Normalcy Deferred

Members of the news media watch President Joe Biden give his inaugural address from the press briefing room at the White House in Washington D.C., January 20, 2021. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Even the things that are normal have an abnormal feel to them.

‘This is not normal” was a refrain of the Donald Trump years. And Joe Biden was elected in part because he promised, “If I’m elected president, you won’t hear me race-baiting, you won’t hear me dividing — you’ll hear me trying to unify.” He could have stopped after the first “me.” Biden says he wants to revive bipartisanship, not be in our faces all the time, and just get things done. The promise was the same one that elected Warren Harding 100 years ago — the promise of a “return to normalcy” after an exhausting four years.

We’re a long way from normalcy.

It’s not all Joe Biden’s fault. Giving an inaugural speech to a tiny crowd of people who are masked and socially distanced is not normal. Giving it in a version of Washington, D.C., that looks like it is dug in for an imminent invasion by the British is not normal. It’s not normal that the first months of a new administration that wants to “unify” the country will feature a Senate trial of the previous president.

It’s not normal to respond to a previous elected official’s provocations — bad as they are — by pushing a domestic-terrorism bill. Or to encourage some of the largest American companies to engage in more censorship.

What else isn’t normal? That the Federal Reserve has become our welfare state. That we live in a country where roughly 12 million people had the experience of losing their jobs and seeing their overall monthly income temporarily increase.

That’s not all. Have you tried to buy a gun lately? Gun sales have been climbing in a big way for over a decade, really since Barack Obama was elected in 2008, but the combination of a global pandemic, a spike in the violent-crime rate, and a summer of rioting unlike anything in a generation has inspired a boom in sales of boomsticks. While some COVID-era shutdowns and a few bankruptcies in the gun industry have slightly constrained supply, it’s the unprecedented demand that has store shelves empty. Overall estimates are that 5 million Americans or more purchased a gun for the first time in 2020. And somewhere between 17 million and 20 million guns were sold overall. Stores are being routinely emptied of their 9mm ammunition and 12-gauge shotgun rounds. Social media’s gun influencers are left preaching the benefits of a .22. It’s not normal for America to feel short of guns.

And even the things that are normal have an abnormal feel to them. It is now becoming normal for presidents to have a flotilla of executive orders to sign in their first days as president. But at this point it is starting to feel like a change of the presidency is more like a change of a parliamentary majority, in which the whole government moves at once into a new position, where all the authority Congress has handed over to the massive executive branch is given a new direction.

And so “normalcy” means no controversy is settled by legislation, and they all get spun back up every four or eight years: Welcome back the Paris climate accords, the birth-control mandates, and the Title 9 kangaroo courts on college campuses. Say goodbye to the funding for the border wall and other immigration-control policies; goodbye Keystone pipeline.

Instead of Republicans and Democrats sharing a government, the whole arrangement suggests that America has two separate governments — one Republican, the other Democrat. One government goes into hibernation, and the other one comes out for a season. In one government, there will be a deal with Iran and no pipeline. If a Republican government comes out of the hole one January, the pipeline project will continue, and the Iran deal will go away again. One government wants a new trade deal with the United Kingdom; the other will put it in the back of the queue.

And that dynamic may be what is behind our country arming up. It’s what is behind all the weird ways in which partisans start to imagine secessionist projects as their opponents take the White House.

The only thing that’s normal is dread.


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