What We Mean When We Say Not Normal

Since Trump’s win on November 6th, I’ve seen a lot of stories casting Trump as an authoritarian, an autocrat, a fascist.  Most of what’s been written is intended for an audience that’s accepted the premise: what to do, how to take action.  Those of us who think this way remind each other to fight normalization with the phrase, ‘This is not normal.’  I can only imagine how that must sound to someone who doesn’t buy in.  ‘This is not normal’ makes sense to me, but isn’t terribly specific.  So, what exactly do we mean when we say it?  Given that quite a lot of people consider what’s taking place as perfectly normal, it’s a question worth answering.  I had trouble answering it.  As such, I can’t find a lot of fault with people who aren’t on board.

But if I had to choose one thing, it would be the press conference of the President Elect on the 11th of January.  This was my major not normal moment, and it came fairly late in the game.  Prior to this, I was unhappy with the results, but generally resigned to endure it.  After this, I was truly worried.  So, to you, my hypothetical citizen who thinks that they are watching a perfectly normal presidency unfold, I say the following:


In a healthy democracy, the executive accepts of the right of the press to question them and that they must, occasionally, justify themselves to the press.  Even an executive who lies to the press tacitly accepts the people’s right to information and the right to judge them for wrongdoing (otherwise there would be no need to lie).  In an authoritarian regime the press has no such right.  The authoritarian either controls the press directly, or creates a spectacle via the quasi-free press to distract and assert control.  Nowhere is this more evident that Donald Trump’s press conference on 1/11/2017.  I’m not going to go through the press conference point by point and I won’t be focusing on truth or falsehood or even policy.  I care about those things, but checking for truth or falsehood won’t really tell us what we want to know.  If you must,  NPR has a particularly good point by point factcheck if you’re interested.  But that’s not really what’s ‘not normal’.  What ‘isn’t normal’ isn’t what Trump is communicating but how. Trump does not use the press conference to inform.  He does not even use it to lie.  Trump uses the press conference to cause confusion, create reality, and consolidate power.

If you’ve not watched it, watch it.  Particularly the parts where Trump addresses the press directly.  If you don’t notice anything at first, read on . . .


Part I: I’m Great at News Conferences, The Best!

I’d like to note that it had been 167 days since his last traditional press conference, which is unusual for a President Elect.  Even Trump’s team felt it was something to address.  Trump and his team had plenty of time to prepare and knew that the press and the public would be watching very closely.  His performance, then, represents Trump at the top of his game.  There’s no reason to assume that anything during that any response was the result of a surprise or a gaffe.  This is the office of the President fully planned and on high alert.

After an introduction from Sean Spicer that could be it’s own article and a second introduction from Pence, Trump get’s right to it:

00:00Thank you very much, this is very familiar territory  news conferences  because we used to give them on an almost daily basis. I think we probably maybe won the nomination because of news conferences. And it’s good to be with you. We stopped giving them because we were getting quite a bit of inaccurate news.

This opener is a perfect example of the way Trump communicates throughout.  Clearly, he’s aware that there are concerns about how long he’s gone without addressing the press.  Clearly, he wants to come off as able to competently address the press.  But instead of resolving to just prep well and nail the press conference, he tells us what we should think.  In doing so, he’s laying bait.  Reporters in the audience will have real questions for him, but will be tempted to challenge his wild assertions.  If they do, he avoids the questions they’d prepared, if they don’t, he gets to create a little reality, namely, that he’s just the best at press conferences, even though it’s been 167 days without one.  And not having them was just a necessity from all the fake news.

Is this a big deal?  By itself, no.  But, imagine if someone you knew were to speak like this.  It would seem strange that anyone would feel the need to declare aptitude and preemptively address criticism to openly.  You’d wonder what they were up to.


Part II: Confusion

00:18 – But I do have to say that — and I must say that – I want to thank a lot of the news organizations here today because they looked at that nonsense that was released by maybe the intelligence agencies — who knows but maybe the intelligence agencies, which would be at tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that, a tremendous blot.

