The real danger of normalization

I’ve got a new piece in Harper’s, taking stock of a very American pathology—amnesia—which I analyze with the help of Philip Roth, Barbara Fields, Louis Hartz, and Alchoholics Anonymous. The piece is behind a paywall, but here’s a taste:

Ever since the 2016 presidential election, we’ve been warned against normalizing Trump. That fear of normalization misstates the problem, though. It’s never the immediate present, no matter how bad, that gets normalized—it’s the not-so-distant past. Because judgments of the American experiment obey a strict economy, in which every critique demands an outlay of creed and every censure of the present is paid for with a rehabilitation of the past, any rejection of the now requires a normalization of the then.

We all have a golden age in our pockets, ready as a wallet. Some people invent the memory of more tenderhearted days to dramatize and criticize present evil. Others reinvent the past less purposefully….Whether strategic or sincere, revisionism encourages a refusal of the now.

Or so we believe.

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along—and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended. That may not be a problem for Roth, reader of Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again.” (Though even Beckett concluded with the injunction to “fail better.”) It is a problem for us, followers of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

In other news, I’ve got a busy schedule of talks coming up. I’ve posted the schedule before, but in case you missed it, here are the remaining events this coming spring:

Tuesday, April 3, noon: Yale Law School, room TBA.

Tuesday, April 10, 7 pm: Harvard Divinity School, Andover Chapel.

Wednesday, April 11, noon: Harvard Law School, Wasserstein Hall.

Wednesday, April 18, 4 pm: Grinnell College, room TBA.

Thursday, May 3, 6 pm: Labyrinth Books in Princeton.



  1. Chris Morlock March 21, 2018 at 10:13 pm | #

    It’s kind of like Chomsky says, the ever drifting to the right of American and world politics. We imagine a fierce debate, a fight that has spanned generations, and progress. Instead the narrative is pushed further and further away from economic justice.

    And no one cares until the market falls apart, then we have a chance to “progress” but we elect soothsayers who simply re brand the rhetoric to fit the general slide to the right.

    Then we read former New York Times editors wax philosophically about the good old days when we had a “progressive” president. Rinse and repeat to corporate oligarchy, until the next Ronald Reagan clone is ready to be called president.

  2. mark March 22, 2018 at 6:06 am | #

    I don’t think this piece is behind a paywall. I’ve just read it without being a subscriber.

  3. GRH March 22, 2018 at 8:52 am | #

    If you’ve haven’t already seen HyperNormalisation by Adam Curtis you should.

  4. Paisley Currah March 22, 2018 at 10:20 am | #

    The piece is sort of un-firewalled:

  5. Roquentin March 22, 2018 at 3:21 pm | #

    This piece is dead on. You’ll probably be pleased to know I read that Kitty Kelly biography of Reagan based on your recommendation. That book, more than any other, caused me to see Trump as the Reagan of 2016. People forget Reagan almost started a nuclear war with Russia over a stupid joke about launching missiles he made with the mic on. How is that any better than these stupid tweets? There are too many parallels to list….

    I’m starting to think if anyone’s changed since the Bush years, it’s the left. Back then, it was at least possible to still delude yourself (at least it was for me) that maybe the sort of centrist liberalism of the Clintons and eventually Obama could maybe put things right again. I no longer have such illusions. More and more, I just feel like we’re on our own. The system has gone off the rails and I don’t see it going back. I have trouble remembering liberals to be this terrible, to have such shitty centrist politics back in the early 00s. Maybe it was that way and I was just too young and poorly informed to get it. I don’t know anymore.

    • Jim March 25, 2018 at 10:13 am | #

      Ironically, it was probably the 1964 election that was the likely inflection point. Even though the Democrats won their biggest ever landslide victory in the general election that year, it a) laid the basis for the Goldwaterite, hard right conservative movement to gradually take over the business sensible, fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republican Party. And, on the other side, Johnson claimed a mandate for Civil Rights, Voting Rights, the War on Poverty, Medicare, Medicaid, reform of the immigration laws and the War in Vietnam, which brought about a sweeping change in the Democratic coalition, again, over time but also unleashed the fury of racists, resentful white working class people and, later, religious conservatives that has built a lasting coalition, a self-destructive one, actually, that has dragged the nation down socially and economically for generations. I like to hope that Trump will prove to be the nadir and that progressive/liberal policies will eventually triumph (but not with DLC style politicians like the Clintons). If not, the country is quite literally doomed.

      • Chris Morlock March 26, 2018 at 12:43 am | #

        I can respect that historical narrative but I disagree with it fundamentally. The chart is not birthed in 1964 and leads to reactionary politics that is dragging the nation down socially and economically. This is the narrative of the Baby Boomers and it’s starting to look more and more wrong.

