Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the editor of “The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @julianzelizer. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
When the fire alarm went off in my gym the other morning, barely anyone paid attention. Even though the siren was loud and alarm lights were noticeably flashing, most people kept on working out. With their Air Buds and ear buds blasting music and eyes glued to the morning news shows, they continued pumping iron, running on the treadmill, and staying in the plank position so that the core would be as tight as possible.
It wasn’t until some of the staff came scrambling through the gym floor yelling at people to leave the building quickly that it became evident that the smoke was very real. Fortunately, everyone left the building, though some still in shorts and swimsuits, without injury.
It struck me as I walked out of the facility that many of us are equally immune to the political fire alarms that go off in Washington almost every day. From the first day of the Trump presidency, the shocking headlines and unsettling news have been inundating us.
We have seen and heard President Donald Trump take so many actions that unsettle the stability of our democracy that we are reaching a point where this is simply becoming the new normal. The danger is that when an alarm goes off that we really can’t afford to ignore, we won’t take it seriously. Too many people will say that it’s just Trump being Trump. Everything will be ok – until it is not.
The normalization of presidential instability has been stunning. In a week that saw the unprecedented shakeup of high level executive branch officials continue, and a “60 Minutes” interview with a porn star who claims the President’s men threatened her to be silent about their alleged affair, many experts noted how quiet the week had been because Trump didn’t tweet too much.
Trump has pummeled our sense of convention to the point where it might be impossible to return to where we were even in the days when President Barack Obama finished his term – and politics was already pretty crazy by 2016.
President Trump has shattered almost all norms of behavior, randomly attacking institutions that are vital to our democracy: His Twitter-based communications strategy has the potential to create dangerous situations. Unedited and provocative statements from the President can have huge ramifications. So far, the nation has been lucky, even though Trump has taken an ad hoc approach to leadership that leaves the government handling almost every issue with no clear plan.
Sometimes improvisation can result in good things, but other times it is a recipe for disaster. It is the chaos theory of governance. Throw things out in the wind, react and respond, and hope for the best.
Other than with his systematic and focused drive to vitiate the government’s regulation of business, Trump has shown very little ability to manage the reins of government – and that raises vital questions about how he would handle a major crisis. The rotating cabinet, most of which has been filled by individuals with little government experience to begin with, makes the risk even greater, given the President’s thin knowledge of policy.
Some of the fire alarm problem stems from the way in which the chaos has been covered. Often there is too much drama in the headlines, too many teasers from reporters who suggest that whatever information comes their way is the “bombshell” that will change everything. A good look at political history shows that those “game change” moments are far and few between.
When we have too many big breaking news stories, it is harder to see when the really significant news happens. Reporters and producers, often doing hard work trying to make sure that the facts are not clouded over by the administration’s often deceptive rhetoric, sometimes have gone too far in dramatizing every moment in the Trump presidency to the point that most viewers and readers can’t really tell whether they should be worried.
President Trump might be thinking that Americans will become so worn down by the daily revelations in the Russia investigation that they won’t be paying attention anymore if Robert Mueller actually produces a damning report.
But there are many big areas of policy where it is easy to imagine that a real fire will ignite in the near future. The situation with North Korea remains extraordinarily tense and the recent foray into diplomatic discussions can quickly go off the rails and turn into a provocative military attack.
Computer hackers, some allied with governments like Russia, have been conducting a series of high level attacks – on targets ranging from our electoral system to our city governments – that could paralyze government institutions. Terrorist attacks by assailants – from people motivated by ISIS to native born Americans – are a daily threat that can continue and easily get worse. And there are still terrorist networks who pose very real threats to the nation.
The fluctuations in the stock market should be a reminder that at any moment the kind of crash that occurred in 2008 could happen again. A new documentary, “The China Hustle,” documents the shaky investments that are still very much part of our markets. It is easy to see how President Trump’s initial moves to impose tariffs could deteriorate into a full-scale trade war that leaves communities reeling. We have already seen how the administration failed to handle a number of difficult moments, including the recovery from the hurricane that hit Puerto Rico or the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
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Given the challenges that the nation faces, we need a President who can handle difficult situations effectively and administration officials who will not make things worse. But in 2018, we are not in a place where we can have confidence in this outcome.
Many of the craziest parts of this presidency are now just fodder for late night jokes, but not serious political conversation – or, more importantly, political action. There seems to be very little movement in Congress to do anything about the risky actions we have seen from the President and the damaging changes he is making to the presidency. Much of the nation is no longer able to evaluate how serious the governance problem really is.
In season two of the Trump presidency, many of us are no longer paying attention to the alarms.