Saturday, March 11, 2017
Trumpisms Paperback – December 15, 2015 by Seth Millstein (Author), Bill Katovsky (Introduction)
THE WORDS WE USE ABOUT DONALD TRUMP
The Trump-normalizing going on now has long since passed the rationalizing that were happening mid-campaign.PHOTOGRAPH BY TY WRIGHT / GETTY
That’s crazy! That is the instant, intuitive, and, one might think, only possible response of a sane person to a week’s worth of tweets from President Donald Trump. Only crazy people make reckless charges, without any plausible foundation, and then simply shrug and sit on them. Take one recent example: “How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” This charge is mindboggling, not least for being self-exploding. For Obama to have wiretapped Trump (put aside that that’s not, technically speaking, what is done any longer; the President may have been moved by vague memories of how the feds brought down John Gotti), Obama would have needed his own private team of plumbers to break into, or hack the systems of, Trump Tower. And no one in his right mind suggests that Obama ever had such a team. The most obvious alternative would be that it was done by the F.B.I., in response to a court order spurred by genuine suspicion of grave wrongdoing. In that scenario, Trump would be asserting that someone in the Department of Justice had grounds for such suspicion, sufficient to convince a judge. But he couldn’t possibly have intended to say that. All this suggests that he may not be capable of the normal logic of normal people, of any kind of political bent. And that, folks, would be crazy.
Of course, we are quickly counselled never to say this, in part because calling Trump crazy would be, in plain English, an insult to crazy people. Diagnosis should be left to those with expertise in it; mental illness is not a category to be used casually to describe those whose behavior we find squalid or even abhorrent. And calling people crazy, to take it to the next dimension, is what totalitarian societies do when they want to lock dissidents away.
Understood. But it is still important, for the sake of sanity, to assert that there is a meaningful sense of the word “crazy” that doesn’t demand medical diagnosis. It arises, instead, from an intelligent description of the normal workings of human minds and human relationships. And it’s important to preserve that sense for common usage, because we often need to distinguish between normal people we disagree with or even think may be actively doing wrong—say, taking health insurance away from millions of people in blind pursuit of an ideological passion—and people who are dangerous because they have passed beyond the ability to actively reason with evidence about the world.
When Patsy Cline sings about being “crazy for loving you,” it doesn’t mean that she’s clinically diagnosable, and we would be as blind as, well, the guy in the song is to warn others from calling her so. It means that her love has robbed her (or him—Willie Nelson wrote the song) of all rationality. It’s crazy to be in love with the object of the song because he (or she) isn’t capable of reciprocating that love. It is less than a diagnosis, but is more than a metaphor. When it happens in real life, we sound more impatient, but we use the same language: You’re crazy to go on texting that guy/girl after everything he/she has put you through. (And then they always do. And then we sigh.)
Crazy lovers are pitiful, or pathetic, or, often enough, poignant figures. Crazy politicians are not. The Trump-normalizing going on now has long since passed the practice we might call rationalizing up to the closest reasonable position, which was happening mid-campaign. That was when his talk of a border wall paid for by Mexico was imagined as, really, a mere reinforced fence, while a Muslim ban became a more watchful eye on refugees, just as sexual predation became locker-room talk. The normalizing that goes on now is the normalizing that one sees in old tales of crazy monarchs making pronouncements that everyone, including those closest to the ruler, knows are pure fantasy, unhinged from reality—three million illegal voters and the evil conspiracy of Barack Obama—but are talked around or through or about or down or all around until the mad king is placated, for a moment.
One theory, of course, has it that this is a strategic form of crazy, a way of distracting the public from Trump’s circle’s Russian connections or the disastrous dismantling of Obamacare. But something similar happens with all the patent untruths Trump tells. Just as the media have a hard time calling crazy things crazy, we are also now reluctant to call lies, lies, even when it doesn’t seem that there’s anything else you can call them. Again, the rationale is not ridiculous: a lie is more grave than an untruth, which can be merely a mistaken conviction, and it implies conscious intention to deceive rather than inward-turning self-deception. But, really, the word “lie” isn’t an accusation when it comes to things like the Obama wiretapping; it’s a description. The alternative, of course, is to believe that extravagantly obvious untruths are sincerely held, in which case they could only be called … crazy.
The great enablers in this business are not so much members of the media, who struggle every day between familiar practices and wild times, but the Republican representatives and senators who, by shrugging off the loony on a daily basis, do more than anyone else to make it normal. And here, perhaps, lies a link too easily overlooked. It’s not just a tribal reflex on the part of the Republicans to defend a President of the same party; it’s a necessity of the numbers. (There were three million more votes for the Democratic candidate for President and approximately six million more votes for Democrats in Senate races—yes, it was designed to be unjust, but that does not make it less unjust—and this was, of course, the second time in five elections that the Presidential candidate who won the most votes was denied the office, a previously unprecedented thing.) As Timothy Snyder explains in his fine and frightening recent pamphlet “On Tyranny,” a minority party now has near-total power and is therefore understandably frightened of awakening the actual will of the people. Snyder writes, “The party that exercises such control proposes few policies that are popular and several that are genuinely unpopular—and thus must either fear democracy or weaken it.” This is a toxic combination: a screw-loose leader ready to say anything, an unpopular party that wants to keep him from being exposed for what he is—even as the door swings wildly on whatever’s left of its hinges—for fear of having its policies exposed for what they are. It’s, well, crazy. And where we are.