Because I’m assuming you, the reader, are of the opinion that this is a normal statement for a President to make, I’m going to entertain that this was Trump’s earnest effort to handle this crisis for a few paragraphs.  If this is the crisis management we can expect from this Administration, if this is normal, consider the following:

It’s a normal thing for you or I to speculate about the activities of the  FBI or CIA.  For an incoming President to have this attitude?  It’s insane.  Forget, for a minute, about this press conference and imagine a new one.  This press conference is one in which you have a direct stake because it’s been set by your employer.  Your CEO, who is your bosses boss, is going to address the public.  The press will be there, along with many shareholders and investors.  Before the press conference, a scandal breaks out.  A news organization has published a story claiming the company’s IT department has detected a major breach in the company’s security.  The story alleges that this breach was due to mismanagement or wrongdoing on the part of the CEO who is now walking up to the podium.

Now, imagine that your CEO announces that they’d “like to address the rumors that have been flying around, rumors that were released by maybe our IT department — who knows but maybe the IT department, which would be at tremendous blot on their record if they in fact did that . . . “

How would you feel, as an employee or a shareholder if you’d heard that?  Would you feel confident that the CEO had the situation in hand, under control?  I think it’s likely that you would be horrified.  You’d be horrified because if the CEO thinks that they have such a big problem with their IT department it would be totally inappropriate to publicly speculate about it.  If there was no wrongdoing on the part of the IT department, then it’s the CEO’s responsibility to publicly support them.  On the other hand, if there was wrongdoing, then it’s the CEO’s responsibility to replace staff or otherwise fix the problem.  As adversarial as the situation might seem, the CEO has the responsibility and authority to do whatever’s necessary.  As an employee, would you feel confident in your CEO’s leadership?  Could you be sure it wouldn’t be you who was thrown under the bus next?  As a shareholder, investor, or member of the board of directors, would you have confidence in this individual you’ve entrusted to run your company?

The CEO in our analogy, obviously, is Trump, and the IT department the intelligence agencies.  We’ve been so sold on the narrative of ‘CIA vs Trump’ that we’ve forgotten that the CIA is a part of the executive branch.  Anything wrong with with the intelligence agencies is the President’s responsibility.  Trump’s responsibility.  For any intelligence agency to deliberately leak compromising material of this magnitude isn’t just an attack on Trump.  It’s an attack on the institution of the Presidency.  It’s an attack on American democracy.

Yet, his response to this is to speculate in front of everyone.  ‘Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t.’  He says this as though he’s one of us, and not the one person in the world with the power and the responsibility to investigate any such activity.  The familiarity is why it works.  He speaks in a manner that leads us to believe that he’s saying ‘what’s on his mind’ or saying things that another, less honest, person might say.  He’s just ‘calling it like he sees it’. Maybe even comes across as ‘tough’.  But, again, Donald Trump was, at the time of this press conference, gearing up to assume the most powerful office in the world.  In speculating, Trump has either gotten so caught up in a feud between himself and the intelligence agencies or he’s forgotten those responsibilities that are well within his power to oversee as President.  Unless, of course, the confusion he created was intentional.

If you’re still not convinced, think about what he didn’t say.  He could have very easily said something like this: “My office has read the dossier leaked by Buzzfeed.  And I can assure the American people that the allegations it makes are baseless.  Yes, I was briefed earlier today on this material; it is the job of our intelligence agencies to make me aware of any attempts to undermine the office of the President.  We are working together, closely, to discover the source of this material and to clarify it’s purpose, and will continue to do so upon my assumption of office.”  This would state definitively that the information is false and would show that Trump is taking responsibility for dealing with it with the tools at the President’s disposal.  This is what someone who considered themselves responsible for their administration would have said.  There’s no mention of the leak because there’s no need to talk about it at all.  For the President, intelligence agencies are tools, not adversaries.  His mindset should have been to take care of that internally.

And if someone asks a question about it: “Yes, we’ve conducted an investigation within our own office and have determined that we were not the source of this material.  Mr Coates (or Mr. Pompeo, or whoever) will be leading an investigation with our intelligence agencies.  Next question.”  No speculation, no enemies created, total reassurance to the people that the office of the President is in charge and handling things on their behalf.  No need to lash out in any way, because the responsibility to oversee the intelligence agencies and the power to do so is assumed.  Pick any modern President other than Trump, at random, and this would have been their answer.

