Monday, November 14, 2016
#RIPUSA The Normalisation of Trumpism and with apologies to Donald Duck Donalduckism #AmericaHangsItsHeadInShame #ImpeachHimNow
What Normalization Means By Hua Hsu ( Republished with permission of the Author and the New Yorker in which the article first appeared)
Racism, sexism, and the other hatreds and phobias on display in Donald Trump’s movement didn’t become normalized this year. They’ve always been normal—for some of them.Let me change that to most of them instead.
In the early two-thousands, I was assigned to profile an up-and-coming Atlanta rapper named Killer Mike, for the magazine Vibe. It wasn’t my idea, but I needed the money and he was touring with OutKast, so I figured that at least I’d get to see them live. I met him backstage at the amphitheatre, hoping to get enough material as quickly as possible, and then return to the show. But our conversation went everywhere: inequality, Nietzsche, union labor, Atlanta, drug dealing, his favorite books. Mike was luminous, pulsing with insight. At one point, he became deeply reverential about the power of hip-hop. People of a certain age, he noted, had grown up fearing that hip-hop would eventually get extinguished by the powers that be. But here it still was, bringing together two twenty-somethings who had taken radically different paths to this moment, in this dressing room, sipping a couple of OutKast’s beers. Hip-hop is so big, he said, that we would someday have a President who grew up listening to it. We talked for so long that he nearly missed his cameo verse on “The Whole World.” (Somehow, this all ended with me onstage during “Bombs Over Baghdad,” but that’s a story for another day.)
In the summer of 2008, I reached out to Mike again, while I was working on a piece for The Atlantic about Barack Obama’s candidacy. I asked Mike if he remembered what he had said a few years earlier. He did. But the hypothetical President he had in mind, he said, was some “cool white boy.” We laughed: the very premise of a black President was, just a few years earlier, unfathomable. It was normal to presume that someone who looked like him would never ascend to that seat.
“Normal” means different things to different people. In the wake of this week’s election results, there has been a lot of talk about the ways in which dangerous things come to be viewed as just another part of everyday life. Often, this process happens in the places where you least expect political events to transpire. It’s on the late-night talk show, when the comedian giggles as he tousles Donald Trump’s hair, signalling that this madman can take a joke; it’s in the life-style magazine that works to humanize him and those around him, suggesting that people with furniture dipped in gold are just like us; it’s in the conversations where one person dampens another’s alarmism by wondering, Have you ever actually seen a Klansman?
There’s been a lot of soul-searching this week, particularly within the media, about how beholden we’ve all become to our preferred silos of self-identification. Implicit in this is a desire to understand and reckon with the overwhelmingly white voting base that delivered the Electoral College to Trump. Rather than disavowing those with whom we disagree, this line of reasoning goes, we must understand them, and see the humanity in their anxieties about the economy or immigration or Black Lives Matter or isis. But in the rush to be radically empathetic, and reckon with another’s disaffection, a different kind of normalization occurs: We validate an identity politics that is often rooted in denying other people’s right to the same.
Americanness is a sponge, not an ethnicity; normalization is a key part of how it works. It resides in the way that we speak, in the ideas that get refined and reworked and encoded in ordinary words until they seem harmless enough. It’s the ability to fit things into a narrative that flatters our ability to reason. Normalization is the process through which wisdom becomes conventional and utopian ideals slam against questions of feasibility. And so we should remain suspicious of efforts to welcome Trumpism into the fold of mainstream American ideas, particularly when normalizing him suggests the privilege to pick and choose, to infer the existence of another’s decency and humanity, to laugh, and to think that, at the end of the day, we all just want the same thing.
Naturally, a lot of the conversation concerning Trump’s rise has been about television. The stakes for this weekend’s “Saturday Night Live” seemed especially high, given not only the election but also the return of the occasionally incendiary comedian Dave Chappelle. And there were a few moments when the gravity of real life poked through the artifice: Kate McKinnon reprised Hillary Clinton, singing the late Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and doing it straight, not for laughs. Chappelle recalled, at the end of his monologue, the hope that he felt just days ago, as a black man welcomed to the White House. Chris Rock burst into a skit, as if to remind us that this was all fake. It felt good to laugh; it felt normal. And yet it was also hard to forget that Trump had appeared on this same show a year ago—that “Saturday Night Live” had traded on his clownishness for ratings, and made him seem acceptable. Increasingly, our everyday lives will require us to consider these questions of complicity, the broader consequences of what we choose to consume, read, or create.
What much of this debate obscures—and what Chappelle reminded us in one of the night’s best skits, about a group of friends watching the election returns—is who qualifies as “us.” Who, in newsrooms and on TV, decides what is normal? 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?
“HyperNormalisation,” the latest documentary by the British filmmaker Adam Curtis, takes on this question, painting a picture of a world increasingly dominated by the false reality put forth by corporations and politicians. Curtis invokes Alexei Yurchak, a theorist who lived under Soviet authoritarianism. Yurchak distilled the strange sensation of knowing that reality is being meted out to you according to someone else’s whims. “No one could imagine any alternative,” Curtis paraphrases. “You were so much a part of the system that it was impossible to see beyond it. The fakeness was hypernormal.”
After 9/11, I remember talking to friends about “the new normal,” the way that feelings of shock just got absorbed into the inconveniences of ordinary life. I never want to forget how this week has felt. Let it be a lingering amphetamine, an engine, a reason to believe that everything matters. Sooner rather than later, the drama that currently hangs over every second will melt into air, and some semblance of normal life will return. Most of us will move forward; some will feel left behind. Eventually, the passions of this week might seem overheated. Our laws can be unwritten and then rewritten. Politicians come and go. This week is now a part of our history, a paragraph or a few pages that someone in the future will read as a string of actions. But the legacy of this moment—how we will be judged—remains to be written.
What was normal for the past eight years was virtually unthinkable a decade ago. Eventually, Killer Mike became a voice for working people and one of Bernie Sanders’s biggest supporters. We rise to meet circumstances that we may never have foreseen. This is the only thing that steadies me. I keep reminding myself that the true magnitude of this moment will not be felt until people who today are too young to vote come of age—people who will enter into life with a different vision of what was possible than those who came before. The Obama years weren’t fantasy, nor were they a perfect reality. But they were normal.Hua Hsu is a contributing writer for newyorker.com and The New Yorker. He is the author of “A Floating Chinaman: Fantasy and Failure Across the Pacific.”