Every useful catchphrase has its origin:
Defining Deviancy Down was an expression coined by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1993. Moynihan based his phrase on the theory of Emile Durkheim that there is a limit to the bad behavior that a society can tolerate before it has to start lowering its standards. In ’93, the senator applied his slogan to the “moral deregulation” that had eroded families, increased crime, and produced the mentally ill “homeless” population.
That same year columnist Charles Krauthammer expanded Moynihan’s point by proposing the reverse – that not only were we “normalizing what was once considered deviant” but we were also “finding deviant what was once considered normal.”
Charles Krauthammer is a sour person so of course he would find the worst possible corollary – arguing that some good behavior, on the right, was actually quite normal and not deviant at all (he is a commentator on Fox News, after all) – but the Moynihan point won the day. We always seem to be lowering our standards, and so, in a column on November 23, 2015, Jonathan Capehart stated the obvious:
Moynihan was talking about the tolerance of crime. But as the 2016 Republican presidential contest drags on, his diagnosis fit politics in general and the campaign of Donald Trump in particular. Just when you thought the Big Apple billionaire couldn’t sink any lower, he does. He gleefully dances through the nativist, racist, misogynistic slop as if he were Gene Kelly in “Singing in the Rain.” And to make matters worse, Trump is rewarded for it.
This was followed by a list of all that nativist, racist, misogynistic slop, to that date – there’s been much more since – and Capehart concludes with this:
No amount of condemnation of his divisive, racist rhetoric seems to halt his advance. What he is doing, what he is saying is not who we are as a country. What he is doing and saying is not just “defining deviancy down,” it’s destroying our country.
Now, all these months later, not only is our country still here, more or less, but Donald Trump has the Republican nomination pretty much locked up. Deviance was not only defined down, it was richly rewarded, although as Capehart’s colleagues at the Washington Post, Philip Rucker and Paul Kane and Robert Costa, report, some refuse to drop all standards that low:
In an extraordinary rebuke of the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (Wis.), the nation’s highest-ranking GOP official, said Thursday that he could not support Donald Trump until he changes his tone and demonstrates that he shares the party’s values.
While acknowledging that Trump has mobilized a powerful grass-roots movement and earned the nomination, Ryan said that Trump has not shown himself to be “a standard-bearer who bears our standard” – and he put the onus on the business mogul to recalibrate his campaign and offer a more inclusive vision.
Asked by CNN anchor Jake Tapper whether he backs Trump, Ryan responded: “I’m just not ready to do that at this point. I’m not there right now. And I hope to, though, and I want to. But I think what is required is that we unify the party. And I think the bulk of the burden on unifying the party will have to come from our presumptive nominee.”
“This is the party of Lincoln, of Reagan, of Jack Kemp. And we don’t always nominate a Lincoln and a Reagan every four years, but we hope that our nominee aspires to be Lincoln- and Reagan-esque,” Ryan said, adding that he hopes the candidate “advances the principles of our party and appeals to a wide, vast majority of Americans.”
He won’t sink as low as Trump. If Trump wants his support, Trump must rise to the occasion, and Ryan is not alone:
The GOP’s only two living presidents – George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush – said they would not endorse him, while its past two nominees – Mitt Romney and John McCain – said they did not plan to attend Trump’s nominating convention this summer in Cleveland. McCain, however, said he would support Trump and has offered to counsel him on foreign policy.
McCain wants to take this nasty guy aside and raise him up, but the nasty guy is having none of it:
Trump was defiant in his response to Ryan, offering a firm defense of his candidacy and asserting that he has a mandate from Republican voters. In a notable departure from his handling of previous feuds, Trump did not insult Ryan personally.
“I am not ready to support Speaker Ryan’s agenda,” Trump said in a statement. “Perhaps in the future we can work together and come to an agreement about what is best for the American people. They have been treated so badly for so long that it is about time for politicians to put them first!”
