How President Trump became the GOP’s ‘new normal’

Why We Wrote This

That President Trump has changed political discourse and the presidency is beyond doubt. But that’s not to say his provocative style will be the way of the future.

Yuri Gripas/Reuters
President Donald Trump, shown at Camp David, Maryland, Jan. 6, 2018, tweeted that a group of congresswomen of color should “go back” to their countries of origin. All but one were born in the United States.

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In the past, mainstream Republicans have often taken a two-pronged approach toward President Donald Trump: applaud him on policy, but clap back on the ugly rhetoric. On Sunday morning, however, the president went on a Twitter tirade against a group of Democratic congresswomen of color – calling on them to “go back” to their countries of origin, though all but one are American-born. By Monday afternoon, only a handful of Republicans in Congress had contradicted him. 

The limited negative response from elected Republicans may be the biggest proof yet that, after 2 ½ years in office, Mr. Trump has thoroughly taken over the GOP and normalized rhetoric that would once have been unthinkable in modern political discourse. 

To the opposition, there’s nothing “normal” about a president who traffics in racist rhetoric, separates migrant children from their families, and calls the press “the enemy of the people.”

To Trump fans, the strong economy, crackdown on illegal immigration, and revamping of international trade are all happy outcomes of an outsider president willing to take on the forces of business as usual. 

“People just get used to Trump being Trump,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.

On Election Day 2016, Ari Fleischer was so unhappy with the choices for president he left his ballot blank. 

It pained him to do so. Mr. Fleischer is a staunch Republican; he had served as President George W. Bush’s press secretary. But, he says in an interview, GOP nominee Donald Trump had gone too far, starting with the so-called Muslim ban.

Now, Mr. Fleischer says, if the election were held today he’d vote for President Trump. His change of heart is “policy-driven,” he says, pointing to tax reform, deregulation, and even Mr. Trump’s use of tariffs as a tool to change China’s behavior, a profound shift in the Republican approach to trade. 

Not that Mr. Trump gets a blank check. “Everybody still needs to speak up when the president rhetorically goes too far,” Mr. Fleischer says. 

A test of this approach – applaud Mr. Trump on policy, clap back on ugly rhetoric – hit Republicans on Sunday morning. The president went on a Twitter tirade against a group of Democratic congresswomen of color – calling on them to “go back” to their countries of origin, though all but one are American-born. By Monday afternoon, only about a dozen Republicans in Congress had contradicted him. 

One of Mr. Trump’s closest allies on Capitol Hill, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, doubled down on the president’s point. 

“We all know that AOC and this crowd are a bunch of communists. ... They’re anti-Semitic. They’re anti-America,” Senator Graham said on Fox News, referring to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., who was born in New York.  

Mr. Trump then reinforced Mr. Graham’s commentary by tweeting it out. 

For his part, Mr. Fleischer tweeted Monday that Mr. Trump’s statement was “completely inappropriate.” But he says the incident doesn’t change his support for the president.

Andy Nelson/The Christian Science Monitor/File
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer answers a reporter's question during his final press briefing July 14, 2003, in Washington.

Indeed, Mr. Trump’s incendiary tweet and the limited negative response from elected Republicans may be the biggest proof yet that, after 2 ½ years in office, Mr. Trump has thoroughly taken over the Republican Party and normalized rhetoric that would once have been unthinkable in modern political discourse. 

Democrats, from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on down, have blasted Mr. Trump. The president’s plan has “always been about making America white again,” Speaker Pelosi tweeted. “THIS is what racism looks like,” tweeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who is African American and one of the members targeted by Mr. Trump. Speaker Pelosi announced Monday there will be a House resolution condemning the president’s tweets.

At a White House event Monday afternoon, Mr. Trump accused Ms. Pelosi of being racist when she tweeted that he wants to “make America white again.” He also said “it doesn’t concern me” that many people saw the tweets as racist “because many people agree with me.”

On Capitol Hill, negative Republican reactions began trickling in Monday afternoon. The two African American GOP members – Rep. Will Hurd of Texas and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina – registered their objections. Most of the other Republicans who pushed back on Mr. Trump have been known to criticize him before, including Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. She said she disagrees “strongly” with House progressives on policy but called Mr. Trump’s tweet “way over the line.”

GOP support for Trump’s tweets also kept coming in, including a tweet from Sen. Steve Daines, R-MT, who concluded, “I stand with @realDonaldTrump.” In a podcast on a Baltimore radio station, Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., defended Trump’s tweets as “clearly” not racist.

