In 1993, the late New York Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan published his famous paper, titled “Defining Deviancy Down.” Lamenting the rising rates of crime, homelessness, and family breakdown among other American pathologies, the social scientist and member of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations warned, “We have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the 'normal' level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.” Whether due to the best of intentions, sheer opportunism or a gradual process of normalization, Americans and their institutions had come to “mainstream” behaviors once viewed as far beyond the pale of the acceptable.
More than two decades later, it appears the United States is far along in the process of defining down the deviancy of Donald Trump. Now, a man whose naked racism, cynical xenophobia, rapid-fire dissembling, shady business practices, staggering public policy ignorance, and dangerously nonsensical proposals would have once disqualified him from serious consideration as a major party nominee has a very real chance to become the 45th president of the United States.
Recent headlines tell the tale. During the past week alone, CNN reporter Dana Bash declared that the “onus” is on Hillary Clinton in the upcoming presidential debates as “the expectations are higher for her because she’s a seasoned politician.” Echoing Meet the Press host Chuck Todd’s abdication of his journalistic duties during the passage of Obamacare, Fox News host and upcoming debate moderator Chris Wallace announced that fact-checking the candidates is “not my job.” (In Wednesday’s “Commander-in-Chief” Forum, NBC’s Matt Lauer proved his point.) While former CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien fretted that the Donald’s campaign had “normalized” white supremacy on air and in the national discourse, his campaign manager Kellyanne Conway claimed that “Mr. Trump deserves credit” for his ersatz outreach to those he calls “the blacks.” To paraphrase George W. Bush, Trump is benefitting from the low expectations of soft bigotry.
But that’s not all. As Paul Krugman, Daniel Drezner, Brian Beutler and Paul Waldman among others protested, “Trump’s history of corruption is mind-boggling. So why is Clinton supposedly the corrupt one?” After all, a cascade of stories from the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the AP, and ABC News raising doubts about the Clinton Foundation, Hillary’s emails and her ethics at the State Department produced, as Drezner summed it up, “nothingburgers.” While the asymmetric coverage of Clinton is now in its third decade, Waldman pointed out, “Trump is still being let off the hook.”
It’s not that there isn’t plenty of negative coverage of Trump, because of course there is, but it’s focused mostly on the crazy things he says on any given day…
That’s important, because we may have reached a point where the frames around the candidates are locked in: Trump is supposedly the crazy/bigoted one, and Clinton is supposedly the corrupt one. Once we decide that those are the appropriate lenses through which the two candidates are to be viewed, it shapes the decisions the media make every day about which stories are important to pursue.
Now, for the American media as well as his most fervent supporters, Trump being the “crazy/bigoted one”—which is to say, Trump being Trump—is a feature, not a bug.
It’s no great mystery how we got here. Thanks to the Balkanization of the media, what now passes for journalism has replaced the search for objective truth with unearthing the new holy grail of “balance.” Information consumers “self-select” their own versions of reality from an oversupply of social media and news sources. The GOP’s five-decade strategy of playing up white racial resentment while playing a game of “post-truth politics” was the necessary condition for the degenerate candidacy of Donald Trump. The sufficient condition was the simultaneous descent of the press. With the transformation of politics into just another form of entertainment, the result is that Donald J. Trump may become deviant-in-chief.
To be clear, I’m not using the term “deviant” in a clinical sense. (Trump’s mental health is not a question for armchair psychologists, but for his own therapist and the DSM 5.) No, the deviancy in question here is political. That is, does some disturbing combination of a candidate’s temperament, intellect, personal ethics, grasp of basic facts, understanding of issues, public utterances, and documented behaviors simply put him or her well outside the range most Americans can accept? Using that political bell curve, Donald Trump would have been several standard deviations outside the norm. Unless, that is, he was seeking the nomination of the Republican Party in 2016.
To start off this catalog of deviancy, Donald Trump is a vulgarian. Those Republicans who supposedly revered the “dignity of the office” now want to fill it with a man who boasted about the size of his phallus during a GOP presidential debate. He has bragged to audiences that he will “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and kill family members of terrorists. His opening gambit in trade talks with China? “Listen, you mother**kers, we’re gonna tax you 25 percent!” (Most would call such rhetoric “inappropriate;” some would even say “disqualifying.” Time called it “smart.”) In 1972, Edmund Muskie dropped out of the race after supposedly crying about an insult to his wife. In 1987, Gary Hart was undone by some Monkey Business. Donald Trump is a serial adulterer who married three times. (Imagine, for the moment, the reaction if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama introduced five children from three different spouses during the Democratic National Convention.)
