning those who Trump has threatened to the shadows. Their fear is entirely rational, because Donald Trump has talked openly about doing terrible things to them. Every news piece that breathlessly obsesses over inauguration preparations compounds their fear by normalizing a man who has threatened to tear families apart, who has bragged about sexually assaulting women and who has directed crowds of thousands to intimidate reporters and assault African Americans. Their fear is legitimate and we must refuse to let it fall through the cracks between the fluff pieces.
(Reid is retiring, so it could be argued he has little to lose. Or maybe not.)
In the New York Times Magazine, essayist and critic Teju Cole compared the current situation to the one in the Surrealist Ionesco play Rhinoceros, in which a sighting of a rhinoceros elicits first outrage and disbelief, then acceptance, and, eventually, an epidemic of “rhinoceritis”:
In the early hours of Nov. 9, 2016, the winner of the presidential election was declared. As the day unfolded, the extent to which a moral rhinoceritis had taken hold was apparent. People magazine had a giddy piece about the president-elect’s daughter and her family, a sequence of photos that they headlined “way too cute.” In The New York Times, one opinion piece suggested that the belligerent bigot’s supporters ought not be shamed. Another asked whether this president-elect could be a good president and found cause for optimism. Cable news anchors were able to express their surprise at the outcome of the election, but not in any way vocalize their fury. All around were the unmistakable signs of normalization in progress. So many were falling into line without being pushed. It was happening at tremendous speed, like a contagion. And it was catching even those whose plan was, like Dudard’s in “Rhinoceros,” to criticize “from the inside.”
It didn’t take long before #Normalization became a hashtag on Twitter.
Important as we fight the normalization of Trump:— Adam Khan (@Khanoisseur) November 14, 2016
We need to use more precise language, name things explicitly and not use euphemisms pic.twitter.com/UdauDIeSQl
Finally, a cautionary note from the New Yorker’s Hua Hsu:
Normalization isn’t just a matter of human-interest stories and a faith in checks and balances. What we think of as normal shapes our field of vision; it tells a story of the world and its possibilities. Racism, sexism, and the other hatreds and phobias lately on display didn’t become normalized this year. They’ve always been normal—for some of us. For those of us who long had to get used to these things, what is now being called normalization is merely a form of the resignation that attends life and its possibilities. How can it be otherwise? Some Americans are not born into the belief that the system is for them, and do not grow up with the promise that nothing is beyond reach, that anyone can become President. Why not reckon with this version of normal, too?
Hat tip to Ed Timberlake for suggesting this WotW.