Even before the Sunday tweetstorm, Mr. Trump’s ownership of the GOP was clear. He faces no serious challenge for his party’s presidential nomination in 2020, and the ranks of Republican “never Trumpers” have thinned. Among rank-and-file voters overall, approval for Mr. Trump is near an all-time high, though still below 50%.

In the “new normal” of the Trump presidency, the unusual has become the usual. To Trump fans, the strong economy, crackdown on illegal immigration, and revamping of international trade are all happy outcomes of an outsider president willing to take on the forces of business as usual. 

“What he’s doing is amazing for our country, and that should be normal,” says Buckaroo Lennox, an author and musician in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, who supports the president. 

To the opposition, there’s nothing “normal” about a president who traffics in racist rhetoric, separates migrant children from their families, and calls the press “the enemy of the people.” 

Leah Greenberg, co-founder of the anti-Trump Indivisible movement, blames both major parties for the current state of affairs. 

“The political system is making choices every day about how much of this we accept,” Ms. Greenberg says. “It’s true of the Republicans who’ve lined up behind Trump – and it’s true of Democrats who have chosen not to move aggressively toward impeachment.” 

Defining “normal”

The word “normal” is deceptively simple. It can refer to a statistical norm in scientifically measurable phenomena, such as weather, and it can also be deployed in the highly subjective world of politics. The philosopher Ian Hacking once called the use of the word “one of the most powerful ideological tools of the 20th century.” 

During the 2016 campaign, critics warned against “normalizing” Mr. Trump. Late-night host Jimmy Fallon took grief for tousling the candidate’s hair during an appearance on his show, a moment that Mr. Trump seemed to enjoy

After the election, calls to resist normalizing the Trump presidency rang loudly. “Not my president,” protesters shouted, refusing on principle to utter the words “President” and “Trump” in succession. 

After all, the argument still goes, Mr. Trump didn’t win the popular vote. And it’s possible, some say, that Russian meddling swung the 2016 election his way. No less a figure than former President Jimmy Carter recently asserted that as fact, though without evidence. 

There’s nothing new in trying to delegitimize a sitting president. Look no further than the “birther” movement – fueled by Mr. Trump himself – that sought to cast doubt on President Barack Obama’s American citizenship. 

But Mr. Trump may well be the first president to inspire demands that the media not normalize his behavior and thus the very legitimacy of his presidency. 

Mr. Trump’s habit of making false statements – whether he is misspeaking, dissembling, exaggerating in a way typical for politicians and salesmen, or lying outright – has employed legions of fact-checkers, and challenged newsrooms to examine exactly how to describe utterances that aren’t true. 

But the press can’t win. 

“People complain that the media are normalizing Trump simply by virtue of covering him all the time,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information. “Everything he does becomes a story. People just get used to Trump being Trump, and there’s no way around it.” 

The daily barrage of news about the president and his administration may have led, in some ways, to a sense of “indignation fatigue” among critics that at times can appear to be capitulation. 

“Obviously there are still people fighting what they consider to be the good fight,” says Barbara Perry, a presidential historian at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But that level of white-heat intensity just can’t be sustained, day in and day out, minute after minute. Though that doesn’t mean it’s gone away in people’s minds or that it doesn’t flare up again.”  

Impact on the presidency

The 2020 presidential race is still taking shape. Democrats are in the early rounds of figuring out who their nominee will be. Once the nominee is clear, the battle will be joined and the energy that went into the 2018 midterms and into a variety of causes – from climate change and guns to abortion and women’s rights – will channel into a presidential cycle that could be the most explosive in generations. 

That Mr. Trump has changed politics and the presidency is beyond doubt. His use of Twitter to communicate directly to the public is an innovation from which there is no pulling back. But that’s not to say Mr. Trump’s provocative style will be the way of the future. 

“It is difficult to imagine a successor with either the will, stomach, flair, or necessity for doing what he does or how he does it,” writes presidential historian David Pietrusza in an email. “Presidential candidates may for the time being follow in his tweet-steps but I doubt if any subsequent White House occupant would.”

In the past, outsize presidential personalities have often been followed by more conventional figures: Martin Van Buren succeeded Andrew Jackson, the first populist president, whose portrait hangs in the Trump Oval Office. William Howard Taft followed Teddy Roosevelt. Warren Harding followed Woodrow Wilson.

“As low hemlines follow high hemlines,” Mr. Pietrusza writes, “it would not surprise me if his 2020 or 2024 successor might comport him or herself in vastly more subdued ways.”

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