[Editor’s note: This essay by contributing writer Rachel Scott Everett was originally published on her Medium site back on Election Day in November; it was written with no idea what was to come in the days that followed. However, in light of the earthshaking events we’ve seen since then, the points made within remain very important to remember and keep in mind as we move into Trump’s second impeachment trial and the impending inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden. Therefore, RVA Mag is pleased to republish Rachel’s essay today. Please read it if you haven’t already. And if you have… go ahead and read it again. It’s important.]
Four years ago, I watched in horror and through tears, as an inexperienced, misogynistic reality TV show host assumed the highest, most esteemed position in our country. Among so many thoughts racing through my mind, my greatest fear was that Trump would be normalized.
Since that fateful election night, that fear has come true to a frightening degree. The normalization has caused me to contemplate a number of things.
I wonder if what our nation stands for has ever been real. If decency, virtue, and ethics have a place in modern society. If principles are lofty goals that we preach, but not practice. If bullying is an indication of strength, and kindness a weakness. If truth is no longer based in fact, but in whatever we personally determine.
In short, the normalization of Trump has left me profoundly disillusioned. Not only with our country’s leadership, but who we are as Americans, and as human beings.
“Normal” is defined as what’s usual or typical. The phrase “social norms” refers to the unwritten rules about expected ways for people to behave. They represent an elemental knowledge of what’s acceptable — and appropriate — conduct. They are the basic tenets of humanity.
Normal is often boring, but necessary. It sets the foundation for a civilized, functional society. As such, it’s imperative that our leaders, who inherently act as role models, set an example that champions and adheres to standards of normalcy.
But since Trump began occupying the White House, our world has been anything but normal. Amy Siskind of The Weekly List has been chronicling the ways he and his administration have broken norms, and in turn, transformed the moral fabric of our nation like no other figure in U.S. history. There are more than 34,000 entries.
It’s not normal.
Enlightened discourse and decorum are paramount in the political world, but those norms ended the moment Trump begrudgingly took office. I say “begrudgingly” because like many, I believe Trump had no interest in actually winning the presidency. His candidacy has been likened to a publicity stunt gone awry — apparently even Trump was horrified when he won.
Months before the election, rumors swirled that he was planning to launch his own news channel after complaining he’d been treated unfairly by the media and that the election was “rigged” in favor of Democrat contender Hillary Clinton.
Poised and ready to begin his media empire, the results came in. While Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, our Electoral College, which some believe ultimately will destroy America, decided Trump’s fate — and ours. Instead of pursuing Trump TV, he got stuck being our president, and vice versa.
It’s not lost on me the sad irony that a man who can’t get through a passage in the U.S. Constitution is in the position of upholding it. He is the only U.S. president with no political or military experience and the only world leader to deny climate change. Someone who thinks nothing of the gravitas of the presidential title or the solemn duty of serving the American people.
If the handling of the coronavirus pandemic has determined anything, it’s that Trump cares only about himself.
Just 100 days into his term, the Center for American Progress outlined a list of case studies demonstrating Trump’s self-serving, special interest government. With a flagrant disregard to the political system and the U.S. intelligence community, contrary to his campaign policy, Trump has consistently put himself first and America last.
It’s not normal.
Our once-routine existence has been upended by headlines ranging from Trump paying hush money to porn stars to defending white supremacy to mounting financial crimes. We never did see his tax returns. Or get a clear answer on the solicitation of foreign election interference. And lest we forget, Trump was not exonerated by the Robert Mueller report regarding the high crime of obstruction of justice.
Trump dismisses any and all allegations against him as “fake news,” “a hoax,” and the continued “liberal witch hunt.”
He’s made proclamations that freedom of the press is “disgusting,” even though it’s among our First Amendment rights, and labeled U.S. soldiers killed in battle “losers” and “suckers.” From derogatory racial slurs and mocking the handicapped, to insulting women and disparaging political candidates of both parties, no one has been spared.
Trump’s rhetoric and erratic behavior has turned normal life into a dysfunctional reality TV show of its own kind, with the American people as the cast of characters and the world our shell-shocked audience.
Whether willing or unwilling, we’re obligated to be part of Trump’s maddening circus due to the legitimacy of the title he holds. A title that previously commanded great respect and admiration, but has since turned our country into a subject of ridicule and now pity.
Beyond the cruelty, corruption and ineptitude, Trump’s unworthiness has caused me to impulsively cry more times than I care to remember.
It’s not normal.
I love my country. I grew up believing in the American dream. While I realize now much of it was a myth, I still subscribe to ideals of liberty, justice and equality. I’ve traveled all over the globe, more than 50 countries across six continents, and nowhere have I witnessed the wondrous beauty of complex cultural diversity more than in the United States.
