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Who Normalized the Word, ‘Normalize?’

Time to ditch a concept that doesn't make sense.

Matt Yglesias has a smart piece up at Vox about how the opposition to Trump should stop focusing on his “violation of norms” and focus on the issues:

Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues.

But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, what his opponents need to do is practice ordinary humdrum politics. Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people’s work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.

Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners. His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump’s choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.

Even serious allegations of corruption will not have the effect that opponents hope:

Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton political scientist who recently published an excellent little book about authoritarian populist movements, finds that Trump supporters’ indifference to Trump’s corrupt leanings is actually rather typical. Even when clear evidence of corruption emerges once an authoritarian populist regime is in place, the regime’s key supporters are generally unimpressed.

“The perception among supporters of populists is that corruption and cronyism are not genuine problems as long as they look like measures pursued for the sake of a moral, hardworking ‘us’ and not for the immoral or even foreign ‘them,’” he writes, “hence it is a pious hope for liberals to think that all they have to do is expose corruption to discredit populists.”

I’ll be writing more about why charges of corruption, or fears thereof — which are most assuredly legitimate — are not getting much political traction. For now, though, the important thing for the opposition party to internalize is that they have to defeat Trump on the merits, on some combination of “he not doing what he promised,” and “he’s doing what he promised and it’s having a disastrous impact on people.”

But I want to make another point. What is this word “normalization” and when did we start using it? And can we please stop?

A norm is a generally-understood requirement of proper behavior. It’s a social concept. Norms emerge organically from patterns of behavior that get entrenched. It was a “norm” that American presidents didn’t serve more than two terms — Washington declined to run for a third term, and that precedent was understood as one to be respected. FDR broke that norm — and afterwards, Americans decided that the norm was important enough to restore that they turned it into a law, by amending the Constitution.

“Normalize” is, historically, a word from international relations. When we normalized relations with Cuba, that means we returned to “normal” relations with the island, the kinds of relations that, by default, we have with most states. But how does that concept apply to a Trump presidency? If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.

I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work. Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.

And haven’t we learned already the dire consequences of substituting virtue signaling for politics?



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