As Drezner, Beutler, and Waldman documented, Trump is corrupt to his core. His four bankruptcies, his 3,500 lawsuits, his Trump University scam, and his repeated refusals to pay vendors either on time or the amounts owed show a complete disdain for the “forgotten” working Americans he pretends to represent. As one rival put it:
"He has spent a career in business, 50 years, sticking it to the little guy. Sticking it to the little guy. When his companies went bankrupt, the first people that didn't get paid were the subcontractors, the plumbers and the pipefitters, the people that laid bricks and all those people who worked for a living, they didn't get paid. He got his money. They didn't get theirs. He's going around telling people, 'I'm fighting to keep other countries from taking our jobs.'"
That wasn’t Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Joe Biden or Barack Obama talking, but current supporter Marco Rubio.
Only now, almost three years after local papers first reported it, is Donald Trump under fire for the apparent bribery of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Even as he points fingers at the Clinton Foundation for supposed “pay to play” schemes that have never materialized, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump gave Bondi a just-in-time $25,000 check, followed by hosting a lavish fundraiser, in exchange for halting a state probe into Trump University.
(A business acquaintance of mine recently brushed off Trump’s ethical failings by declaring, “I know a thousand guys just like him.” I told him that makes 1,001 guys who shouldn’t be President of the United States.)
Trump’s secrecy is simply unparalleled in modern presidential politics. Hillary Clinton has released 38 years of tax returns, while the Trump campaign has published zero. (Facing an IRS audit, even Richard Nixon made his returns public precisely because, he said, “people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook.”) Unlike Hillary Clinton, we have no idea how much money Donald Trump makes each year or how. We don’t know what, if anything, he gives to charity. (The Donald hasn’t given any money to his own Trump Foundation since 2008.) Americans don’t what tax rate Trump pays, or if he even pays Uncle Sam taxes at all. He’s probably worth much less than the $10 billion he claims. Regardless, as I’ve documented elsewhere, his tax proposals would doubtless save him millions of dollars annually, and his heirs billions after he goes to the great reality show in the hereafter.
It’s now been 1,704 days since Donald Trump counseled Mitt Romney on his tax returns, advising the GOP’s 2012 nominee to “release them now.” But even without Trump’s tax returns, we know two things for certain. He was lying when he announced last September that his tax plan would “cost me a fortune—which is actually true.” And we know the current IRS audit is no barrier to Trump making his returns public. On Tuesday, he admitted to Bill O’Reilly he could do so at any time:
“When the audit is complete I will release my returns…
In the meantime, she has 33,000 emails that she deleted. When is she going to release her emails? She probably knows how to find it. Let her release her emails and I will release my tax returns immediately.”
As it turns out, when Donald Trump isn’t keeping secrets he’s telling lies. His disgusting, racist, and demonstrably false claim that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States may have been disowned by his running mate Mike Pence, but Trump will neither defend nor apologize for his Birther campaign. During Wednesday’s “Commander-in-Chief Forum,” Trump once again lied about his past support for the Iraq war and the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya. He has supported and opposed the Obamacare mandate in the same breath, and backed and backed off privatization of the VA in the same paragraph. He’s lied about speaking to Pam Bondi, and claimed he met and never met Russian President Vladimir Putin and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson. Despite the perception of Clinton’s supposed dishonesty, Trump’s lying is in a class by itself. As of September 7, 2016, Politifact rated 72 percent of The Donald’s statements as Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire. (For Clinton, the figure is 27 percent.) As Robert Mann recently showed in the chart below, Donald Trump is far and away the biggest liar since Politifact started keeping records:
Nevertheless, on August 18, The Donald delivered a speech crafted by his new campaign manager which some on the right heralded as unveiling “a new Trump.” In it, he said—and the press reported without hysterical laughter:
“One thing I can promise you is this: I will always tell you the truth.”
Always, up to 30 percent of the time.
In addition to his other sins, would-be President Trump is shockingly ignorant. The nuclear triad, one of the basic concepts of American nuclear deterrence, was a mystery to Trump. The significance of the mix of strategic bombers, land-based ICBMs, and nuclear missile-carrying submarines was lost on him. Lost, too, was the fact that Russia had already occupied the Ukrainian territory of the Crimea. Essentially declaring America a mercenary state who would only come to the aid of those countries who paid up, Trump was blissfully unaware of the mutual defense guarantees at the heart of the NATO alliance. Vladimir Putin himself couldn’t have made those points better. (Putin did the next best thing, paying former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to do it for him.) Not content to weaken the United States militarily, the would-be CEO turned president would destroy it economically as well by defaulting on America’s national debt. As the New York Times (among other stunned outlets) reported:
Such remarks by a major presidential candidate have no modern precedent. The United States government is able to borrow money at very low interest rates because Treasury securities are regarded as a safe investment, and any cracks in investor confidence have a long history of costing American taxpayers a lot of money.
