The New Abnormal

Donald Trump has been president for exactly six months.  By my calculations, that means he has 90 months to go before he’s done.

That’s right:  90 months.  Seven-and-a-half years.  Two presidential terms.

You heard it here first:  Trump is going to be re-elected in 2020, and he’s going to serve until January 20, 2025.  He will not be impeached.  He will not be removed.  He will not die.  And he will not resign.

That’s not a prediction.  That’s a goddamned guarantee.

I haven’t the slightest idea how he’s going to pull this off—Lord knows I didn’t foresee last year’s shenanigans three-and-a-half years in advance—but nor have I any doubt that he could, and almost surely will.  If recent U.S. history teaches us anything, it’s that if you can win a presidential election once, you can win a presidential election twice.  Four of our last five commanders-in-chief have done just that, and there is little reason to expect this trend to abate with the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Trump is going to be an eight-year national problem, and we might as well get used to it now.  Don’t expect him to disappear ahead of schedule, or to go gently into that good night.  He has spent the first 71 years of his life steadfastly refusing to yield his place in the national conversation, never giving anyone a moment’s peace.  Why would years 72 to 78 be any different?

They won’t be.  Trump is not going to change any part of his core identity before he dies, and perhaps the most essential among them is his primal, obsessive need for total victory—as he calls it, “winning.”  Knowing, as he does, that being a one-term president would be an abject humiliation and would brand him an electoral “loser” for all eternity—indeed, doubly so, considering his failure to secure the popular vote the first time around—he is surely prepared to do literally anything to prevent such an eventuality from happening, up to and including breaking every social and political norm that he hasn’t already violated.

Think he’s corrupt and unsavory now?  Just you wait, Henry Higgins.  Just you wait.

Of course, I could be getting carried away, allowing misguided cynicism to obscure certain realities that are staring us squarely in the face.  The obvious rejoinder to my dour political forecast—the one you will hear from every white-knuckled left-wing media source in America—is that the sheer weight of ridiculous scandal already engulfing the Trump administration will ultimately destroy it—if not now, then within a few months, and if not within a few months, then sometime between now and the end of the first term.  Trump forever being his own worst enemy—devoid of scruples, subtlety and any sense of civic responsibility—he will sooner or later cross a red line—legally and/or morally—that the American public will view as the proverbial last straw and will then demand Congress dispose of him once and for all, which its exasperated members will presumably be all-to-happy to do.

Such has become the reigning fantasy of the Trump era:  The assumption that after two-plus years of getting away with slaughtering one sacred cow after another, Trump will eventually say or do something so profoundly beyond the pale that the entire country will drop everything and say, “That does it.  This man can no longer be the president.”  Evidently, nothing he has done so far has risen to that level—including that time he bragged about having committed sexual assault.

In any case, the crux of this hopeful narrative is the basic fact of Trump’s terminally low approval ratings since entering the White House—numbers that seem to remain in the toilet irrespective of how he behaves on any given day.  While much was made of a recent Washington Post-ABC News survey that pegged the president’s support at a historically awful 36 percent, the truth is that his numbers have barely moved since the moment he took the oath of office.  (According to Gallup, Trump’s approval rating has ranged between 36 and 42 percent every day since April 29, and has never once risen above 46.)

How, you ask, could someone who has yet to garner the support of 50 percent of the public—and likely never will—possibly win the next presidential election under any circumstances?  It’s a sensible enough question—or it would be, except for the 16 U.S. presidents who have done exactly that.

That’s right:  More than one in three of America’s commanders-in-chief achieved ultimate power without winning a majority of the popular vote.  Of those 16 men, five (including Trump) lost the national popular vote outright, while the remaining 11 won a plurality of the popular vote but were denied an absolute majority thanks to multiple opponents who split the vote amongst themselves.  Three chief executives—Clinton, Wilson and Cleveland—managed to pull this off twice, so who is to say it will not happen again in 2020?

Having won by losing once already, Trump plainly understands that he doesn’t need broad support on anything to eke out a victory 42 months hence.  Gifted a lousy Democratic opponent and a halfway-viable third party nominee—both of which are entirely within the realm of plausibility—Trump could squeak back into the White House with little more than 40 or 41 percent.  As ever, the only number that truly matters is 270—a majority in the Electoral College—which Trump could hit merely by holding 26 of the 30 states he won last November.

And how will he accomplish that?  By doing what he does best:  Bluffing.

Regardless of his actual domestic record after four years, he will proclaim himself the most successful chief executive in history.  Regardless of the findings of Robert Mueller’s investigation, he will declare himself not guilty on all charges.  Regardless of whatever happens in North Korea, the Middle East and God knows where else, he will boast of having defeated ISIS, staunched illegal immigration and Made America Great Again.

All such behavior will be perfectly predictable, stemming, as it does, from Trump’s nature as a delusional narcissist who is somehow also a world-class con artist.  As Sarah Ellison writes in this month’s Vanity Fair, “[Trump] is a pathogen, doing what pathogens do, and as surprised as anyone to have found himself replicating in the nation’s bloodstream.”

