President-elect Donald Trump is being normalized before our eyes. On Monday, the electoral college cast its votes in the customary way; despite pleas and demonstrations, only two Republican electors rebelled. Soon, Trump will have an entire Cabinet list ready for nomination, just like an ordinary president. And on Jan. 20, less than a month from now, he’ll take the oath of office and give an inaugural address, with President and Mrs. Obama looking on in support (if not exactly approval).
Just like normal.
At every step, anguished opponents have appealed to the public, to the media and to Congress: Don’t normalize Trump.
In a narrow sense, they’re right: When Trump violates norms of public conduct – by lying about nonexistent voter fraud, refusing to accept evidence of Russian hacking or dismissing concern over conflicts of interest – nobody should pretend that’s normal.
But that kind of “normalization” isn’t happening. There’s been plenty of tough media coverage of all those issues, and even a few Republicans have been critical of their president-elect.
Often though, the demand for “no normalization” goes further, including:
If you’re a Democratic politician, don’t negotiate over Trump’s legislation. If you’re a high-tech executive, don’t meet with him. If you’re a reporter, don’t report his every utterance or chase his every tweet.
In short, don’t recognize Trump’s presidency as legitimate. “Not My President,” the signs and hashtags say.
Too late; the battle over legitimacy is over. However flawed the election, Trump is about to be your president, whether you like it or not.
He’ll propose legislation, and some of it will pass. His aides will write (or revoke) regulations, and some of their actions will stick. He’ll make decisions on war and peace, with life-or-death consequences.
That’s why we now need to return to the original, first meaning of “normalize,” which isn’t about describing something odd as if it were OK; it’s about actually changing something abnormal into a more normal state.
What the rest of us, including Republicans, need to do is turn the tables and demand that Trump normalize himself – because he’s the only one who can.
We should ask him to be normal.
We should demand that he do what he said he would do on election night: Try to unite the country. Speak out against racism and division (hypocritically, perhaps, because he used division to win the election, but better late than never).
We should hold him to his campaign promises: more jobs (including in the Rust Belt), a better (and cheaper) healthcare system, a better life for African Americans.
That’s how a normal president gets judged.
It’s probably too much to ask that Trump embrace his critics and listen in case they have something useful to say; few presidents reach that level of virtue. But we should expect him to at least listen to the pleas of his advisors that he stop tweeting every time he’s angry about a parody on “Saturday Night Live”; a normal president wouldn’t do that.
We should ignore the abnormal advice of his aide Anthony Scaramucci, who said this week: “Don’t take him literally, take him symbolically.” No dice. We should hold him to the standards a normal president has to meet, including truthfulness – literally.
For the media, treating Trump as a normal president means we should cover Trump and his administration as aggressively as we can. The media accord most presidents a presumption of honesty when they come into office; Trump forfeited that during the campaign. Newspapers and broadcasters should continue to use words like “false,” “bogus” and even “lie” in reporting his tall tales.
What’s more, this is an opportunity for a renaissance of investigative reporting. An administration staffed partly with rookies and hotheads is going to have plenty of problems. A first family with global business holdings will run into conflicts of interest, even if they try to avoid them (which this one isn’t, so far).
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That doesn’t mean no off-the-record sessions at Mar-a-Lago. The media know when a politician is trying to co-opt them. Trump isn’t the first president-elect to offer a reporter a drink. He knows he’ll need goodwill from the people he described as dishonest scum.
We should give Trump a chance – a chance to normalize himself, in the sense of complying with the norms every president should observe. Giving him a chance doesn’t mean giving him a break; quite the contrary. It means subjecting him to tough scrutiny, holding him to high standards and judging him against his own promises. In short, treating him like a normal president – whether he likes it or not.