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Farewell to Normalcy
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Farewell to Normalcy

The meaning of 2023.

A woman holds a sign suggesting that she might now vote for Donald Trump for president as protesters march in the street to denounce the Biden administration's support of Israel. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

On Christmas Eve I watched Tucker Carlson interview actor Kevin Spacey, inexplicably in character as the sleazy politician he portrayed on House of Cards.

Spacey had no reason to reprise the role, and Carlson—a semi-serious political commentator who may or may not become vice president—seemed to have no reason to offer him a platform. The segment wasn’t even played for obvious laughs, as one would expect if it were a holiday goof. The two appear to have nothing in common apart from the fact that they’ve each faced some, ah, professional hiccups in recent years after being accused of misconduct.

It made no sense. Even so, as I watched I thought, “Yeah, that scans.”

On Christmas Day I was tooling around online when the presumptive Republican nominee for president posted his yuletide greetings on Truth Social. If ever there were a moment for a candidate for office to play it safe and stick to basic well wishes, Christmas is it. Flashing some Christian bona fides by reminding readers of the reason for the season would also be sensible, knowing how religious voters might appreciate it.

Instead he used the occasion to hope that his enemies “rot in hell.” And as I read that I thought, “Yeah, that scans.”

Trump’s message and Tucker’s interview were fitting ways to wind down 2023, the year America finally gave up on normal politics.

In both cases, flouting expectations of normalcy was the point. Trump felt no need to feign normal emotions like piety or goodwill with his Christmas message because he knows he’ll pay no price among his admirers for failing to do so. “Christians tend not to hope other people rot in hell on Christmas Day,” radio host Erick Erickson sniffed afterward, which read like a non sequitur in context. Why would Trump care whether people think he’s a good Christian? And how confident should we be at this point about which sentiments are and aren’t condoned by politically engaged members of the faith? Erickson’s grasp of what’s normal and what isn’t for American Christians may not be as firm as he, and I, might wish.

Carlson’s video, trivial though it is, was also designed to challenge what we regard as normal. That’s been his political project for years. Tucker understands that illiberalism won’t go mainstream in America unless Americans learn to distrust “the system” more than they do those who have run afoul of it, which is why he’s forever trying to normalize the latter. Russia isn’t evil, the January 6 defendants are innocent, manosphere influencer and accused rapist Andrew Tate is worth listening to: Rehabbing Kevin Spacey after the film industry ostracized him and prosecutors came after him (although, in fairness, without convicting him) is another small nudge in that direction. If the Joker were a real person, Carlson would have interviewed him respectfully half a dozen times already and treated him like some countercultural sage because that’s what an all-out (and I do mean all-out) assault on received wisdom requires.

We’d all better get used to it, though. The lesson of 2023 is that abnormality is here to stay.

On Tuesday pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson flagged a great irony of the coming presidential campaign. The guy who’s been cracked up to be a dictator in the making is, arguably, the “normalcy candidate” in the race.

Trump got elected in 2016 because he promised chaos, Anderson pointed out, a candidate so far outside the political norm that he’d necessarily change the way government functioned once in office. (Which turned out to be sort of true!) If he wins in 2024 he’ll do so by promising order, returned to power by an electorate desperate to address crises that seem beyond the Biden White House’s control.

This year has been the one in which Americans truly gave up on the incumbent president’s ability to restore the sense of normalcy his election in 2020 promised.

The year he took office—2021—began auspiciously just two weeks after January 6 and with news from the CDC about the new vaccines potentially snuffing out COVID. But that turned out to be fool’s gold; another terrible wave of the disease arrived that summer, then another that winter. In August, Biden’s old-pro reputation for competence was shattered when he ordered U.S. troops to withdraw from Afghanistan and that country’s government promptly collapsed. By fall, supply-chain issues and exorbitant COVID relief spending had triggered the worst inflation in 40 years.

Still, he’d only been in office for one year. The next, 2022, would be his chance to right the ship—but inflation, which had been dismissed at first as “transitory,” persisted. In February Russia attacked Ukraine, touching off the biggest war in Europe since World War II. The Federal Reserve began raising interest rates aggressively to try to cool off rising prices, making mortgages too burdensome for many aspiring home-buyers.

