Over the weekend, Donald Trump alleged the existence of massive voter fraud in an election he indisputably won. Tuesday morning, seemingly inspired by a Fox News segment, he tweeted that flag burning should be not only illegal (a popular stance widely if sporadically held by Republican politicians) but punishable via loss of citizenship. The previous night, he retweeted a teen Trump fan's attacks on CNN reporter Jeff Zeleny. That was just a warmup for his own bizarre slam on CNN, a cable network that sidelined its regular stable of conservative pundits during the 2016 campaign in favor of a new crop of Trump-boosting specialists that including a former Trump campaign manager who was literally still cashing Trump's checks during most of his tenure as a political commentator.
These antics intersect with two ongoing debates about Trump in politics and media.
One is to what extent we should regard Trump as deliberately using social media controversies to distract attention from other issues. The other is to what extent political actors should be pressured to not "normalize" Trump — remaining focused on what is outlandish, offensive, and bizarre about him rather than doing boring things like writing about his humdrum pick for transportation secretary.
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Normalization, in this context, is typically cast as a form of complicity with Trump in which the highest possible premium is placed on maintaining a rigid state of alert and warning people that he is not just another politician whom you may or may not agree with on the issues.
But several students of authoritarian populist movements abroad have a different message. To beat Trump, what his opponents need to do is practice ordinary humdrum politics. Populists in office thrive on a circus-like atmosphere that casts the populist leader as persecuted by media and political elites who are obsessed with his uncouth behavior while he is busy doing the people's work. To beat Trump, progressives will need to do as much as they can to get American politics out of reality show mode.
Trump genuinely does pose threats to the integrity of American institutions and political norms. But he does so largely because his nascent administration is sustained by support from the institutional Republican Party and its standard business and interest group supporters. Alongside the wacky tweets and personal feuds, Trump is pursuing a policy agenda whose implications are overwhelmingly favorable to rich people and business owners. His opponents need to talk about this policy agenda, and they need to develop their own alternative agenda and make the case that it will better serve the needs of average people. And to do that, they need to get out of the habit of being reflexively baited into tweet-based arguments that happen on the terrain of Trump's choosing and serve to endlessly reinscribe the narrative of a champion of the working class surrounded by media vipers.