Friday, March 18, 2016

The Normalization of Donald Trump

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; 
and what does the LORD require of you 
but to do justice, 
and to love kindness, 
and to walk humbly with your God?
Micah 6:8

Earlier this week on PBS News Hour, there was a story about three generations of a family in North Carolina, all working for Donald Trump.

The grandfather, Pete Tilly explained, “This is my first time I have ever worked on political campaign. My family members are joining me, my son, my daughter-in-law, and my grandchild. It’s been such an awesome experience.” 

His son, daughter in law, and eleven year old grandson echoed his enthusiasm. Farron Tilley introduced himself as a registered Democrat, who was supporting Trump because he believes that Trump is best positioned to improve the economy. And his wife, Grace, said that she had never even voted before this election. Their son is seen on the phone with a potential voter, telling the prospective voter that Trump is the one who will stand up for America.

Pete Tilley summed up his reasoning this way, “My biggest point is, if you want to be here, conform to the country. If you don’t want to be here, go home. I was born in Montreal, Canada. And when I started school, for us, we were told, look, you either speak English or you’re not going to pass your class.”

He went on to say that, “in today’s society, it’s like we cater to the people, whatever language they speak. I came in the States, I joined the military, and then I even went and got naturalized, and I’m very proud to say I’m an American citizen.”

The report showed Pete Tilley in his biker gear, standing with his head bowed, praying with two other men before going out to campaign. “And, father God,” he says solemnly, “We just thank you that you’re going to use Donald Trump for your glory in your kingdom, oh, father God.” And one of the other men say, “Amen.”

They were presented as that forgotten segment of our population, “the white working class,” ignored by Democrats and Republicans alike, whose frustration is fueling the rise of Donald Trump.

But sharp eyed viewers saw something more.

One viewer wrote: “Grace Tilly has obvious Aryan Nation/White Supremacist beliefs (the Iron Cross/White Power Bullseye tattoo on her right hand and the "88" Heil Hitler tattoo on her left hand), plain for all to see. Why was no mention made of this?”

And the writer concluded, “This story should've had the headline ‘Aryan Nation members Support Trump.’”

Of course, Mr. Trump is not responsible for every one of his supporters. It is not necessarily his fault that some of his volunteers are neo-Nazis. And some might argue that this is one more example of “Godwin’s Law,” that if an online discussion of anything goes on long enough, someone will make a comparison to Nazis or Hitler.

But this is not an ordinary internet discussion.

Earlier this winter, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote a story for Holocaust Remembrance Day. He spoke with Irene Weiss, who survived Auschwitz, and says that now, for the first time, she is worried about the political discourse in her adopted country.

“I am exceptionally concerned about demagogues,” she told Milbank at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “They touch me in a place that I remember. I know their influence and, unfortunately, I know how receptive audiences are to demagogues and what it leads to.”

When she hears about plans to register Muslims, and to ban them from entering the United States, “I’m worried about the tone of this country,” she told him. “It has echoes, and maybe more so to me than to native-born Americans,” she said. Lighting a candle in remembrance of those who died, she went on, “I’m scared. I don’t like the trend. I don’t like how many people are applauding when they hear these demagogues. It can turn.”

Johanna Gerechtner Neumann fled with her family to Albania after Kristallnacht. Milbank reported that the museum staff had arranged for her to talk about how Muslims had protected them from Hitler. Her father had been a veteran of the First World War, a patriotic German who did not believe that such things could happen in Germany. But, she said, “It did happen. Slowly, but it did happen.”

At one point Mr. Trump retweeted a message to his nearly 6 million followers that came from @WhiteGenocideTM based in “Jewmerica,” Of course, he later claimed that he didn’t really know anything about the message and that “retweeting” wasn’t the same as composing the message in the first place.

In this year of toxic politics, Donald Trump holds a special place.

I am troubled by his embrace of torture, his xenophobia, his racist remarks, his misogynistic slurs, and his crude language. But in many ways I am troubled even more by what the news media and the political commentators have done with this phenomenon. We might call it “the normalization of Donald Trump.” In that regard, the story on PBS News Hour is only the latest example.

Like many other people, I thought the Trump campaign would fall apart before it even began, when I watched his rambling and incoherent attack on Mexican immigrants, delivered as a central part of his rationale for seeking the presidency.

I thought he was done the first time he crudely insulted Megyn Kelly, and again when he insulted Carly Fiorina. When he said that John McCain, who was tortured for five years as a prisoner of war in North Viet Nam, was not really a war hero, I was sure that no candidate could survive such a serious gaffe.

He survived and thrived with insults to handicapped people and unbelievably crude remarks about Hillary Clinton. Later he bragged that he could kill someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue and still not lose any supporters.

But through it all, he was the major focus of every news report. Morning, noon and night. It is all Trump all the time. They show the video of his insults. They report on his lies, and they report on his endless denials. 

And then they talk about his appeal to voters who have felt disenfranchised by both parties and feel left out of America, as if that were the whole story. They treat it, like they treat all politics, as if it were a sporting event. They talk about poll numbers, what it might take to win, who has the momentum, and who is falling behind. 

It is bad enough in normal times. In these times it does not serve us well.


  1. We're called to reject this normal. We're called to be maladjusted to it.

    "...But I say to you, my friends, ... there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good‐will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination. I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry. I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self‐defeating effects of physical violence…" - Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Roger Wolsey, author, "Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don't like christianity"

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. And thank you for sharing the post. Hard to go wrong quoting MLK. In spite of his many accolades as a Civil Rights leader, I believe he is one of the most underrated thinkers of the 20th century.