The End of Normal

Everyone knew that the Trump presidency was never going to be normal. He entered office with no experience in foreign policy, other than with the intricacies of resort and hotel development in far-off lands, and with the issues involved in staging a beauty pageant in Moscow – and he had no military experience, other than high school at that military academy for troubled rich kids prone to bullying. But he was a billionaire, a master dealmaker who always got his way, humiliating anyone who got in his way. He won. He always won – and now America would always win. No nation would ever humiliate America ever again, even if none really had. That was the general idea. That was good enough for just enough voters in just the right places. He’d hurt just the right people here and abroad – those that deserved it. And he wouldn’t be “normal” in any way at all.

And he kept that promise:

President Donald Trump’s took part in a Saturday night rally in South Florida, bringing two accused war criminals on to the stage as honored guests.

According to the Miami Herald, during his speech at Florida Republicans’ annual Statesman’s Dinner, Trump brought Army 1st Lt. Clint Lorance and Maj. Matt Golsteyn in front of the crowd.

Trump controversially pardoned the two – along with former Navy SEAL Edward Gallagher – last month against the recommendations of senior military leaders.

Trump fired his Secretary of the Navy for bitching about this, although the guy said he resigned, because Trump was defending this:

Lorance was serving a 19-year prison sentence for murder after ordering soldiers to open fire on three unarmed Afghan men in 2012, killing two. Golsteyn had been charged with premeditated murder after admitting to shooting a detained, unarmed Afghan man in 2010. Golsteyn killed the prisoner off-base and buried his body, only to dig it up later, bring it back to the base, and burn it in a pit used to dispose of trash, according to the Washington Post.

Senior officers say don’t do that sort of thing. Trump said tell your senior officers to go to hell, because the president, President Trump, said that’s just fine, and Trump knows his base will love this:

The men’s appearance at a party rally and fundraiser confirm that Trump sees political value in his interventions on behalf of soldiers who were charged by uniformed military prosecutors with the most serious crimes. After the pardons, the Daily Beast cited two sources who said they heard the president talk about how he would use the pardoned soldiers as political props in his 2020 reelection bid, with one saying they heard the president discuss “making it a big deal at the convention.”

Screw the senior officers. Screw the generals. Trump knows which way the wind is blowing:

Trump’s full pardon of the men came after a years-long push by the men’s supporters, including Fox News personality Peter Hegseth, a former Army officer, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a former Marine who announced he would resign from Congress after pleading guilty to improperly using campaign donations to fund a series of affairs and for a variety of personal expenses. One embarrassing transaction unearthed by prosecutors recorded Hunter buying an item of clothing at a golf pro-shop while representing the spending as buying golf balls for wounded veterans.

That doesn’t matter. Trump had tweeted out why:

The case of Major Mathew Golsteyn is now under review at the White House. Mathew is a highly decorated Green Beret who is being tried for killing a Taliban bombmaker. We train our boys to be killing machines, and then prosecute them when they kill!

Trump was directly quoting Peter Hegseth on that. Fox News knows best, but six days after that Statesman’s Dinner, the New York Times dropped this:

The Navy SEALs showed up one by one, wearing hoodies and t-shirts instead of uniforms, to tell investigators what they had seen. Visibly nervous, they shifted in their chairs, rubbed their palms and pressed their fists against their foreheads. At times they stopped in midsentence and broke into tears.

“Sorry about this,” Special Operator First Class Craig Miller, one of the most experienced SEALs in the group, said as he looked sideways toward a blank wall, trying to hide that he was weeping. “It’s the first time – I’m really broken up about this.”

Video recordings of the interviews obtained by the New York Times, which have not been shown publicly before, were part of a trove of Navy investigative materials about the prosecution of Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher on war crimes charges including murder.

They offer the first opportunity outside the courtroom to hear directly from the men of Alpha platoon, SEAL Team 7, whose blistering testimony about their platoon chief was dismissed by President Trump when he upended the military code of justice to protect Chief Gallagher from the punishment.

