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What We Talk About When We Talk About ‘Normalizing’ Donald Trump

A political science professor weighs in.

By Jared Keller


(Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Ever since Donald Trump eked out a surprise upset on Election Day, there’s been quite a bit of talk in liberal and progressive circles about normalization.

Could the xenophobia, racism, and misogyny that marked Trump’s campaign become the norm? And if so, how can you prevent that from happening?

But what if these pundits’ set-up to the problem is all wrong? Alise Coen, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin and author of a 2014 paper on the normalization of anti-Muslim stereotypes, suggests the forces that enabled Trump’s mercurial ascension to the presidency were taking root in American society long before he announced his candidacy. In talking with Pacific Standard, she argues Trump’s election isn’t the catalyst for a spate of illiberal trends, but rather the inevitable product of those trends.

Normalization has a variety of meanings across different disciplines. Most people seem to invoke the sociological phenomenon by which ideas and actions previously seen as wrong or transgressive become natural or taken for granted as a fixture of daily life.

When people talk about the dangers of normalization, they’re talking about a few different things. On one hand, there’s the idea that the election of Trump is the normalization of the lack of political qualifications or military experience in holding an executive office in the United States government.

A more prominent concern, I think, is that Trump’s election represents a mainstreaming of the stereotyping and denigration of certain minority groups, from Muslims to Latinos to African Americans, in the course of political discourse. People are really worried about this based on his campaign rhetoric: Are these comments now acceptable currency in our political discourse?

This is related to another type of normalization regarding [Trump’s] distinct style. Is it now acceptable for someone to win the presidency with the mannerisms and a demeanor that by conventional norms might not be viewed as acceptable? People are attracted to that, the fact that he’s unpolished and not politically correct.

The list goes on. Is the election of Trump despite his behavior a reflection of the public acceptance of objectifying and denigrating women? Does his election make it publicly acceptable to engage in climate change denial?

In your 2014 paper, you zeroed in on the role of discourse, looking at “changes in patterns in congressional discourse on Islam before and after 9/11 and the effects of partisanship on normalized, securitized, positive, and negative representations of Islam.” Has Trump done this through his xenophobic rhetoric?

That research was really looking primarily at securitization, how Muslims were securitized by senators and congressional members of the government. What I found in my research is that, for Muslims in America (and Muslims in general, including those from a Middle Eastern origin), they’d been securitized in congressional discourse long before 9/11, since at least the late 1980s and early ’90s.

This sort of normalization is nothing new, but it helps explain how we arrived here, in 2016, where a segment of the electorate believes in banning refugees from Syria. We need to understand how long a group has been discussed as a security threat by elected officials to understand the long process of securitization and normalization.

For people like me who study American nativism, including the paranoia over foreign threats even if the targets are citizen, it’s really not that surprising that Trump’s rhetoric resonated with a lot of Americans who have an “us vs. them” sense of fear and concern. I certainly thought the election could go either way, even though the polls were pro-Hillary Clinton, but other people who study how prominent nativism is in American political history weren’t that shocked. It’s been a powerful political tool for decades, if not centuries.

There’s been a push in some circles to avoid from the term “alt-right” after a pro-Trump rally a few weeks ago yielded outright Nazi salutes. Was there a major rhetorical shift that took place in the 1990s?

There’s been a shift since the 1990s in the idea of a backlash against political correctness, which really began to show up in congressional discourse in 1991 or 1992, even though it’s not really the explicit political hallmark of conservatives and Republicans. But it’s that shift, a mainstay of the modern culture wars, that enables this mainstreaming of damaging rhetoric: Instead of saying “this is a stereotype” or “I’m using denigrated language,” we now defend our transgressions by saying “well, I’m just not being politically correct, but I’m telling the truth,” and “I’m telling it like it is, and we can’t fight threats to the country if we don’t tell it like it is.”

That’s really paved the way for the public acceptance of racism, sexism, or homophobia despite social progress in the last few decades. That’s an important piece for Trump’s victory. There’s already an entire segment of the electorate who wants someone to “tell it like it is” and avoid political correctness, even if it offends other groups.

To get a more accurate picture of how Trumpism became normal, you need to combine the backlash against political correctness with increasing skepticism of trusting the federal government, or the belief that the federal government isn’t working properly. But when you merge that with the steady drumbeat of the federal government overreaching, and emphasize corruption and ineffectiveness and how Congress is broken, that’s what enables someone who’s a total outsider to enter the realm of the possible. He’ll be offensive in the liberal view, sure, but he lacks the taint of a political or military association with a broken government.

In this sense, it seems that Trump’s election is the product of normalization rather than its root cause. Are the current conversations about normalization too little, too late?

Not necessarily. For the people raising those concerns broadly about political discourse, the worry is not just those holding public office but also how it translates to acts among the American public, like verbal harassment and hate crimes. Now, because there’s so much media and social media attention, we see that effect on the public.

Some segments of the population feel emboldened by Trump’s victory, so they’re using this as a moment to engage in transgressive acts that could be considered hate crimes. The question now is, if horrible ways of speaking to women and minorities are OK, does this undermine the progress that people thought was made over the last few decades?

You mentioned media and social media attention. What role has the changing media ecosystem played in the normalization process?

I’ve been following the alt-right thing, and I understand the concern with conflating the term “neo-Nazi” with “alt-right,” since not all members who identify as the latter would agree with the very specific ideology of neo-Nazi hate groups classified as such by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The alt-right is a much broader category — they wouldn’t all identify that way, even if they share some other common ideas, and that poses problems for news organizations.

I’ve also been following the debate about fake news, and the news that Google and Facebook are cracking down on fake news by banning faux-media outlets from their advertising networks. Obviously, this won’t prevent people from sharing stories. We’re living in a highly competitive media environment filled with outlets highly tailored to niche audiences, where people are more likely to tune in to something that supports their pre-existing views. On the one hand, media organizations are serving their consumers who want to see issues framed a certain way because they know it will boost their ratings or shares. They’re behaving like businesses and giving consumers what they want.

When you bring in the ethical obligation, this changes the narrative: We now expect media outlets to hold people accountable to accurate information and historical context.

How can the public fight back against the normalization of illiberal behaviors, from the persecution of Muslims to various forms of executive overreach?

If the media is just meeting our demands as consumers, we have to look back at ourselves and ask, why are we demanding this stuff? I know I sound like a dreamer, but if you could start encouraging people to hold even their own ideological worldviews accountable, to not engage in partial truths or slippery slopes, to create a public demand for a more civil discourse that’s more accurate so we don’t engage in this sort of generalizing and stereotyping, that might be a start.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.