        The real date is 1980, when Ronald Reagan homogenized politics by bridging the gap between conservatives and Republicans through economic deregulation. Goldwater might have been a proto-Reagan, but the date enshrined and certified is 1980 when those policies actually began implementation. Since then we are in Corey’s rabbit hole- the concept that the narrative is constantly normalized to accept the inevitability of a market driven oligarchy is obvious.

        I don’t know where Corey is on this narrative, but I fundamentally disagree that the “reactionary mind” is what has caused this precipitous fall to pure corporatism. To me it’s “Liberals” accepting that there is no economic justice outside of a market based solution, and that social justice is more important than economic justice or somehow takes precedence over it. Goldwater and Reagan knew how to leverage conservative social beliefs in the face of post-modernism, but that’s a side show and a political and philosophical faint.

      • David Green March 26, 2018 at 12:49 am | #

        Yes, but don’t forget that the movement in California following Reagan as governor was centered around property tax relief, Prop. 13, 1979, during Jerry Brown’s first reign. A signpost of neoliberalism, austerity, etc., including the New Right, but with more broad appeal, craftily engineered by Howard Jarvis; not based in racism per se.

    • Z March 26, 2018 at 9:53 am | #

      “I’m starting to think if anyone’s changed since the Bush years, it’s the left.”

      I think that’s precisely right.

    • Roquentin March 26, 2018 at 11:26 pm | #

      There’s plenty of blame to go around for the rise of the right in US politics. I generally buy the 1964, Goldwater argument which Rick Perlstein advances. To my reading it’s less about Goldwater’s politics being new than about this being the start of the decay and collapse of the New Deal coalition. I don’t think there is a US political leader I feel more ambivalent about than LBJ, who was about as terrible in terms of foreign policy as a he was good domestically. While the Great Society is still, to this very day, the last serious attempt in the US made at social democracy his administration bears the largest share of the blame for the Vietnam War. There’s really no way to make that forgivable.

      It’s worth wondering that if absent the Vietnam War, would the right ever come back in the US like it has? To even near this extent? Perhaps it would have regardless. Civil Rights legislation is still the moment when the South started voting for the GOP. I suppose it’s way too simple to try and say it was any one factor in particular. There were too many reactionary forces coming from too many different directions and the ship finally sank under their weight.

      I’m fond of saying that we still live in Nixon’s world. Give credit where it’s due. Tricky Dick was the politician shrewd enough to see that if he managed to peel off racist Southern whites who were sore about Civil Rights he could flip the South and build a coalition that would rule the US for decades. Nixon may have resigned in disgrace, but he was the one who laid the foundation.

      • Chris Morlock March 27, 2018 at 5:06 am | #

        Again I here that, but that’s largely the Boomer narrative. It’s also telling that the story begins in 1964, glossing over the entire Kennedy sacrosanct admin. He was as much of a war monger as LBJ or even Nixon, probably more so in his utter demonization of Communism. I liked his domestic policy and LBJ’s, but on an international scale he was a proto-Clintonista.

        I reboot the narrative to follow the ball- just like Chomsky advises. The ball is the New Deal. No one really touched it until Reagan, and those famous words that spelled the end of western civilization “Government is not the solution, government is the problem”. We essentially said to ourselves at that point that self governance and democracy was not the answer, and working class didn’t need to be advocated for or society didn’t need to be structured around it. Post modernist leftists and Neo-marxists continued to throw fuel on that fire, claiming the New Deal of the past was simply a “white man’s mirage” and was only successful because of racism. Enter the angry rebut to the Southern Strategy.

        I just see it differently, the New Deal was not successful primarily due to the “white working man” superiority complex. Sure it played a role, but we see the echoes of that rhetoric dividing people again today. Lead with universal economic justice and a restoration of the New Deal and all these side shows and their corresponding problems evaporate.

        I still can’t tell the difference between Neo Liberalism and Neo Conservatism.

        • Donald March 28, 2018 at 12:34 pm | #

          I think you guys are all making good points and there is no particular reason to pick Reagan over Goldwater or (nobody is doing this) Bush or Trump. It’s a continuum.

          I am old enough to remember politics from the mid 70’s on and during the late 70’s the stage was being set for Reagan. There was a Milton Friedman show “Free To Choose” which was aired on PBS around 1980 or so (I think a bit before Reagan’s election anyway) which was basically a hymn to the entire Reagan agenda. Others will know more than me, but quite a few people were working very hard to frame all economic arguments in rightwing terms.