And this is what Trump dismissed as the whining of snowflakes and cowards:

“The guy is freaking evil,” Special Operator Miller told investigators. “The guy was toxic,” Special Operator First Class Joshua Vriens, a sniper, said in a separate interview. “You could tell he was perfectly O.K. with killing anybody that was moving,” Special Operator First Class Corey Scott, a medic in the platoon, told the investigators…

Video from a SEAL’s helmet camera, included in the trove of materials, shows the barely conscious captive – a teenage Islamic State fighter so thin that his watch slid easily up and down his arm – being brought in to the platoon one day in May 2017. Then the helmet camera is shut off.

In the video interviews with investigators, three SEALs said they saw Chief Gallagher go on to stab the sedated captive for no reason, and then hold an impromptu re-enlistment ceremony over the body, as if it were a trophy.

“I was listening to it, and I was just thinking, like, this is the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Special Operator Miller, who has since been promoted to chief, told investigators.

But they had to report this:

Though combat in Iraq barely fazed the SEALs, sitting down to tell Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents about what they had seen their platoon chief do during a 2017 deployment in Iraq was excruciating for them.

Not only did they have to relive wrenching events and describe grisly scenes, they had to break a powerful unwritten code of silence in the SEALs, one of the nation’s most elite commando forces.

The item notes that Gallagher says these guys never liked him and were just jealous of him or something. They said this stuff was just not normal. Gallagher said all of it is normal, or should be normal – and he has the president on his side. Who do they have on their side, the cowardly wimpy generals?

This is an odd business, and a Military Times poll published this month shows support for Trump among military personnel is going down and not up:

When asked specifically about Trump’s handling of military issues, nearly 48 percent of the troops surveyed said they had an unfavorable view of that part of his job, compared to 44 percent who believe he has handled that task well. That marks a significant drop from the 2018 Military Times poll, when 59 percent said they were happy with his handling of military issues, against 20 percent who had an unfavorable view.

This seems to have to do with Trump firing General Mattis as defense secretary, or his resignation, over walking away from the Middle East and particularly with the pullout from Syria. Tell the troops to walk away from good allies who have fought and died with us and the troops will feel shame.

Donald Trump doesn’t feel shame. Bonnie Kirstian documents that:

The president’s affection for violence beyond the laws and norms of modern warfare is well-established. He expresses total confidence in the efficacy of torture, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and insists it should be employed even if it doesn’t work (“They deserve it anyway for what they do to us”). In a 2016 op-ed, for example, Trump argued it is only political correctness that prevents the United States from drowning and beheading our enemies in the style of the Islamic State. He has waxed rhapsodic about the prospect of killing the families of terrorists – which is to say, murdering children because of the misfortune of their birth and slaughtering women who very possibly had no choice in their marriage. He has no interest in confining the U.S. military to the rule of law, whether domestic or international, instead envisioning himself as the war crime commander-in-chief: “If I say do it, they’re going to do it.”

Thus the twisted mercy Trump offers in pardoning war crimes is not a boon to the U.S. military…

This enthusiasm for cruelty might be sufficient to get Trump to issue pardons for war crimes. He has made clear he doesn’t care whether these soldiers are innocent of what they are accused of doing and in fact believes they were right to do it if indeed they are guilty. But I think there’s another factor at work: Trump in a sense identifies with the men he has pardoned. He is giving them the indemnity he hopes for himself.

That last observation is odd speculation, but Adam Serwer offered this:

Many former officials have warned that Trump’s war-crimes pardons undermine “good order and discipline,” a jargony way to say that they signal the rules don’t matter. A military force where the rules don’t matter is not one that can fight effectively or with the necessary moral or strategic restraint.

Defenders of Trump’s pardons dishonor service members by treating them as conscienceless automatons who need make no distinction between combatants and civilians. But murder, under color of authority, is still murder.

Every service member who has faced combat has experienced the anguish of losing comrades, the difficulty of facing an enemy that disguises itself and does not obey the laws of war, and the frustration of a conflict seemingly without end. The Uniform Code of Military Justice provides for juries made up of service members to ensure that those who render verdicts are themselves cognizant of the exigencies of warfare. But the fact that a relative handful of service members responded to those difficulties by desecrating corpses, deliberately killing civilians, or engaging in premeditated murder illustrates that calling them “killing machines” is a profound insult masquerading as praise.

