We weren’t going to normalize this.
Remember that? Remember the way many of us solemnly vowed we would always maintain the ability to be outraged, hold on to our capacity for shock?
Well, after almost four years that have passed like geologic time, that declaration feels like an artifact from another era, a Polaroid from back when the kids were little and you still had all your hair. It feels like something you said when you were too young to know any better.
The truth of Donald Trump’s untruths is that they have become not simply normal, but taken for granted. Saying that Trump lied is like saying the tide came in or the Browns lost. Because, of course. That’s what they do.The paradox is that the sheer volume of his lies seems to keep any one of them from mattering all that much.
A normal presidency in normal times would have been indelibly marked by any one of the thousands of whoppers Trump has excreted. Ask Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon about that.
But Trump’s mendacities — more numerous and more brazen than those of any president before him — are different. Forget dominating history, they often fall short of even dominating a news cycle. Again: There is so much. One’s ability to be indignant — or even to pay attention — is simply overwhelmed.
He lies about voting by mail, about laws he passed, about jobs he created, about his border wall, about defunding the police, about the weather. It becomes a challenge to even keep track. All lies matter, so no lies matter.
Which brings us to “Rage,” the new book by Bob Woodward — and its headline takeaway. It seems Trump admitted to Woodward that, back in the first months of this year, even as he was telling the American people COVID-19 was no big deal and that its impact would be minimal, he knew none of this was true. He told Woodward in contemporaneous interviews that the virus was far more deadly than he was letting on.
“I wanted to always play it down,” he said. “I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
One imagines the captain of the Titanic sending worried passengers back to their cabins. “Just a little bump. Nothing to worry about.”
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has seized on this revelation, calling it “a life-and-death betrayal of the American people.” Which it is. Yet one wonders if — honestly, one doubts if — the revelation will move the needle. The people who consider Trump “the chosen one” will not change their minds. Meanwhile, those of us who see him for the shambolic catastrophe he is will regard it as superfluous confirmation.
But one doubts any of us will be surprised, or even truly outraged. We have lost something — the ability to expect recognizably adult, human behavior in our leader. Worse, we’ve also lost what we said we wouldn’t: the ability to feel disappointed and indignant when it does not come. There is an element of exhaustion here. Fury feels rote, less a feeling than the memory of one.
Even if Trump is defeated in November, it’s an open question whether we’ll get that ability back — and what kind of people we will be if we don’t.
After all, Trump's “strategy” — assuming one wants to dignify it with that word — has left dead 190,000 Americans, and counting. He is guilty of lethal incompetence, of failing his sacred obligation to safeguard the country. Yet saying this does not suck all the air out of the room as it should. We said we weren’t going to normalize this.
Turns out we had no say in the matter.
(Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)