That may not have been an insult, but the message was clear. Get down here in the gutter with me. That’s what the American people want, you fool!
This will not go well:
Ryan’s remarks broke a previous pledge to support whoever becomes the GOP nominee. It also puts him at odds with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who offered tempered support for Trump on Wednesday, and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a Ryan friend who has urged Republicans to unite behind Trump.
Priebus is trying to broker a Trump and Ryan meeting next week. Ryan spokesman Brendan Buck tweeted that the speaker would be “happy to attend.”
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a Trump supporter and adviser, told reporters in Trenton that he would reach out to Ryan to discuss his concerns.
Other Republicans are swiftly coming around on Trump. Former Texas governor Rick Perry, who delivered the first vicious takedown of Trump last summer, told CNN that he now supports him and is open to being his running mate. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, whose family helped bankroll an anti-Trump super PAC, plans to endorse Trump on Friday at a rally in Omaha.
It’s hard to say how this will work out, because Ryan and Trump are worlds apart:
The tensions between Trump and Ryan go beyond temperament. They have philosophical differences about the size and scope of government. Ryan champions free-trade agreements, international military engagement, and sweeping overhauls of Social Security and Medicare, whereas Trump is an avowed opponent of recent trade deals, foreign interventions and proposed changes to entitlement programs. Furthermore, Ryan frames his politics in stark moral terms, while Trump’s manner was forged by his experiences in the Manhattan business and tabloid wars of the 1980s.
But which is deviant? And what is possible? That’s the real question:
Ryan shocked some leading Republicans, who expected he would dutifully line up behind the presumptive nominee. William J. Bennett, a former Reagan administration official and a mentor to Ryan, said he was “knocked out of my chair” as he watched Ryan on CNN.
“This is a slap at the people,” Bennett said. “He thinks he can nudge Trump in a certain direction, but it doesn’t make sense to expect Trump to have some kind of personality transformation. His approach was not conducive to unification, which is what the party needs.”
“His approach” seems to mean Ryan’s approach in the last sentence, but Josh Marshall states the obvious:
We know who Donald Trump is. You support him or you oppose him. But he’s not going to become a different person over the next few months. Even Marco Rubio could only keep up his “personality transplant” for a week. Trump might talk differently. He might become less damaging to Republicans or he might improve his chances to win. But he’s not going to change.
Note also that as far as I could tell Ryan was unable or unwilling to point to any specific policy or statement that Trump would need to change or recant to bring the Speaker on board.
Trump will not change. Why would he? And Anne Gearan reports on what may be Hillary Clinton’s wrong-headed strategy:
Far ahead in the Democratic race for president, Hillary Clinton has embarked on a first round of general-election campaigning against Donald Trump featuring a low-key focus on policy and her own experience, in addition to the daily volley of attack and retort that already defines their contest.
Hoping that the election will be waged on wider ground than her economics-centered primary battle against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Clinton’s campaign is trying to present a contrast between someone who talks big – “a loose cannon,” as Clinton often labels Trump – and someone who listens and gets things done.
The strategy includes wonky appearances to discuss job creation, green energy and combating drug addiction – even in unfriendly states such as West Virginia, where Clinton spoke Monday in an effort to demonstrate, a senior aide said, that she would be a president “for everyone.”
That’s nice, but Trump has defined deviancy down:
It’s an open question whether Clinton can wrest control of an election conversation in which Trump has proved adept at placing himself at the center – and in which Republican primary voters have spurned the vast experience of Trump’s rivals in favor of his more bombastic rhetoric. …
“He makes these grand statements and grand accusations.” Clinton said in an interview on CNN. “At some point when you’re running for president, you actually have to put a little meat on the bones. You’ve got to tell people what it is you’re going to do and how he’s going do it.”
Trump is “a classic case of a blustering, bullying guy” who cowed and flummoxed his way past a large slate of rivals, Clinton said.
