Normal: Conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected
I’ve been spending a lot of time worrying about Brexit recently – and now, to add a nightmare-inducing cherry to my anxiety-cake, Trump. The message liberals like me seem most keen to disseminate at the moment is that this is not normal. Newspapers, blogs, podcasts – commentators are trying, quite understandably, to make sure we don’t normalise this. It’s not normal to see two racist misogynists standing next to one another in front of a wall of gold, celebrating the elevation of one of their number to leadership of the free world. It’s not normal to allow an erstwhile school-boy with a penchant for Hitler-youth songs to lead a nation over an economic cliff. It’s not normal for a man to be elected president when he’s currently subject to a smorgasbord of sexual assault allegations.
Perhaps. I have to say, though, that I’m coming to think that it isn’t so much that this isn’t normal, but that it shouldn’t be normal. The vein of xenophobia running through the Brexit campaign and the overt racism and sexism of the Trump campaign found a boil in the public consciousness that didn’t take much lancing: people seemed primed for this. And what is normal if not something shared by the majority of an electorate: it just so happens that a lot of us thought standards were better.
Yes, the votes in both countries were pretty close, and the outcome was exacerbated by a cocktail of austerity, poverty and years of political neglect. But in the end so many people were prepared either to endorse xenophobia; sexism; racism – fairly enthusiastically in some cases – or to turn a blind eye to them in the name of “making America great Again”/”taking our country back” as to make discrimination feel acceptable. And the point is that I don’t think that takes us somewhere new as a society – I think it’s the normal that we’ve managed to paper over for a few decades with a handful of genuine gains in political equality.
The distinction matters because we need to know what we’re up against. It’s been suggested that part of the reason the Remainers and Democrats both lost was down to complacency, which seems reasonable in retrospect. Even before the reductive 140-character age of Twitter, we’ve always been linear creatures – we like a narrative, especially a neat one, and can have a tendency to assume that progress always moves forwards. Civil rights lead to Obama, feminism leads to Clinton, the hip Trudeau of the 60s leads to the Marvel hero of 2016….It feels right that we’d keep building on our incremental moral gains as a society, leaving discrimination and inequality in our dust. If this year’s proved anything, though, it’s that that’s just not how this goes. Trudeau, Clinton and Obama aren’t our normal yet – they’re exceptions. And whilst Trump and many of the most vocal Brexiteers might seem grotesque, their prejudices have turned out to be depressingly mainstream fare. That’s not to say that everyone who voted for Trump is a racist, or that the Brexiteers were all driven by fears about immigration. But if we overlook the uglier underbelly of both campaigns, we risk forgetting how fragile our recent progress really is.
Even within my own family my feminism is seen as something of an eccentricity. As a white, privileged woman, I’ve been guilty of brushing away the occasional glimpse to discrimination or prejudice, writing it off as a rarity or a relic: essentially in the belief that, broadly speaking, society has put an infrastructure in place which is trying to eradicate discrimination. If we hold on to that faith too blindly, though, I fear we risk perpetuating the politics of 2016. Trump’s vitriol isn’t new – it’s very, very old, and we need to see it as such. We’re not resisting a sudden, horrifying normalisation of misogyny and racial abuse, we’re reacquainting ourselves with an old set of prejudices which never really disappeared. Yes, the rhetoric is particularly violent at the moment and feeling as though it’s been legitimised is extremely difficult, but I don’t think it’s as rare as we thought – particularly for those of us who aren’t white, non-disabled, cisgendered or heterosexual.
Ultimately I believe the shocks of the last few months will galvanise change and motivate a new generation of activists, but we need to prepare ourselves by recognising that the standards we’re defending now had never had time to become the status quo. It’s still normal to prefer an alt-right gameshow host to a woman who could not have been more qualified for the job. It’s just that it shouldn’t be.