Experts also described Mr. Trump's proposal as fanciful, saying there was no reason to think America's creditors would accept anything less than 100 cents on the dollar, regardless of Mr. Trump's deal-making prowess.
"No one on the other side would pick up the phone if the secretary of the U.S. Treasury tried to make that call," said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP. "Why should they? They have a contract" requiring payment in full.
It’s no wonder Donald Trump could simultaneously promise to increase spending, deliver a $12 trillion, 10-year tax cut, and eliminate the entire national debt “over a period of eight years.” It’s even less of a surprise that he lied to Fortune about having ever made that pledge. In the past, anyone proposing that kind of mathematical impossibility (and economic catastrophe) would have been called a fool, an idiot, a charlatan, or worse. Now, almost half of Americans are prepared to call him Mr. President.
When Donald Trump isn’t making George W. Bush seem like Stephen Hawking in comparison, he’s making Dubya seem like Karl Marx. Trump’s tax cut as a percentage of U.S. gross domestic product isn’t just far larger than Bush’s. It would deliver a whopping $1.3 million annual windfall to the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers. The numbers in his September 2015 proposal were so horrifying that supply-side snake oil salesmen Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore rewrote Trump’s plan this summer with somewhat higher tax rates to stop some of the hemorrhage of red ink. Still, Trump’s payday for plutocrats, massive new deficits it would necessarily produce, and the draconian spending cuts needed to offset them were too much for Republican moneyman and Romney bundler Paul Singer to stomach:
"I think if he [Trump] actually stuck to those policies and gets elected president, it's close to a guarantee of a global depression, widespread global depression."
President Trump’s worldwide economic cataclysm would be accompanied by civic darkness at home. Far from Making America Great Again, to borrow from President Lincoln’s description of his 1864 opponent George McClellan, “he will have secured his election on such grounds that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.” Donald Trump, after all, has called for a ban on Muslim immigrants to the United States and proposed trying American citizens in military courts. He didn’t slander Khizr Khan’s family and the 3 million Muslim-Americans we call our friends and neighbors. He called undocumented immigrants from Mexico “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and attacked the judge presiding over his federal Trump University case because of his Mexican heritage. And the man who was sued for discrimination against blacks in his housing developments has made it clear that the first African-American president has no place in the White House. Donald Trump has done everything short of calling Barack Obama the N-word. Who needs a dog whistle when you have a megaphone?
But the real question is this: How is it possible that in the United States in 2016 that one of our two major political parties made an ignorant, lying racist its nominee for president? To put it another way, Donald Trump is not a normal candidate by any previous definition, yet he has come to be treated as one by half the country and most of the media. Even with the relative weakening of the parties, the outsized role of money in politics, and the demise of the Big Three networks as a common news source, how did America define Trump’s deviancy down?
In “Three Lessons from the Rise of Donald Trump,” I tried to provide some answers. As I summed it up in the introduction:
For starters, Donald Trump isn't an aberration for the GOP, but the inevitable culmination of the Republican Party's decades-long descent into the political gutter. Second, the Republican embrace of "stupidity" as a virtue was a necessary--but not sufficient--condition for the rise of Trumpism. That required the 50-year choice to make white racial resentment the centerpiece of Republican electoral strategy. Last, it is simply inconceivable that today's Democratic Party would nominate a Trump-like candidate. To put it another way, Donald Trump is a living refutation of the tried and untrue sound bite that "both sides do it."
But “both sides do it” is the defining mantra of the modern American media. It is the lazy journalist’s substitute for the hard and costly work of investigating, documenting, and reporting reality. In fact, it’s not journalism at all. And in a presentation I delivered on Super Tuesday, 2008 titled “That's Entertainment: Politics as Theater in Campaign '08,” I suggested it was becoming something else altogether:
What could be the decisive day for both the Democratic and Republican 2008 White House hopefuls arrives even as the transformation of American politics into theater is almost complete.
Politics must now compete with an oversupply of entertainment and information sources, from television, radio, books, newspapers and magazines to web sites, blogs, online video, Podcasts and more. The result is a 21st century "infotainment complex" where politics, news, opinion and entertainment merge. Politics itself is now entertainment, part drama and part competition in a passion play where confrontation, conflict and good versus evil rule the day. The journalistic search for objective truth is replaced by the presentation of ideological clashes with two - and only two - sides.
In its broad outlines, the “entertainment theory of politics” has held up reasonably well in the ensuing eight years. When an informed citizenry becomes, as Al Gore warned, “a well-amused audience,” Donald Trump doesn’t merely become possible. Increasingly, he and his ilk will be accepted as normal. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned in 1993, “We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us.”
But societies under stress, much like individuals, will turn to pain killers of various kinds that end up concealing real damage. There is surely nothing desirable about this.
Nothing desirable, indeed. As an orange man who might become president likes to say: “Believe me.”