In 2023 inflation slowed down. Dark forecasts of a recession caused by interest-rate hikes began to brighten; the economy continued to grow. As the year ends, the so-called “misery index” has dropped to its lowest point since the start of the pandemic. Yet the sense of Biden having lost control lingers. A new war in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas will soon enter its third month. Encounters between migrants and U.S. agents at the southern border, which had eased earlier this year, have lately reached new monthly highs.

Mingled throughout all of this chaos is the inescapable fact that Joe Biden is the oldest person to hold the office of president, a record he sets anew each day. Within his own party, 69 percent say he’s too old to serve another term effectively. In September, fully two-thirds of Democrats and “leaners” said they’d prefer someone else as their presidential nominee. Despite the good economic news, his net job approval in the RealClearPolitics average over the past month has been among the worst of his tenure. He now trails Trump routinely in head-to-head polling.

Put all of that together and I fear 2023 was the year the country swallowed the hard reality that normalcy isn’t coming back on Grandpa Joe’s watch. Either he lacks the political acumen to make it happen or he lacks the physical and mental wherewithal needed to stay on top of events. Anderson writes:

Whatever advantage Mr. Biden held over Mr. Trump on the issue of who would be more likely to bring about order, stability and calm, it has surely been erased at this point. Indeed, many voters have begun to look back longingly at the Trump era. While, according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, voters said by a 30-point margin that Mr. Biden’s policies have hurt them personally more than helped, by a 12-point margin, the same voters were more likely to say that Mr. Trump’s policies helped them. …

This is why, already, Trump is beginning to work to portray himself as the safer, more stable pick and to go to great — even misleading — lengths to claim that Mr. Biden actually wants chaos and has created a world filled with more terror. He has already produced ads suggesting that Mr. Biden’s inability to lead is directly responsible for the global disorder that threatens American security, and it is a message voters have begun to echo in polling.

This has also been the year that Democrats, and American voters generally, confronted the startling fact that this very old and unpopular politician not only intended to run for another term but that he would face no serious opposition from within his own party in doing so. Never in my life (and I’m pretty old!) has a party nominated a candidate for president so reluctantly, with so many misgivings about his ability to do the job. In a democracy, where voters are supposed to have their way, that’s as abnormal as abnormal gets.

The good news for Democrats is that, one way or another, in 2028 their nominating process should look far more normal. But for the next five years, they and we will need to endure the bizarre spectacle of a man in his mid-80s trying to simply get through the day while doing the most important job in the world.

And that’s the best-case scenario for the outcome of the coming election. There’s another.

I have a theory that Nikki Haley’s modestly rising support in the Republican primary is based mainly on nostalgia. Which is ironic, as there’s never been a candidate whose agenda is more blatantly nostalgic than the guy running on a platform of making America great again.

There’s more to Haley’s support, of course. Traditional conservatives prefer a candidate who hopes to shrink government at home and exercise American power abroad. They like her on the policy merits.

But it really can’t be said enough: Nikki Haley is a disciplined politician. And discipline is a far less common trait among Republican candidates in 2023 than it used to be.

The frontrunner in the GOP primary must be the single most undisciplined national figure in the history of the party. “Chaos follows him,” Haley likes to say of Trump, ever so carefully. But chaos follows a lot of Republicans nowadays. Trump’s most formidable rival successor, Ron DeSantis, blew through more than $100 million in fundraising in this year’s race (partly because he couldn’t shake his fondness for flying on private jets), recently saw his super PAC implode, and somehow ended up employing people who thought it’d be a good idea to stick white-supremacist iconography into promotional videos.

In a very abnormal party, Haley’s an abnormally normal candidate. Many of us are nostalgic for that. 

Many, but not enough. Despite her admirable discipline, she’s about to get smoked in most of the early states and will likely be out of the race before Super Tuesday.

That’s because 2023 will be remembered as the year Republican voters leaned into abnormalcy to a degree unprecedented in American history. It marks the completion of the GOP’s transformation from a party, which concerns itself primarily with policy, to a vessel dominated by a personality cult.

I don’t need to tell that story at length because I tell it in one form or another in this newsletter every day. Having absorbed a coup plot, an insurrection at the Capitol, two impeachments, and 91 criminal counts in federal and state courts, the American right has decided that the figure at the center of all of that abnormality is the person they want for president again in 2024.