So why didn’t he say these things?  Is he just inept?  Unlikely.  His real goal is to create a spectacle.  Trump is fully aware of his responsibilities and power but chooses to mislead the public anyway.  The purpose of this behavior is to centralize power around the Authoritarian.  By spreading confusion he defines himself as the central point of stability.  What he says becomes, maybe not truth, but at least ‘what the President said’.  Trump’s address is not folksy, tough, or clumsy.  Anyone trying to handle the crisis well would have given a drastically different address.  Anyone trying to adequately lie or cover something up would have given a drastically different address.  This is the method of the modern Authoritarian.

Let’s take a look at another example on the same subject.

53:27 – I’ll tell you what does happen. I have many meetings with intelligence. And every time I meet, people are reading about it. Somebody’s leaking it out. So, there’s — maybe it’s my office. Maybe in my office because I have a lot of people, a lot of great people. Maybe it’s them. And what I did is I said I won’t tell anybody. I’m going to have a meeting and I won’t tell anybody about my meeting with intelligence.

And what happened is I had my meeting. Nobody knew, not even Rhona, my executive assistant for years, she didn’t know — I didn’t tell her. Nobody knew. The meeting was had, the meeting was over, they left. And immediately the word got out that I had a meeting.

Here, he continues to accuse his own intelligence agencies of leaking to the press and the public.  And his reasoning for this is that he didn’t tell anyone about a meeting and the information leaked after that meeting, therefore, it had to have been the intelligence agencies.  This is the type of thing a manipulative teenager would say to implicate someone they happen not to like in the latest high school scandal.  ‘It had to be Patricia who told everyone your secret because everyone knew after I told her!’ This adolescent maneuvering does not constitute any proof at all, and shouldn’t, even to the person trying to cook up the lie!  There’s no reason to take his word that nobody knew or that he could know if anyone on his team did know.  There’s no reason to think that it wasn’t the intelligence agency’s source that leaked the material to begin with.  But none of those details are important to Trump because his goal is not resolution of the issue, nor is it to provide information, nor is it to even deliver a plausible lie.  The purpose of this press conference was to establish Trump as the sole arbiter of conflict and to create an environment where his words are the only real authority.


Part III: A Tale of Two Donalds

But, don’t they all do that?  No, my cynical reader, they do not all do that.  And, by the way, it is that cynicism that has gotten Trump as far as he’s gone.  The mantra of ‘they’re all crooks’ makes it really hard to identify the actual crooks.

Maybe you still think Trump’s speculation is something commonplace; just something that any member of an administration would do.  In that case, I invoke another Donald from another press conference of note.  One of the most memorable evasions to ever take place at a White House press conference is arguably Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘Unknown unknown’ response.  No, I don’ t think that Trump is like Rumsfeld.   That they evade, sure, they have that in common.  But the method of evasion?  Trump makes Rumsfeld look like an amateur.  Take a minute to read the whole exchange and you’ll notice it’s quite different from anything you’ve heard from Trump.

That link includes the exchange and commentary from Errol Morris, who makes Rumsfeld out to be an evasive mastermind.  But, slippery as he was, Rumsfeld never descended into the kind of spectacle we’ve seen so far from Trump.  Whatever contempt Rumsfeld had for the press, his responses belie a begrudging respect.  Not for the individual questioning him, or the press in general, but for the power of the press to question him and their authority to do so.  Some part of him believed they, and the public they represent, deserved a definitive answer; something other than his simple assertion.  That he had no good information was the origin of his verbal contortions.  Trump would never had stooped to such equivocations because he would not have needed to:  “People are talking, and people are talking about Saddam having weapons of mass destruction.  I know this, believe me, I know this for a fact.  These people, these people saying otherwise, I don’t know about them.  We have got to do something, we have just got to get those weapons.  Ok, go ahead.”  Blind and baseless assertion, with a touch of antagonism for misdirection.  That’s how Rumsfeld would have answered as an autocrat.


Part IV: Trump “vs.” the Media

Possibly the most heated moment was between Trump and CNN’s Dan Acosta.

 if the video does not queue up automatically, the exchange takes place at around 47:50


Acosta: Since you’re attacking us, can you give us a question? Mr. President-elect —

Trump: Go ahead.

