IT LOOKS SO NORMAL, just another day in the life of a democracy. It looks, reads, feels and sounds normal, despite the size of the headline, the pundit’s desperation for finding one historical parallel, and the amount of revulsion dumped on op-ed pages. It’s as normal as Donald Trump, the former president of the United States whose place in the American imagination—or nightmare—is still a dispute: A five-year freakshow? The man who reaped the revolt of the underclass? The most powerful liar in the world who declared war on the system that made him possible? A billionaire vulgarian who turned politics into a personal philosophy of grievance, spelt out in the brutal brevity of social media? It is as if Trump is American politics’ bad habit that won’t go away. The everydayness of his transgressions—constitutional and ethical—has come to define the limits as well as the scope of democracy. He has been normalised by the power of persistence.
In Trump Normalised, it is incidental that the 45th president was indicted for criminal conspiracies, which include his attempt to reverse his 2020 defeat. A federal investigation found him doing his worst as president to subvert democracy. The first president to face criminal charges, Trump, for just being Trump despite the combined media and legal efforts to make him non-Trump, has become a one-man dissertation on politics as a personal rage against an establishment built on ideological and moral privileges. That, by being the frontrunner in the race for the Republican ticket, he wants to play 2020 all over again, strictly on his terms, and thereby preparing for his own moment of indicting the system that bruised him so badly in a show trial, is a story of American democracy—and the man who has used the highest office of the land to test its resilience.
Even as we are being told of how history is made, very Netflix in its dramatic tension, we—aren’t we all Americans when blockbusters like Trump and Oppenheimer happen?—see here little history and more the familiarity of the present. The normalisation of Trump—despite the remarkable attempts to historicise the Evil—is about the normalisation of the kind of politics of which he is the talisman. In this politics, the personal becomes a national testament. The making of Trump as an American anti-hero runs parallel to the unmaking of the traditional left and right. Trumpism, political pulp as rejoinder and redemption, draws its strength from the abandoned constituencies of the so-called legacy parties. The social coalition of the shirtless and the pinstriped that took him all the way from the gilded cage of an attention-seeking billionaire to the White House was formed by the refuseniks of both the Red and Blue Americas. The paradox was that it took someone as entitled as a showman businessman to begin a social movement.
The other ingredient in the normalisation of Trump is the appropriation of victimhood. Too much virtue-signalling in the grading of politics was bound to make morality a simulation. Trump has not always been honourable, or constitutionally appropriate, as president. It was as if, even after defeating a textbook establishment candidate like Hillary Clinton in 2016, he was condemned to defeat every remnant of the establishment for the next four years. In his storytelling, he was still under attack, so confrontation was the chosen form of his governance. His call to arms that contributed to the Capitol attack in 2021, and his consistent rejection of the popular verdict, is a victim’s desperation. No victory will make him a winner—and he knows it. The latest court indictment, he and his legion are convinced, is a validation of his victimhood. All the more because the incumbent president’s son, in their complaint, gets preferential treatment from the law, formalising the “Third-Worldisation” of America. Whataboutery adds to the victim’s electoral appeal.
The exorcism of Trump—perhaps American politics’ most elaborate moral cleansing—has ceased to surprise because nothing is abnormal in personalised politics. The popularity of the establishment-slayer may win him elections but not necessarily acceptance in the last bastions of righteousness. It is this sense of rejection that makes him a permanent subversive in politics, answerable only to those who share his victimhood. Today some of the most popular politicians are also called populists, and in controlled democracies, they build the Cult of the One, whether it is in Turkey or Russia or Hungary, by blending the national with the personal. The personal becomes an ism, and the person, invariably, is a permanent victim, simmering in grievance, turning ‘hurt’ and ‘humiliation’ into electoral capital. The more you punish them, the more their crime becomes a political ballast. One of them has already made the choice between jail and presidency a very normal dilemma in politics.