          On foreign policy, America has always been an imperialist power. For the first hundred years or so our expansionist tendencies were mostly directed at the Native Americans (except for the war with Mexico).

    • Roquentin March 29, 2018 at 4:02 pm | #

      You know, Richard Rorty has caught a lot of shit in recent years, but there’s something to his argument in Achieving Our Country, that when the left effectively gave up on progress and quit positing a practical alternative to the system as it existed, that was the beginning of the end. Yes, there was always a degree of white supremacy inherent in the New Deal coalition, but rather than to fix this by universalizing its benefits and logic to encompass all citizens regardless of race, the solution from the right was to abolish it and the left deluded itself into thinking this didn’t matter.

      Rorty, whatever else you want to say about him, understood the US, and he saw this oncoming problem clearly. Maybe he conceded too much to nationalism, but at least he understood its appeal. Whatever the left has been doing for the past few decades sure as hell hasn’t been effective at stamping out nationalist sentiment.

      • Chris Morlock April 1, 2018 at 9:25 am | #

        Or an impulse towards some kind of palatable nationalism wasn’t the problem with society to begin with. As we run further and further afoul of the New Deal I feel like it’s important to retrace our steps, or rather missteps. One was an association with any feeling of any nationalism was some kind of step towards Nazism. It seemed to be all too easy for elements on the Left to convince Americans that they were evil white supremacists, and that erosion of identity ushered in the identity politics of the last 30-40 years. It’s another reading of the “southern strategy” to point out that it simply divided working people based on how white and male they were, and that made a lot of sense looking at poverty vs. the white working class in the 50’s and 60’s.

        But then the social net fell out, unions fell out, and the situation changed. White working people are now the pitiable ones, red states hopelessly lost in economic ruin and drug use. Not really sure how their “white privilege” still exists to be honest. Yet we hear this narrative in the mainstream media now, something that has changed over the last decade or so for sure.

        FDR himself could have been labeled (and is labeled today) as a white supremacist nationalist war-monger. I’m not sure how we progress from a point where mainstream culture actually believes that, yet nothing- not even lip service, is paid to anything about economic justice. It’s as if the powers that be finally figured out a way to bottle up all revolutionary concepts and manufacture a type of “new” consent that has totally erased working class politics from world consciousness. It all sounds revolutionary, but it fails to address even the most basic economic truths.

  6. Glenn March 23, 2018 at 10:41 am | #

    First denormalize George Washington and recognize his commonalities with Trump.

    Too many to list (and to defend one by one from the numerous defenses of Washington) but see the books of William Hogeland (who does not make these comparisons explicitly) in his “Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West”

    See Hogeland’s Uses and Abuses of History in the Trump Crisis …

  7. Glenn March 23, 2018 at 11:18 am | #

    Storms past are less feared than storms forecast.

    The past is certain even if unknown; the future is unknown and will always be uncertain until it is past.

    No one fears the personal death that lies eternally in the time before one’s birth; it is the death that lies in an uncertain future that is feared and commands attention.

  8. Howard B March 23, 2018 at 12:20 pm | #

    Do the conservatives aghast at this malignant thing Trump simply lack the courage of their convictions? Did they not notice the venom in their diatribes because these things got uttered in polite company and no one really believed the Republicans really bought their own rhetoric?

  9. Dean March 23, 2018 at 11:05 pm | #

    My lingering fear-masking-as-insight is that we long ago normalized–assuming I understand what that term means–not the individual who occupies the office, but the office itself, the sense that there ought to be such an office, that somebody needs to “lead.” This seems to me a notion clearly fraught with neurosis and self-interest. We have normalized hierarchy. But that’s silly, because hierarchy has likely never been outside the norm, hence normalization–assuming I understand what the term means–is moot.

    Put another way, not all of us have a golden age in our pockets.

    • Jim March 25, 2018 at 10:21 am | #

      Hierarchies, specifically social hierarchies are characteristic of all social creatures from ants, termites and bees to pack animals (wolves, dogs, lions, etc.) to all primates, of course. So, we’re not going to eliminate hierarchies; the issue is how the people below the top levels of the hierarchy control the top levels and make them accountable. Theoretically, that’s where democratic rule of law comes in.

  10. marc May 11, 2018 at 2:11 pm | #

    This is a fantastic piece of writing in every way — style and substance. Thanks for writing it.

    One thing I would say about Trump is that his opponents are driven nuts by his style, his manner of expressing himself, in a way that you may not fully credit here. In a sense how he expresses himself is just a distraction from all the substantive continuities you point to. But the notion that expression creates reality, and modifying how people are permitted to express themselves changes reality, is very deeply rooted these days.

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