Acosta: Mr. President-elect, since you are attacking our news organization…

Trump: Not you.

Acosta: Can you give us a chance?

Trump: Your organization is terrible.

Acosta: You are attacking our news organization, can you give us a chance to ask a question, sir? Sir, can you…

Trump: Quiet, quiet.

Acosta: Mr. President-elect, can you say…

Trump: She’s asking a question, don’t be rude. Don’t be rude.

Acosta: Can you give us a question since you’re attacking us? Can you give us a question?

Trump: Don’t be rude. No, I’m not going to give you a question. I’m not going to give you a question.

Acosta: Can you state…

Trump: You are fake news. Go ahead.

Acosta: Sir, can you state categorically that nobody —

Trump: Go ahead.



 Sounds like a heated exchange between adversaries, a power struggle.  Well, it might sound that way until you remember that it was Trump’s office who called the press conference, and that nobody gets in to a press conference credentials.  CNN was invited.
Let’s pretend, again, that this wasn’t a misdirection but intentional or an accident.  Again, this all comes back to power and responsibility.  As the President, he has the responsibility to protect us from organizations that he feels are going to mislead us.  And it’s not as if Trump hasn’t pulled anyone’s credentials before.  Yet, CNN, a news organization Trump feels is responsible for an attack on the office of the Presidency, an organization he feels is fake news entirely, an organization he feels is so villainous that he’s willing to shout them down, gets a press pass.  Why?  CNN’s presence only makes sense if it was intentional.  Either to be silent while they were publicly scolded, or to try to respond and be scolded directly (Acosta may have been well meaning,  but he’d given Trump exactly what he hoped for).

And let’s talk about that applause after Trump’s declaration of “You are fake news.”  How did you feel about that, when watching it?  Did that applause feel normal?  Let me ask another question: Is the press corps, in general, on great terms with Trump?  Are they the kind of folks who would, after seeing one of their colleagues getting berated, applaud?  No, but Trump’s press conference was filled with supporters and staff members to give himself favorable feedback when he needed it.


Part V: Applause

Let me repeat that.  He planted supporters in his press conference so that they could applaud and laugh where necessary.  These aren’t the actions of someone who doesn’t like the press.  They’re not the actions, even, of someone who’s lying or trying to cover something up.  These are the actions of someone who’s trying to fundamentally change the way the press relates to the office of the President.  Specifically, how accountable the President is to the press and the public in general.  This was a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge between the press and the public.

Not long afterwards, at around 48:36, Donald tells a joke to deflect a question he doesn’t like.  After being asked what he thought about Lindsey Graham’s bill for tougher sanctions on Russia.

“I hadn’t heard Lindsey Graham was going to do that. Lindsey Graham. I’ve been competing with him for a long time. He is going to crack that one percent barrier one day. I didn’t realize Lindsey Graham still had it. That’s all right. I think Lindsey Graham is a nice guy actually. I’ve heard that he is a nice guy and I’ve been hearing it.”

What Donald refers to here is Graham’s participation in the Republican primaries, where he dropped out fairly early.  Again, let’s do a gut check:  Is a joke by the President Elect about someone the President Elect beat in the primaries, very early in the primaries, funny?  Is it something a press corps relatively hostile to Trump would laugh at?  Is it anything other than sad?  So who was laughing?  Sounds like the supporters he planted in the audience really got a bang out of it.  Also note that he never answers the question.  This, according to those used to this style of leadership, is a classic deflection.


Part VI: A Little Captain’s Maneuver (remember?)

Alexey Kovalev, explains in a recent Slate podcast thatif you watch some of  Putin’s press conferences it’s really illuminating because you can see how much of an expert he is at dodging deflecting questions. how he tactically drone questions in statistics he cannot verify. Or with false moral equivalences, that sort of thing.

For example, they raise their hand and they ask the question. ‘Why does this {…} horrible human rights abuse happen in the country, can you do something about that as the President?’

He [Putin] two ways of getting through those questions.  One, he’ll feign ignorance, he’ll say ‘No, I haven’t heard anything about that.’  Although, in the next sentence he’ll display uncanny familiarity with the fate of Edward Snowden or Julian Assange, but not the political prisoners in Russia. So that’s one of his ways of deflecting.