Yes, he is, and that’s worked just fine for him, and Heather Parton explains that no one seemed to get that:
The smart numbers crunchers like Nate Silver and the NY Times’ Nate Cohn dismissed Trump as a flash in the pan with Silver writing that “our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination” and Cohn predicting that the comments about John McCain not being the kind of war hero Trump preferred was “the moment Trump’s campaign went from boom to bust.” Perhaps most famously, The Huffington Post covered Trump in its entertainment section rather than its political section as a way of making a statement both about the media’s obsession with Trump and about Trump himself. They unceremoniously moved their Trump coverage to its rightful place some time ago and both Silver and Cohn issued their explanations yesterday. And they were hardly alone.
Plenty of others made the same prediction. It was conventional wisdom at the time and for some good reasons, perhaps the most important being that the 2012 GOP primary race had featured an epic assortment of weirdos and misfits, some of whom were number one in the polls for a time, including the likes of Michele Bachman and Herman Cain. Right wing religious extremist Rick Santorum was the runner up in that race, after all. Conventional wisdom held that presidential primaries tend to have a bit of a freakshow quality in the beginning that usually peters out as people begin to pay more attention.
In fact, Ben Carson proved the point. For a time he was the frontrunner, collecting tons of money from small donors and dominating the coverage. But when he stumbled badly answering questions about his past and generally sounding ignorant about American foreign policy, he quickly sank in the polls. This had the effect of reinforcing the beltway conventional wisdom that this was the normal process and soon it would happen to Trump as well.
They didn’t realize what had changed:
One needs only to go slightly further back to 2008 to recall the spectacle of Sarah Palin being chosen to be the Vice Presidential nominee to recognize that the modern Republican Party has not been afraid to put one of their sideshow acts on the main stage. That should have tipped off the intelligentsia that Trump’s act could catch on with GOP voters. The base loved Palin and her crypto-white-nationalist paeans to Joe the Plumber. And they certainly didn’t mind that she was completely unprepared for the job. In fact it was a selling point. The similarities between her subsequent turn as a reality star and The Donald’s long stint on “The Apprentice” escaped the notice of most observers in the apparent belief that such an embarrassing career was a disqualifier when their fans saw it as a major plus.
And if people had been paying slightly closer attention they would have seen that despite all the breathless reporting about the GOP’s “deep bench” of astonishing political talent, the Republican race was already a clown car with the top tier candidates like Christie and Walker making fools of themselves overseas, Rubio making no impression whatsoever and Jeb Bush appearing to be sleepwalking. For all of their credentials and experience they were already bumbling their way through the primary by the time Trump threw his comb-over into the ring. But the PR push had been fierce going into 2016 with Republicans of all stripes convinced that between their young and vigorous candidates or their vastly experienced political hands their field was unbeatable. Even if the media had taken Trump more seriously the fact that the Republican establishment failed to do so would have tilted the coverage in another direction.
They made the same mistake as the media:
They assumed that Trump would implode the same way the other “outsider” candidate, Ben Carson imploded. But Trump defied all such expectations at every step of the way, making shocking comments nearly every day, none which managed to take him down. Instead, they kept him in first place. Nobody could believe that they were actually helping him by proving to his followers that he was confident enough and tough enough to say what they are all thinking right out loud. The more politically incorrect he is, the more they love him.
Deviancy had not only been defined down, it was a good thing and what had been good was now bad:
The problem is that many of the commentariat and the political establishment had fooled themselves into believing that the conservative movement has been inspired by ideological commitment to a set of constitutional principles, patriotic obligation and devotion to traditional values.
But it turns out that elaborate intellectual construct was never the primary motivation for many members of the GOP. What attracted them were the dogwhistles, the under-the-radar signals to Americans who feel betrayed by the social changes that have rocked our culture for the past forty years. And they are tired of listening to all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo as Republican politicians fail to deliver on their implicit promises to set things right. Trump is keeping it real.
They never understood that:
Why did the prognosticators get it so wrong? Because they never believed the dogwhistles were real. After all, none of the Republicans they know are racist throwbacks who want America to be start kicking ass and taking names.