That’s why it’s particularly crushing to see someone like Trump represent our nation. Completely incapable of embracing people of all genders, races, sexual orientations and backgrounds, he has instead created a steady stream of hate and division in our country — once a beacon for the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Wrapped in the American flag and using the Bible as a prop, he’s made a mockery of U.S. patriotism, singlehandedly upended conservatism, and shattered international relations — aside from Russia where he continues to defer to Putin. While exploiting the innocent and gullible, he’s encouraged the ignorant and intolerant. An abhorrent performance of empty gestures and unconscionable deception.
The emperor wears no clothes.
For those like myself, who can only see the con and his charades, Trump has inflicted immeasurable emotional pain — a low-grade depression at best; irreparable suffering at worst. It’s no exaggeration. Trump has a unique and sickening ability to resurface women’s memories of abuse and trauma.
When the infamous Access Hollywood tape came out, that was the moment that should’ve changed everything. Instead, his sexual predatory behavior became normalized — even his own wife dismissed it as “boy talk.” It immediately set a precedent for no precedent.
Today, as many as 26 women have accused Trump of sexual misconduct, and those are just the individuals who’ve chosen to come forward.
It’s not normal.
Whether we realize it or not, Trump’s shameless antics have taken a toll on all of us. He has shattered norms so often and to such a degree that our perception of what’s actually normal has shifted.
The ability for humans to adapt to different scenarios has always been necessary for our survival. But in conforming to Trump’s anarchy, we’ve become dangerously numb to what’s unacceptable.
Trump has been associated with so many serious collusions, corruptions and crimes, it will take a lifetime to try and address them all. If Obama had been tied to any stories remotely of the same caliber, it would’ve been the end of his presidency.
The hypocrisy and unyielding annihilation of norms is why I have not, and cannot, remain silent. It’s why I’ve adamantly resisted Trump since day one.
I liken my outlook to that of American clergyman and political activist A.J. Muste. While peacefully demonstrating during the Vietnam War, a reporter asked Muste if he really thought he was going to change the country by standing outside the White House with a candle.
Muste replied, “Oh, I don’t do this to change the country. I do this so the country won’t change me.”
Here’s the thing: When we normalize the abnormal, we risk altering our moral compass. We lose sight of objectivity and instead believe only what we want to believe. We seek out sources, credible or not, that confirm what we already think — or want to think — is true.
The consequences are summed up best by French writer Voltaire: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
In draining us of our last reserves of decency, author Tom Nichols believes Trump is making us worse people. No matter which political party we’re affiliated with, “we end up thinking about only Trump, instead of our families, our fellow citizens, our health-care workers, or the future of our country,” he states. “We are all forced to take sides every day, and those two sides are always ‘Trump’ and ‘everyone else.’”
Once the center of only his world, Trump has made himself the center of ours.
It’s not normal.
In a BBC article on the traits that make human beings unique, a study between humans and chimps shows that children have an innate desire to be helpers before social norms set in. Unlike chimps, researchers found humans to consistently behave in an altruistic way from a young age. We tend to be unselfish, courteous, and caring of others. In other words, we possess an enormous natural capacity for doing good.
Yet Trump defies even this norm. Constantly breeding distrust and creating chaos, the notion of promoting goodwill to others isn’t remotely on his radar. How can it be? Before he ran for office, countless psychologists, therapists and mental health professionals diagnosed him with narcissistic personality disorder.
According to a study published in Clinical Psychological Science, liberals and conservatives alike, including those who voted for Trump, perceive him as having a highly disturbed personality. His warped perspective has inevitably caused us to lose sight of what is — and should be — normal.
In an overview on narcissistic personality disorder from the Mayo Clinic, it’s hard to discern between actual symptoms and what sounds like classic idiosyncrasies of Trump. From the need for “constant, excessive admiration” and an expectation to be “recognized as superior,” to the tendency to “belittle or look down on people” and “take advantage of others,” Trump is the textbook example of narcissism.
Having grown up with a narcissistic father (another reason why Trump’s omnipresence has been personally agonizing), I can tell you that an agenda is always at play.
Relationships with a narcissist are purely transactional. People are treated like objects and acknowledged only if they serve a purpose that benefits them. The narcissist lives in a world of delusion, built on a grandiose sense of self-importance, generous to those who indulge their self-interests and vengeful to anyone who doesn’t entertain their inflated ego.
In this alternate universe, not unlike a reality TV show, the narcissist makes up their own rules, but can break them at any time. Like gravity keeping us grounded, norms provide order and stability within our society. Without them, we’re in a freefall existence.
When Trump assumed the most powerful position in the world, it legitimized him, giving him free rein to demolish our norms and keep us in a state of perpetual volatility. That authority has proven not only detrimental, but dangerous.
It’s not normal.
In the 2020 American docudrama The Social Dilemma, investor Roger McNamee states, “If everyone’s entitled to their own facts, there’s really no need for compromise… We need to have some shared understanding of reality. Otherwise we aren’t a country.”