Overwhelmingly, too. Even during his best period of polling, DeSantis was never within 10 points of Trump in the national average. As I write this, he’s 51 points behind.

There’s no way to view Trump’s runaway victory this year except as enthusiastic collective ratification of his misconduct, civic and otherwise. This is the year that his famous statement about being able to shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing a vote proved to be an understatement. Given how his polling rose following his first indictment, it’d be more accurate to say that shooting someone on Fifth Avenue would gain him votes within the Republican Party.

I didn’t see it coming. As cynical as I am, I couldn’t conceive that GOP voters would reward him for the trouble he’s brought America when they had a perfectly satisfactory Trumpy replacement available in DeSantis. Last year’s midterms cemented that conviction: After Trump’s candidates underperformed while DeSantis overperformed (wildly), it seemed like sheer electability would tip the balance between them. Normal political logic—voting for the most right-wing and non-insane candidate who can win a general election—would reassert itself at last.

It did not. It turns out that quite literally nothing could have torn them away from Trump. In lieu of normal political logic, Republican voters soon will have chosen to put themselves and the country through a series of destabilizing civic crises that could have been averted simply by choosing a different nominee.

Crisis: Either Trump, with his autocratic pretensions, will be back in power in 14 months or we’ll endure the trauma of another “rigged election” propaganda campaign next fall. (Or next month, even.) States may struggle to agree on matters as basic as how many electoral votes each candidate won. If he loses, his supporters will insist that his defeat was unfair because of the lawfare that hobbled him during the campaign. Whatever happens, America will be on a knife’s edge.

Crisis: Trump is unlikely to be acquitted of all 91 criminal charges against him before the election, which means he’ll either be a convicted felon on Election Day or he’ll short-circuit the pending prosecutions against him once he returns to office. (Or both, perhaps.) Whichever it is, respect for the law will crumble. The spectacle of electing an accused or actual criminal will disillusion many millions of Americans about their country allegedly being the greatest in the world. 

Crisis: Either Trump will be reinstated on Colorado’s presidential ballot or he’ll be disqualified as a candidate by a majority of nine unelected justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Denying the people their right to elect him would be the heaviest blow to democratic legitimacy in the history of the United States. Reinstating him on the ballot would reek of a political outcome engineered by a court that leans his way ideologically. Whichever it is, esteem for the court as an institution will sink.

If any of these crises are met with violence, that’ll be a crisis in itself.

We are plunging into something terrible and are doing so voluntarily, despite the fact that the terrible things to come are foreseeable and avoidable. I don’t think there’s been a civic catastrophe of that scale in my lifetime. The character of the people has changed; national elections are now a matter not of excitement or suspense but dread.

The year 2020 was the same way. One might call it a new normal.

In 2024 we’ll find out how many Americans are comfortable with that new normal.

The last great irony of this campaign is how heavily Trump, the avatar of abnormality, will end up depending on swing voters who prefer him for traditionally normal reasons. They’re the people Anderson has in mind when she writes of “exhausted” America, the ones who have it in their heads that reelecting him will somehow push prices back down to what they were in 2019 and magically intimidate the planet’s malefactors into not starting any new wars. He’s counting on them to set aside the prospects of domestic upheaval if he’s reelected as fanciful or grossly overstated.

Most of Nikki Haley’s voters will end up backing him in the general election for an even more anodyne “normal” reason: They’re Republicans, and Republicans vote for Republicans, period.

If America rewards him with another term in spite of everything, the GOP will have no electoral incentive in 2028 and beyond to prefer less destabilizing nominees. On the contrary, Trump’s authoritarian politics will be read as an asset in hindsight, helping him appeal to voters exasperated with the more familiar forms of chaos the country experienced during Biden’s presidency. Once that happens, Democrats might themselves conclude that there’s less electoral risk than they thought in nominating radicals. In 2020 their voters rallied behind Joe Biden after Bernie Sanders won several early primaries, believing that nominating a more “normal” liberal would give them an advantage against Trump. And it did …

… but if Trump, thoroughly disgraced, ends up defeating Biden in 2024, what’s left of that alleged advantage? If you’re a Democrat, why not be bold with your choice of nominee the way Republicans have?

It could be many years before American politics is “normal” again, I fear. This year has raised the possibility; the outcome in 2024 could cinch it. Perpetual dread is not a good advertisement for democracy.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.