That may be, or it may be more complicated than that, with real grievances, but if so E. J. Dionne pleads with the left to please not normalize Trump:
The fact that Trump draws opposition from the most ideological parts of the Republican Party heightens the temptation on the left to cheer his apparent victory. As someone who has argued that the right has long been on the wrong path, I understand this urge.
It’s certainly true that his feat vindicates much of what progressives have said about the conservative movement. Republican leaders have a lot to answer for, and not only the incompetence and timidity of their stop-Trump efforts.
They have spent years stoking the resentment and anger on the right end of their party that fueled Trump’s movement. They ignored the material interests of their struggling white working-class base and also popular exhaustion with foreign commitments fed by interventionist misadventures. Along with many Democrats, they underestimated the anger over trade agreements that accelerated the economic dislocation of the less well-off.
After this election, the GOP will need an extended period of self-examination. But no one on the left should applaud the rise of Trump as representing a friendly form of “populism” – let alone view him as the leader of a mass movement of the working class. He is no such thing. He is channeling the European far right, mixing intolerance, resentment and nationalism.
In short, he’s still a deviant, but David Roberts suggests that no one will be able to do much about that:
We find ourselves at the tail end of a brief period of clarity. For the past few months, virtually everyone outside of the forty percent of Republican primary voters who carried him to victory has agreed that Trump is not fit to be president.
Marco Rubio called him a “con man.” Mitt Romney called him “a phony, a fraud.” Cruz called him an “amoral pathological liar” and said if he is elected “this country could well plunge into the abyss.” Lindsey Graham said Trump would lead to “another 9/11.” David Brooks called him “epically unprepared to be president.” George Will said that “his running mate will be unqualified for high office because he or she will think Trump is qualified.” The house organ of conservatism, National Review, condemned him in florid terms. A Super PAC was created just to stop him.
And there is an alternative:
Hillary Clinton, for all her flaws, has demonstrated a basic level of competence. She understands how policy and government work. She’s not openly racist; she hasn’t encouraged street violence. There’s no risk that she would disrupt the international order or cause an economic crisis out of pique.
That’s a really, really low bar. But it’s the only bar she has to clear in this contest. Almost irrespective of what you think of Clinton’s politics or her policies, she is manifestly more prepared to run the federal government than Donald Trump.
But that may not matter:
The number of people who recognize this elemental fact about the election, however, has probably already reached and passed its peak. It will decline from here on out. The moment of clarity is already ending.
The moment of deviancy is beginning, because the concept of deviancy can no longer be sustained in our current political environment:
The US political ecosystem – media, consultants, power brokers, think tanks, foundations, officeholders, the whole thick network of institutions and individuals involved in national politics – cannot deal with a presidential election in which one candidate is obviously and uncontroversially the superior (if not sole acceptable) choice. The machine is simply not built to handle a race that’s over before it’s begun.
There are entire classes of professionals whose jobs are premised on the model of two roughly equal sides, clashing endlessly. The Dance of Two Parties sustains the consultants and activists.
That is what has been defined down:
Among all these classes of professionals – all these institutions, that whole superstructure of US politics built around two balanced sides – there will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water.
The US political system knows how to play the former script; it doesn’t know how to play the latter. There’s a whole skein of practices, relationships, and money flows developed around the former. The latter would occasion a reappraisal of, well, everything… So there will be a push to lift Donald Trump up and bring Hillary Clinton down, until they are at least something approximating two equivalent choices…
It’s not a conspiracy; it won’t be coordinated. It doesn’t need to be. It’s just a process of institutions, centers of power and influence, responding to the incentive structure that’s evolved around them. The US political ecosystem needs this election to be competitive.
That’s Roberts’ thesis, and he extends it to the media:
The campaign press requires, for its ongoing health and advertising revenue, a real race. It needs controversies. “Donald Trump is not fit to be president” may be the accurate answer to pretty much every relevant question about the race, but it’s not an interesting answer. It’s too final, too settled. No one wants to click on it.