The other way, and this [..] happens every time, I don’t know how you end up reporting this every single time.  So, he’ll say something to the effect of ‘Ok, this is a very serious issue.  Don’t human rights abuses happen in other countries as well? Don’t you follow the fate of the prisoners in Guantanamo.’  He will diminish the seriousness of allegation.

Kovalev is a former employee of the Russian state media, and current proprietor of noodleremover.news, a site dedicated to debunking Russian state misinformation.  After the press conference, he immediately issued a warning to the American media: Welcome to the era of bullshit.

Here are a few more of Trumps deflections:

Question: “And secondly to that, on the broader picture, do you accept their opinion that Vladimir Putin ordered the hack of the DNC and the attempted hack of the RNC?  And if you do, how will that color your attempts to build a relationship with a leader who has been accused of committing an act of espionage against the United States?”

Answer: As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.  And I can say that, you know, when we lost 22 million names and everything else that was hacked recently, they didn’t make a big deal out of that. That was something that was extraordinary — that was probably China. We had much hacking going on.

He admits that the thinks it was Russia who did the hacking, but then changes the subject to hacking in general.  This is a chance for a definitive denial or specific steps the office of the President will take, but either answer might make him accountable.  Also, note that it is he who thinks it was Russia, not that there was evidence from some other entity or the office of the President Elect as a group.  Only the autocrat can confirm or deny.

Answer (to the same question): ” And I have to say this also — the Democratic National Committee was totally open to be hacked.”

Double whammy.  ‘I think it was Russia, but what about hacking in general and, by the way, my opponents (who are no longer really my opponents because the election is over) totally got hacked.’

Question (the same reporter, trying to follow up): “Just to the last part of that question, how could all of this potentially color your attempts to build a better relationship with President Putin?”

Answer: “Well, you know, President Putin and Russia put out a statement today that this fake news was indeed fake news. They said it totally never happened. Now somebody would say, “oh, of course he’s going to say that” — I respected the fact that he said that. And I will be honest, I think if he did have something, they would have released it. They would’ve been glad to release it. I think frankly, had they broken into the Republican National Committee, I think they would have released it — just like they did about Hillary — and all of the horrible things that her people, like Mr. Podesta said about her. I mean what he said about her was horrible. If somebody said about me what Podesta said about Hillary, I was the boss, I would have fired him immediately. Or that person. Because what he said about her was horrible.”

Again, a chance to inform the public, but no actual comments on the US/Russia relationship moving forward.  All we get is ‘Russia thinks it’s fake and also Russia didn’t hack the RNC (they tried) and also John Podesta said a lot of nasty things about Hillary (he didn’t) and also the person who is not my opponent because the election is over.’  Hopefully, you’re already getting the sense of how this breaks journalism.  If you’re a reporter, how do you cover that answer?  Accept his initial, rudimentary, assertion as fact?   Report, again, that the RNC suffered an attempted hacking?  Dig back into the Podesta emails to find comments we might think Trump considers ‘nasty’?  What was the original question, again?

The entire question and answer session is like this.  The press, god bless them, keep hammering away and he just keeps delivering non-information.  No risk of getting caught in a lie and no way to get pinned down because there isn’t enough substance to debunk.  As I’d said before, fact checking these press conferences is a lost cause because Trump isn’t giving answers that are meant to function as information.  Even when he does confirm or deny, he’s not not using verifiable information to make the case for anything, he’s using himself and only himself.

So, that is what we mean when we say ‘not normal’.  I hope that you, my hypothetical reader, have a better understanding of why everyone is so insistent that this one is different.  And I think that regardless of your politics, we can agree that the President should be accountable to the people, and accountable to the truth.

Yesterday, January 21st, Sean Spicer gave a press conference where he criticized perfectly reasonable estimates of the crowd size of Trump’s Inauguration.  He took no questions.  He walked up to that podium as press secretary of the White House, delivered several lies, and walked out.  This over something as petty and completely inconsequential as crowd size.  The only reason to do this to force the public to choose sides: the President, or the press.  This is not normal.  This transcends the feud between left and right.  The time for partisan recriminations is long past.

We really need your help.