By Ross Douthat
In the quest to escape Donald Trump’s dominance of American politics, there have been two camps: normalizers and abnormalizers.
The first group takes its cues from an argument made in these pages by the Italian-born economist Luigi Zingales just after Trump’s 2016 election. Comparing the new American president-elect to Silvio Berlusconi, the populist who bestrode Italian politics for nearly two decades, Zingales argued that Berlusconi’s successful opponents were the ones who treated him “as an ordinary opponent” and “focused on the issues, not on his character.” Attempts to mobilize against the right-wing populist on purely moral grounds or to rely on establishment solidarity to deem him somehow illegitimate only sustained Berlusconi’s influence and popularity.
The counterargument has been that you can’t just give certain forms of abnormality a pass; otherwise, you end up tolerating not just demagogy but also lawbreaking, corruption and authoritarianism. The more subtle version of the argument insists that normalizing a demagogue is also ultimately a political mistake as well as a moral one and that you can’t make the full case against a figure like Trump if you try to leave his character and corruption out of it.
Trump won in 2016 by exploiting the weak points in this abnormalizing strategy, as both his Republican primary opponents and then Hillary Clinton failed to defeat him with condemnation and quarantines, instead of reckoning with his populism’s substantive appeal.
His presidency was a more complicated business. I argued throughout, and still believe, that the normalizing strategy was the more effective one, driving Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms (when the messaging was heavily about health care and economic policy) and Joe Biden’s “let’s get back to normal” presidential bid. Meanwhile, the various impeachments, Lincoln Project fund-raising efforts, Russia investigations and screaming newspaper coverage seemed to fit Zingales’s model of establishment efforts that actually solidified Trump’s core support.
But it’s true that Biden did a fair bit of abnormalizing in his campaign rhetoric, and you could argue that the establishment panic was successful at keeping Trump’s support confined to a version of his 2016 coalition, closing off avenues to expand his popular appeal.
Whatever your narrative, the events of Jan. 6 understandably gave abnormalizers the upper hand, while inflation and other issues took the wind out of the more normal style of Democratic politics — leading to a 2022 midterm campaign in which Biden and the Democrats leaned more heavily on democracy-in-peril arguments than policy.
But when this abnormalizing effort was successful (certainly more successful than I expected), it seemed to open an opportunity for normalizers within the Republican Party, letting a figure like Ron DeSantis attack Trump on pragmatic grounds, as a proven vote loser whose populist mission could be better fulfilled by someone else.
Now, though, that potential dynamic seems to be evaporating, unraveled by the interaction between the multiplying indictments of Trump and DeSantis’s weak performance so far on the national stage. One way or another, 2024 increasingly looks like a full-abnormalization campaign.
Post-indictments, for DeSantis or some other Republican to rally past Trump, an important faction of G.O.P. voters would have to grow fatigued with Trump the public enemy and outlaw politician — effectively conceding to the American establishment’s this-is-not-normal crusade.
In the more likely event of a Biden-Trump rematch, the remarkable possibility of a campaign run from prison will dominate everything. The normal side of things won’t cease to matter, the condition of the economy will still play its crucial role, but the sense of abnormality will warp every aspect of normal partisan debate.
Despite all my doubts about the abnormalization strategy, despite Trump’s decent poll numbers against Biden at the moment, my guess is that this will work out for the Democrats. The Stormy Daniels indictment still feels like a partisan put-up job. But in the classified documents case, Trump’s guilt seems clear-cut. And while the Jan. 6 indictment seems more legally uncertain, it will focus constant national attention on the same gross abuses of office that cost Trumpist Republicans so dearly in 2022.
The fact that the indictments are making it tougher to unseat Trump as the G.O.P. nominee is just tough luck for anti-Trump conservatives. Trump asked for this, his supporters are choosing this, and his Democratic opponents may get both the moral satisfaction of a conviction and the political benefits of beating a convict-candidate at the polls.
But my guesses about Trump’s political prospects have certainly been wrong before. And there is precedent for an abnormalization strategy going all the way to prosecution without actually pushing the demagogue offstage. A precedent like Berlusconi, in fact, who faced 35 separate criminal court cases after he entered politics, received just one clear conviction — and was finally removed from politics only by the most normal of all endings: his old age and death.
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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT • Facebook
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