Ethics & Public Policy Center

We’ve Grown Accustomed to Trump

Published in The Wall Street Journal on October 18, 2018


It’s hard to prove intangibles, harder still when they are in motion, like October clouds, moving rapidly across millions of minds.

One obvious but neglected intangible is worth noticing in the weeks before the elections: The country—consciously or unconsciously—has gotten used to Donald Trump. Twenty-one months into his administration, Mr. Trump has been processed, or half-processed—even subtly domesticated—by the large, complicated American mind, which is improvisational and on the whole incoherent except in moments of national crisis.

Even progressives to whom he is a monster treat him now as, at least, a familiar monster, another of the many disruptive, destructive realities of the 21st century. Life is a matter of learning to live with monsters. Mr. Trump hasn’t destroyed the world yet, as his enemies predicted he would.

In fact, life goes on, much for the better in many neighborhoods. To progressives this is disconcerting—anticlimactic. The market is up. Unemployment is way down. North and South Korea are talking. The Mueller thing goes on and on, but who knows about that? It’s off the screen for the moment.

These days, you only rarely see those psychiatric manifestoes on Facebook and Twitter claiming that the man is psychotic or infantile. They were common in the first year of Mr. Trump’s presidency but the diagnosis loses its force when a voter reflects how psychotic and infantile the culture itself has become. Mr. Trump’s peculiarities don’t seem unusual when compared with the extreme bizarreness, not to say pathology, that is routine on the left.

People get used to the strangest things, once the novelty has passed. Same-sex marriage, a preposterous idea not long ago, is almost everywhere accepted. The world adjusts to new conditions and factors in the Kabuki of opposition and ridicule. A monster may become a cartoon—the Tasmanian Devil. Alec Baldwin’s (never quite accurate) impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” has become part of the Trump routine now. People laugh, or they don’t laugh, but either way, they get up Sunday morning and go about their lives.

Among progressives, contempt for Mr. Trump is an article of faith and hardly worth mentioning anymore at a dinner party. If you are dining with like-minded people, it’s boring to go on and on about the president; if those around the table disagree about him, it seems best to avoid politics altogether.

Americans have given up trying to persuade one another, I suspect. Either their adrenaline is spent, or else they know from experience how dangerous the Trump-stirred passions are—how deeply enraged friends may become at friends, what carnage the spasms of emotion may cause. One tires of politics as road rage. Plenty of people remain almost crazy with anger, and the country’s political and cultural forces overall remain centrifugal, driving people to extremes. Yet civilizing and mitigating countercurrents are at work beneath the surface.

The Kavanaugh confirmation fight clarified many Republican minds in advance of the midterm elections. It half-reconciled even many Never Trumpers to a president who has been so little to their moral or aesthetic taste. They have been driven toward Donald Trump by the Jacobin performance of the left, starting with the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and spilling into the streets among the Maxine Waters and George Soros Brigades.

Familiarity and the passage of time may breed a certain kind of acquiescence, even grudging acceptance. We see a touch of Stockholm syndrome—conservatives who feel held hostage by Mr. Trump but are edging toward him nonetheless, forgiving his excesses in view of results. A lot of Americans feel they are held hostage by Mr. Trump. Sometimes the Stockholm syndrome amounts to a merely craven or opportunistic strategy for survival. At other times it may reflect a genuine change of mind, and even a conversion experience.

My guess is that the variations on Stockholm syndrome will play a role in the minds of independent voters in the 2018 elections, producing a slightly friendlier inclination toward Mr. Trump, or anyway toward Republicans for whom they can vote without entirely approving of Mr. Trump. Such votes won’t necessarily express a conversion experience but rather a newly mobilized repugnance at political correctness, at (to a degree) a #MeToo movement that has run its course, or gone too far. Above all, such a vote will express a distaste for the Eric Holder “kick ’em” strategy and the screamers with enameled eyes.

Progressives will protest that Mr. Trump and his followers have been violent gougers, kickers and thugs all along, and there’s truth in that. But life isn’t fair, as John F. Kennedy said. Richard Nixon complained for years that the Kennedy people played dirty and got away with it—even won the 1960 election by voting the graveyards in Cook County, Ill. And that was true, too.

So Nixon—as if offering a model for the behavior of Mr. Holder and Ms. Waters years later—decided he would play rougher and dirtier than the Kennedys. It was thus that Nixon allowed his people to recruit “the plumbers,” who organized the dumb-and-dumber stunts that added up to Watergate, which cost Nixon his presidency.

Democrats have now allowed themselves to be drawn into a similar error. It may cost them their opportunity to win the House or Senate. If so, it will have cost them whatever chance they might have had of fulfilling their fondest dream—the one in which they impeach Donald Trump and drive him and his kind out of Washington.

Mr. Morrow, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a former essayist for Time.

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