What’s more, the campaign media’s self-image is built on not being partisan, which precludes adjudicating political disputes. How does that even work if one side is offering up a flawed centrist and the other is offering up a vulgar xenophobic demagogue?
It would be profoundly out of character for reporters to spend the six months between now and the election writing, again and again, that one side’s candidate is a liar and a racist and an egomaniac. It would be uncomfortable, personally and professionally.
There’s only one way this can go:
Just as the media will need to elevate Trump, it will need to bring Clinton down. Going after Clinton will be journalists’ default strategy for proving that they’re not biased. They will need opportunities to be “tough” toward Clinton, or at least to engage in the kind of performative toughness valued in campaign journalism, to demonstrate their continued independence.
Trump will give them opportunities. And it’s not going to be through policy critique, a domain in which Clinton towers over him. It’s going to be through tawdry, nasty shit.
And yes, they will call that fair and balanced. Even MSNBC will call that fair and balanced, and Martin Longman adds this:
Partisans on both sides have been complaining for years that the “neutral” reporters are failing to accomplish this balance. Conservatives think the reporting class has such a fundamentally liberal worldview that it permeates all their coverage even when it is unintended. This was the rationale for Fox News, for example. Liberals think that a desire to be even-handed leads these “neutral” reporters to resort, time and time again, to a form of both-siderism, where no matter how atrociously a Republican behaves, some equivalency must be sought from a Democrat.
These criticisms both have a lot of merit, but we’re dealing with something in a different class with Trump. Even most responsible Republicans agree that he shouldn’t get within a country mile of the nuclear codes. There’s wide bipartisan consensus that he suffers from a narcissism disorder, that he’s ill-informed and prone to believe in conspiracy theories, that he’s a bully, that he’s built his political success on xenophobia and racism, and that he’s a misogynist.
Well, that’s just too bad:
If the reporters actually focus on this consensus, that doesn’t allow them to promote a traditional presidential race. They can’t find equivalent faults in Hillary Clinton even though they’ll do their best. They can’t just report everything as a he said/she said/you decide dispute. In truth, they can’t report on this campaign while being both objective and neutral. And they can’t report on it the way they are designed to report on national politics.
This is the argument that there’s an inherent structural reason that deviancy gets defined down, and Salon’s Simon Maloy adds this:
Already we tend to breeze past the fact that the policies Trump has proposed – banning Muslim immigration, building a giant wall – are motivated by insane bigotry and gross nativism. The fact that he’s won Republican primaries while espousing these positions gives them a flimsy patina of legitimacy. He tosses out racial conspiracy theories so frequently that one can become inured to the craziness. The story becomes “oh there goes Trump saying a nutty thing again” instead of “holy shit this guy is a god damn racist nut.” When we start treating Trump’s sexism and bigotry as campaign tactics instead of deep and irreparable character flaws, Trump is winning.
I worry about this, and I worry about the tendency to believe that Trump either doesn’t believe what he says or will find himself naturally restrained by the office of the presidency.
That, however, is a pipe dream, and a dangerous one:
It’s the sort of thinking that breeds complacency and indifference towards his toxic platform – if you think he’ll be too constrained to follow through on his bigoted and authoritarian policies, then you’re apt to write it off as mere posturing, something he said just to elicit a reaction. It serves to make Trump seem less threatening and less poisonous than he really is, and that works to his favor.
Already we’re seeing high-profile reporters and pundits who are grubbing for access to Trump by sugarcoating or rationalizing his belligerence and bigotry. The urge to provide Trump the same deference and treatment one would a mainstream politician will be strong. But that gives the Republican nominee more credit than he’s due, and it pushes to the background everything that makes Donald Trump the malignant political force that he is.
When that’s pushed to the background, it’s over. Trump wins in November, and finally, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is proven right. Deviance is always defined down. Then it disappears.