Normalization? Let’s Talk Winning and Losing

*I wrote this in January 2017, I published it today.

I see it all the time in my feed, impassioned pleas not to “normalize Trump.” High enough profile folks seem committed to the argument that it will be the big strategy, despite those folks having no discernible strategy.

At the outset, I want to be clear that this is not a defense of President-elect Trump, but a critique of a faulty strategic concept. To be anti-anti-normalization is not an argument that a Trump Presidency is desirable. If discussion of optimal strategy is dismissed as concern trolling or even treated as support of Trump, failure becomes inevitable. Arguments should not be decided on the basis of which blog posted first, hot-takes are known for their speed, not their sophistication.

First, what does it mean to normalize Trump?

I would guess that means to act as if he won the election, which he did. That is the starting point — Trump won. Pouting won’t reverse that. Beyond that the Republicans held Congress and plan to pass legislation, as is their right. There is no historical example of a President who was completely stymied.

What is the inverse of normalization?

Can you estrange Trump? Can you make him seem like a bad dude? The entire final strategic phase of the Clinton campaign was premised on shutting down the entire positive agenda and running on the Trump bad argument. It is not entirely clear how he could seem any less normal. At this point, many of the anti-normalizing arguments seem to be that Trump doesn’t understand regular political processes and that he can operate sans a mandate. If we take the extreme right seriously here, folks in dozens of states literally voted to destroy the system as we know it, to burn it down as it were.

I know that semantic and descriptive research is very uncool. That is unfortunate. We need folks to be clear about what they mean and how they mean it.

Second, what does it mean to win?

Game theory supposes that we can make analogies between parlor games and real questions of leadership — real strategic choices are more like everyday games than they are not. From this point, scholars can build models of particular kinds of games and play dynamics. The most important of these for our consideration is the win-condition, how does one win a game and what does that win mean? Without getting to much into the research base, I will argue that the win condition is a description of an empirical property of a system. Arguing that a system is unjust or that an alternative should be in place is not a meaningful response to a strategic argument.

What are the end-states of the game?

Trump never becomes normal and resigns/is impeached.

Trump becomes normal and is unable to achieve policy objectives.

Trump becomes normal and achieves some policy objectives.

Trump acts outside of legislative process and implements agenda through the executive branch.

Here is a chart:

Yes, this is low resolution.

Although the chart below is not exactly conventional for a game theory diagram, it isolates the choice and end points.

The nightmare scenario, that red circle, occurs along BOTH branches. Anti-normalization doesn’t produce a firewall against Trump unless you reach the purple circle, total left victory, which has a near zero probability. Those delightful green circles are your best chances to win substantial policy victories. I would argue that it is harder for Trump to try going for the red circle scenario if he is in those Green circles.

Third, anti-normalization gets temporality wrong

Trump thrives in a special, exceptional time. He is not a president of ordinary time. If you frame him as such, you lose. Worse, the sort of affective energy level necessary to preclude Trump from functioning normally as President is impossible. You can’t keep up that level of outrage. Many aspects of the Presidency are designed to make the President seem legitimate. The structure of the public sphere is working against anti-normalization. Any time that Trump appears legitimate, the anti-normalization side will appear out of touch. The deeper problem is that if Trump does anything he becomes normal, providing literal evidence against the anti-normalization argument.

The anti-normalization arguments depend on some secondary decision point in the near future, as if they could keep Trump from becoming normal for a few weeks until everyone woke up and decided to impeach him. There is no bailout coming, plan for the long struggle not a short rage cycle.

What should we do instead?

Design real strategies that actually have a win condition.

There are two points where the game is afoot: if Trump is trying to work through normal processes. If you let Trump get up to bat with terrible ideas and you win the debate against them, you win, if the bad ideas pass you win. With moderates the game is very similar, Trump wins if he seems normal only if you set the expectation that he is totally abnormal, he can just rack up easy wins. In any event, you won’t convince enough folks that Trump is so abnormal that he can’t exercise executive power.

I would say, argue against Trump at each point, stick to clear, difficult obfuscate points, avoid off-topic arguments, stay away from his Twitter feed, be a grownup, make things are normal as possible, downright banal even.

Associate Professor of Social Media, Oregon State: These are my opinions, not theirs. Read my book: Selling Social Media (Bloomsbury Academic), 2018.