Trump does not believe that:

“I will always stick up for our great fighters,” Trump told the crowd at a rally in Florida yesterday. “People can sit there in air-conditioned offices and complain, but you know what? It doesn’t matter to me whatsoever.”

Serwer is not impressed:

The seven Navy SEALs who told investigators that Gallagher shot unarmed civilians from his sniper nest, including “a girl in a flower-print hijab who was walking with other girls on the riverbank,” after being warned that doing so could “cost them and others their careers” were not sitting in an office. The soldiers who testified that Lorance ordered his unit to fire on unarmed Afghans who were “definitely not any type of threat” were not luxuriating in an air-conditioned building. They were at just as much risk on the battlefield, and yet they chose to adhere to the rules they were charged to uphold.

Trump may find a way to punish them, but Mark Bowden notes what he’s hearing from senior officers:

“He doesn’t understand the warrior ethos,” one general said of the president. “The warrior ethos is important because it’s sort of a sacred covenant not just among members of the military profession, but between the profession and the society in whose name we fight and serve. The warrior ethos transcends the laws of war; it governs your behavior. The warrior ethos makes units effective because of the values of trust and self-sacrifice associated with it – but the warrior ethos also makes wars less inhumane and allows our profession to maintain our self-respect and to be respected by others. Man, if the warrior ethos gets misconstrued into ‘Kill them all…’?” he said, trailing off. Teaching soldiers about ethical conduct in war is not just about morality: “If you treat civilians disrespectfully, you’re working for the enemy! Trump doesn’t understand.”

Having never served or been near a battlefield, several of the generals said, Trump exhibits a simplistic, badly outdated notion of soldiers as supremely “tough” – hard men asked to perform hard and sometimes ugly jobs. He also buys into a severely outdated concept of leadership. The generals, all of whom have led troops in combat, know better than most that war is hard and ugly, but their understanding of “toughness” goes well beyond the gruff stoicism of a John Wayne movie. Good judgment counts more than toughness.

Yeah, but Trump calls these guys cowards and wimps. In the end he said Mattis knew nothing about war or anything else. But this is what America wanted in a president. America was tired of what was “normal” in any way. But that was a long time coming.

That was the whole decade. Michiko Kakutani wrote the book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump and he’s a former book critic for the New York Times and he puts things this way:

Two of the most widely quoted and shared poems in the closing years of this decade were William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming” (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), and W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” (“Waves of anger and fear / Circulate over the bright / And darkened lands of the earth”). Yeats’s poem, written just after World War I, spoke of a time when “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Auden’s poem, written in the wake of Germany’s invasion of Poland, described a world lying “in stupor,” as democracy was threatened and “the enlightenment driven away.”

Apocalypse is not yet upon our world as the 2010s draw to an end, but there are portents of disorder. The hopes that were nourished during the opening years of the decade – hopes that America was on a progressive path toward growing equality and freedom, hopes that technology held answers to some of our most pressing problems – have given way, with what feels like head-swiveling speed, to a dark and divisive new era. Fear and distrust are ascendant now.

William Carlos Williams put it this way – “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Poetry has a way of coming true:

With the rise of nationalist movements and a backlash against globalization on both sides of the Atlantic, the liberal post-World War II order – based on economic integration and international institutions – began to unravel, and since 2017, the United States has not only abdicated its role as a stabilizing leader on the global stage, but is also sowing unpredictability and chaos abroad.

A 2019 Freedom House report, which recorded global declines in political rights and civil liberties over the last 13 years, found that “challenges to American democracy are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide.”

Trump, however, didn’t cause that. He was just amplifying that:

Many of these troubling developments didn’t happen overnight. Even today’s poisonous political partisanship has been brewing for decades – dating back at least to Newt Gingrich’s insurgency – but President Trump has blown any idea of “normal” to smithereens, brazenly trampling constitutional rules, America’s founding ideals and virtually every norm of common decency and civil discourse.

So it’s not just praising war crimes, because it’s something more basic:

The biggest casualty of the decade was trust. According to a Pew survey earlier this year, only 17 percent of Americans trust the government to do what is right “most of the time” or “just about always.” America’s reputation tumbled even further on the world stage: A 2018 Pew survey of 25 countries found that 70 percent of respondents said they lack confidence that the American president would make the right foreign policy moves. Between the end of President Barack Obama’s second term and late 2018, positive views of America fell 27 percentage points in Germany, 26 points in Canada, and 25 points in France.