Indeed, in order for us to move forward, Americans must find common ground and agree on fundamental truths.
We must have a collective knowledge of basic rights and wrongs, and encourage a genuine acceptance of one another, despite our differences. Ignorance, hate and bigotry cannot be the foundation. But the only way we can achieve this is to do precisely what a narcissist is unable to do: empathize.
Empathy, the ability to show compassion to others, is vital to our progress as human beings. An article for Scientific American reports that, due to our political polarization and increasing individualism, the U.S.has an empathy deficit.
Putting ourselves in the shoes of someone else is what helps us foster connection and unity. In this unprecedented time, we need empathy more than ever to address issues like the coronavirus pandemic, systemic racism, economic uncertainty, and a host of other challenges.
The President, of all people, should rally and inspire Americans to come together through meaningful dialogue and a demonstration of real care and concern. Under a normal presidency, that would happen. Yet at no time has Trump ever shown the slightest bit of empathy towards anyone. Lost in an abyss of self-absorption, he’s simply incapable of thinking of others.
It’s not only not normal, it’s inhumane. And it’s time to put an end to it.
Envisioning a world without Trump is incredibly cathartic. If he loses the election, he will likely not concede easily. Already, there are warnings of violence and civil war around the country. Some are predicting Trump will claim victory early before all votes have been counted.
If ultimately defeated, Trump may decry a “rigged election.” Were it not for the legal reckoning awaiting him, it’s not improbable to think he might attempt to lose in order to pick up where he left off during the 2016 election. Starting his own TV network, dedicated to what he will undoubtedly declare as “non-fake” news, would surely make him money. After all, he already has a committed audience and quite a few debts to pay off.
I long for the day when Trump is no longer occupying the White House — or my thoughts.
I think back on the amount of time I’ve devoted to resistance efforts. All the protests, petitions, and organizing. The myriad of conversations over how, and why, our country lost its way. The stress, the worrying, the general uneasiness — feeling like a ship without a rudder. The mental anguish of putting up with incessant dishonesty.
My hope is that justice will finally be served so I may never have to speak or think of Trump ever again.
As author and political historian Heather Cox Richardson said recently, “I have come to believe in American democracy with an almost religious faith.” That shared sentiment is precisely what’s fueled my passion these past four years.
Democracy is a concept so much bigger than me and my life. It’s about standing up not only for what you believe in, but for the collective good of the entire country.
It’s about freedom, equity, and justice for all. It’s about understanding the importance of ideals that everyone is entitled to: individual rights, a fair political system, and competent leadership. It means adhering to a code of civility with fellow Americans based on fundamental values including kindness, tolerance, and yes, empathy.
These are the things that desperately need to be normalized — not Trump.
The sober reality is that even when Trump eventually goes away, Trumpism remains. After all, a Trump presidency would not exist without his supporters.
There are literally millions of people who think like him, believe what he believes, and want what he wants. Many are unwilling to do their part in bringing this country together — an unfortunate truth that will likely not change. Others, however, choose to remain willfully ignorant or apathetic to the fact that beyond being an awful president, Trump is an awful human.
I know a few of these people. Extended family members. Childhood friends. Adults I once looked up to. They defend, dismiss, or excuse Trump, yet maintain they are virtuous people, devout Christians, and patriotic Americans. This bewildering rationale has been a devastating reality to come to terms with. I care about them, but how can I possibly condone their support of Trump and everything he represents?
The answer is, I can’t.
When Trump engulfed all of our lives, it was no longer about politics, but about principles. And it became extremely personal.
Coping with the loss of these loved ones, wondering if my perception of them has always been an illusion, adds a final layer of complexity to the profound grief I’ve experienced these last four years. It is the ultimate expression of divisiveness, when even family and friends become estranged.
For a man who is an utter failure at so much, Trump finally found success: making the people of the United States anything but united.
This dark time in America’s history has revealed that the ugly, shameful truths of our country’s past still prevail in present day. I realize now that we have such a long way to go in terms of educating people, advocating for equality, and rebuilding our democracy. The normalization of Trump is a burden we all carry and only we can fix.
If Biden manages to win, despite our outdated Electoral College and rampant voter suppression, there will be no grand celebration on my part. I imagine after years of weeping from heartache, I will weep from absolute relief. And then, the hard work begins. Because it’s going to take decades, possibly my lifetime, to repair the norms that Trump has destroyed, as well as establish new ones.
Nevertheless, we must persist — motivated by those who came before us who have fought longer and harder. We must do it for the generations to come, for those who are indifferent, and for those who don’t understand the damage that’s been done. We must do it to get us closer to an America where truth and justice prevail.
As Joe Biden has stated on more than one occasion, “We’re in a battle for the soul of this nation.” Whatever the election outcome, one thing’s for certain:
There’s no going back to normal.
Top Photo: The author at Marcus-David Peters Circle in Richmond, Virginia (August 2020). Photo by EVERGIB.