The question, then, is how many marks Trump’s act will attract this time around, and whether enough of them will turn out to the polls on November 3, 2020.

It is my view that enough of them will, and that this miserable circus will go on for precisely 2,922 days longer than most people expected on November 7, 2016.  Despite the incompetence and despite the fraud, Trump will remain leader of the free world for eight full years.

Why?  Because, fundamentally, Americans are leery of abandoning a known quantity who wields supreme power.  We like stability and familiarity in our leaders, and while Trump does not exactly embody the former, he has long mastered the art of distracting America from one controversy by bungling into a new one, thereby resetting the 24-hour media game clock and nudging the goalposts of moral outrage ever-farther down the field.

For all the warnings on the left to never accept Trump and his methods as “the new normal,” it is human nature to adapt to a changing environment over time.  Like the famous frog who adjusts to a gradually-warming pot of water, the American public has learned to assimilate the president’s singularly bizarre and dangerous behavior as an organic feature of the current political landscape.  His unpredictability has itself become predictable, and millions of our fellow citizens take real, if perverse, comfort from not knowing what the hell he’s going to do next.

George Carlin once said, “When you’re born in this world, you are given a ticket to the freak show.  When you’re born in America, you are given a front row seat.”  It was in that same spirit that, in June 2015—as the campaign was just beginning—The Onion ran a story, faux-written by Trump himself, titled, “Admit It:  You People Want To See How Far This Goes, Don’t You?”

Well:  don’t we?

Back to Normal

When I was in college, Marathon Monday simply meant getting drunk and having a great time.

The Boston Marathon begins in Hopkinton at 10 a.m.  For us in our dorms near Kenmore Square, that meant waking up at 9, breaking out a 30-pack of Bud Light a few minutes later, and eventually hobbling over to Beacon Street to see the race’s leading men, women and wheelchair-bound pass by, followed soon thereafter by 20,000 or so runners-up.

It’s a perfectly sensible tradition in our fair city.  Drinking beer with friends is a joyous experience, and cheering on thousands of ironclad runners is a joyous experience as well.  To do both things simultaneously—well, the word “orgasmic” would not be too far off.

The theory is that the third Monday in April—Patriots’ Day, as it is officially known—is the one day when Boston cops don’t bother citing people for public intoxication.  (Note:  This is not necessarily true.)  For spectators, the Boston Marathon is such a merry, mellow and family-friendly event that any outbreak of inebriation is of a decidedly harmless and good-natured sort.  (Patriots’ Day is also understood as the one time in which you can drink in the morning and not be considered an alcoholic.)

A decade and a half earlier, the relevant marathon liquids were water and orange juice, which my short schoolboy self would help distribute to runners along the course.  This was an especially high honor in 1992, when my father and uncle ran the marathon together.  I remember it well:  I had lined up two plastic cups along the curb—one for Dad, one for Uncle Roy.  As soon as we spotted the duo coming up the hill, I dashed for the first cup, handed it off to Dad with perfect precision, then dashed back for the second.  When I returned to the edge of the street, expecting Roy’s outstretched arm, he and Dad were both long gone.  I guess they had some place to be.

There are plenty more Marathon Monday stories I could recount, and they are all indicative of the Boston Marathon’s core cultural purpose, which is to bring together virtually every resident of the Boston metro area in a display of total, unadulterated gaiety.  If you aren’t an actual participant, you attend the marathon for no reason except that it’s so goddamned enjoyable.  For all the boozing and tomfoolery, it’s just about the most innocent mass gathering in all of the United States.

And now, of course, it’s not.

As the city executes its final preparations for Monday’s race—the first since the moment when last year’s went horribly, horribly wrong—we are forced once again to deal with this concept known as the “new normal.”  Like boarding an airplane or sending an e-mail, the act of watching (let alone running) the Boston Marathon is no longer as innocuous or carefree as we long assumed it to be.

As a consequence of last year’s madness, this year’s festivities will be subject to extraordinary security provisions, including new restrictions on bags and other personal items, random searches by police, and prohibitions on strollers, large bottles and costumes.

Some of these regulations are perfectly reasonable; others seem needlessly excessive.  In any case, they illustrate how the Boston Marathon has joined the ever-growing list of public spaces subject to uncommonly intense scrutiny by the authorities, in the interest of keeping the peace and ensuring that nothing goes awry—a task that is ultimately impossible, since any marathon is an inherently open event.

In essence, the “new normal” is about the tension between security and freedom, with the implication that the former has taken precedence over the latter.

On better days, I take the view that safety in America has always been something of an illusion, that one assumes a million and one risks the moment one steps out the front door, and that the notion of national “innocence” is an absurdity that never existed and never will.

And yet when it comes to the Boston Marathon, I prefer the old normal.  I wish we could have it back.  I wish we didn’t have to think about the possibility of terror and violence at such an otherwise happy occasion, and I think it’s an obscenity that it took just two people with one bad idea to force us to think otherwise.

But our hand has indeed been forced, and there is no turning back.  As such, we are left with the second-best course of action, and that is to descend upon Monday’s race in record numbers and have the time of our lives.  Just like we always used to.