As with many things, Donald Trump is both a symptom and a radical accelerant of the decline in trust. While exploiting the anger at the establishment that snowballed around the world in response to the 2008 financial crisis, Mr. Trump has also cruelly amplified existing divisions and resentments in America, fueling suspicion of immigrants and minorities and injecting white nationalist views into the mainstream, in efforts to gin up his base.

And he is also riding a wave:

Echoes of Mr. Trump’s nativist populism can be found in Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain’s recent electoral victory and the Brexit referendum of 2016, and in the ascent of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. Democracy is under threat in Hungary and Poland. Once-fringe right-wing parties, with openly racist agendas, are rebranding themselves in Sweden and Belgium. And far-right groups in Germany and Spain are now the third-largest parties in those nations’ parliaments.

But, at the same time, Trump is unique:

Donald Trump remains a uniquely American phenomenon. Although the United States was founded on the Enlightenment values of reason, liberty and progress, there has long been another strain of thinking at work beneath the surface – what Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk,” and the historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as “the paranoid style.”

It’s an outlook characterized by a sense of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 essay, and focused on perceived threats to “a nation, a culture, a way of life.” Its language is apocalyptic (Mr. Trump’s “American carnage” is a perfect example); its point of view, extremist. It regards its opponents as evil and ubiquitous, while portraying itself, in Hofstadter’s words, as “manning the barricades of civilization.”

And that is where we are now:

In early 2017, Mr. Trump’s then adviser and strategist Steve Bannon vowed that the administration would wage a tireless battle for the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and the administration has done so ever since – nihilistically trying to undermine public faith in the efficacy, the professionalism, even the mission of the institutions that are crucial for guarding our national security, negotiating with foreign governments and ensuring the safety of our environment and workplaces. Mr. Trump also launched chilling attacks on those he reviled – from the FBI to the judiciary – for having failed to put loyalty to him ahead of loyalty to the Constitution.

This is familiar behavior among authoritarians and would-be dictators who resent constitutional checks and balances, and who want to make themselves the sole arbiters of truth and reality. A reporter said that in 2016 when she asked Mr. Trump why he continually assailed the press, he replied: “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”

That’s the paranoid style in American politics, with this bonus factor:

One of the terrible ironies of Mr. Trump’s presidency is that his administration’s dysfunction – little to no policymaking process on many issues, impulsive decision-making, contempt for expertise and plunging morale at beleaguered agencies – creates a toxic feedback loop that further undermines public trust in the government and lends momentum to his desire to eviscerate the “deep state.” The conflicts of interest that swirl around Mr. Trump and his cronies further increase the public’s perception of corruption and unfairness.

This is just not normal, but it is becoming normal, along with this:

In the 2010s, we also became addicted to podcasts, and binge-watching became a thing. In fact, immersion or escape into compelling fictional worlds seemed to be one strategy people were embracing to cope with political outrage fatigue. Perhaps this also explains why nostalgia became so popular in the 2010s with reboots and returns of old television shows like “Mad About You,” “Twin Peaks,” “The X-Files,” “Dynasty,” “Lost in Space,” “Roseanne,” “Will & Grace,” “Gilmore Girls” and “The Odd Couple” — a phenomenon that’s both a reflection of the retro-mania catalyzed by the endless availability of old content on the web and a longing for older, saner times.

With his calls to “Make America Great Again,” Mr. Trump appealed to a different sort of nostalgia – for an era when white men were in charge and women, African Americans, Hispanics and immigrants knew their place.

At the same time, Mr. Trump and his campaign revived the culture wars of the 1960s and ’70s, and politicized everything from football and Starbucks coffee cups (criticized by some evangelicals for being too secular and part of the “war on Christmas”) to plastic straws and windmills.

Michiko Kakutani has much more. In the second decade of this century we somehow lost all sense of what was normal. And then we elected Trump to wipe out what was left of “the normal” anywhere. And now we love war crimes and war criminals.

But there is the resistance. Do your part. Do the nation a favor. Be normal. That’s an act of courage now.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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