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The election, and aftermath, are huge cliffhangers



Cliffhangers are the most strategically successful audience draw in the history of show business, a guaranteed way of leaving viewers on the edge of their seats and yearning for more. The term is said to have originated in Thomas Hardy’s 1873 novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. A protagonist, Henry, while on an expedition with friends slips and falls off a cliff, finding himself stranded on a rock outcropping from which he can neither ascend nor descend. The novelist eventually allows Henry to be rescued (improbably and a little erotically) by his lady friend, Elfride, the heroine of the tale who, at the top of the cliff, removes all her clothing (female nudity in the Victorian era!) and fashions it into a rope with which to haul Henry to safety. But cliffhangers have tantalized readers since the dawn of time. The wandering of the Jews in Genesis constitutes a cliffhanger (will they make it?), Christ’s mortification upon the cross is a cliffhanger (is he really dead and gone?) and, in more modern times, all those early silent movies with damsels chained by villains to railroad tracks scared theater-goers out of their wits, and invariably brought them back to pay for the next installment to find out if the lady lives or dies.

Cliffhangers are the stuff of politics, too. Why else stay up late on Election night? Our latest political cliffhanger is of course the Nov. 6 elections. Will there be a Blue Wave? A Red Wave? Cramming two or more cliffhangers into a single plot is considered bad form in a movie or play (that would wreck the dénouement), but politics can withstand multiple cliffhangers; witness Watergate, with all its twists and turns. Likewise the cliffhanger of Election Day 2018 no doubt will quickly be followed by the cliffhanger of the Mueller Report (advance notice of its release is bound to leak, even if the contents don’t), so that the cliffhanger will be “What will it say?” And then, after the Report comes out, a new cliffhanger will automatically follow: “What will Trump do now?”

The downside of this relentless onslaught of dramatic tension is, of course, that we, the viewing public, grow inured to it. One learns to bear the unusual, when it happens often enough. This has been a feature of the Trump regime from the start. Psychologists speak of the phenomenon of “habituation” as the tendency of almost all organisms—from amoebas to human beings—to cease to respond to a stimulus after it has been repeated over and over.” The bombing of London during the Blitz of World War II was shocking and appalling, but soon enough, people went back to work, baked bread, took trolleys and went to the movies, made love, played darts in pubs. They habituated to the emergency. In the case of Trump, closely related to the concept of habituation is “normalization.” A year ago the warning from saner minds was to not allow Trump to become normalized. Now the general consensus is that that ship has sailed, or the horse is out of the barn—choose your metaphor. Despite Trump scandal after Trump scandal, “America seems to have reached a new normal,” a columnist for the (British) Guardian wrote, from an overseas perspective that may be more objective than in our own over-heated hothouse. We have indeed become inured to it all: the adultery and misogyny, the tax crimes, the insults and bullying, the feuds with allies and love affairs with dictators, the domestic intranquility he has caused, and even with the Russian meddling (about which Republicans seem indifferent, if in fact they don’t actually welcome it, since it benefits their side).

The normalization of Trump—the American public becoming habituated to him—is something we all should be concerned with, because, as Obama remarked in comments reported on MSNBC, if we normalize him, “then this democracy doesn’t work.” If our democracy doesn’t work, what does?

Trump is a clever mammal. Instinctively, he knows when to attack, when to hold back. This run-up to the election is a time for him to hold back. Whenever he attacks, in person or on Twitter, his negatives increase as Americans remember what a loathsome creature he is. When he holds back, things stabilize. The last thing he wants now is remind voters how much they really hate him. This is why he’s been so quiet lately or, if not exactly quiet, then at least trying to keep himself from doing awful things, like a nasty little boy who’s been warned to behave himself because the relatives are coming for dinner.

I hope he gives in to his natural impulse for belligerence before the election. Perhaps he’ll tweet something really offensive, or get into a war of words with some esteemed public figure, maybe a woman or person of color. That will drive the negatives back up again. So would a really damning Mueller report but, unfortunately, that won’t happen before the election. But even if Trump manages to restrain himself until the election, there’s nothing to prevent us from reminding ourselves of his unfitness for office, nothing to stop us from our determination to drive him (and his associates) from power. We mustn’t allow him to be normalized, because he’s not normal. He is an aberration, a cancer on the presidency (to borrow a phrase from another abnormal time when a Republican president committed multiple felonies). We have the energy going into the election; the latest polls post-Kavanaugh are great for Democrats. The American people, thank goodness, won’t be fooled again.

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