Trump supporters who work in intellectual zones have to laugh at the latest efforts to discredit the president because he is allegedly “not normal.” It is OK to suspend the ordinary rules of civility and oust Sarah Sanders from a restaurant, the critics say, because Trump’s administration is beyond the pale, off the charts, an aberrant, rogue outsider cohort that demands a stern and sweeping resistance. Apparently, they forget that liberal thinker-heroes for the past half-century have mounted a campaign against the very norms they invoke, raising violations of it into a moral necessity for an enlightened society.
For instance, in one of the most influential essays of the 1960s, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag praised the camp sensibility for its “love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.” The camp attitude prized things that are “off” such as “the androgyne,” which were so much more fun than that tedious “Ozzie and Harriet” stuff. The essay made Sontag famous, and she became for decades a potent voice against the norms of bourgeois America.
Jacques Derrida, whose deconstruction entranced two generations of liberal academics, was another critic of normality. His insight was to treat things that don’t fit standard categories as revelatory agents in human affairs. For example, the ordinary distinction natural/cultural, he wrote in one famous 1967 essay, is exploded by the incest prohibition, which is, on one hand, a law declared by religious authorities (hence cultural) but on the other hand common to all societies (hence natural). Derrida called such things a “scandal,” unstable elements that demonstrate the limited character of our normal judgments. Indeed, the very separation of normal from abnormal is an imposition of our interests, not an objective feature of the world.
Gender theorists came along in the 1990s to declare normalcy a full-on act of repression. The Centers for Disease Control count heterosexuals as roughly 96 percent of the population, but to assume heterosexuality is normal, theorists insisted, is to commit the grave sin of “heteronormativity.” To overcome these stigmas and restraints, we must appreciate the value of “transgression.” The first step in liberation, they believed, was to “queer” the categories. Gender theory, we should add, wasn’t just a marginal academic phenomenon. Its impact ranged from the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision to the Obama Administration’s insertion of gender identity into Title IX.
This is to say nothing of the counterculture in literature and the arts—Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol’s “Factory,” and the rest—whose prime target was middle-class normalcy and family values. Or of the top leftist thinker of the second half of the 20th century, Michel Foucault, who pledged to “shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities,” and who put the word perversity in scare quotes.
Anti-normalcy is central to contemporary liberal thought. It’s been a potent weapon in the advance of feminism, gay rights, and political correctness. But it has put liberals in a bind. When they fall from power and an opponent occupies the White House, one who seems a galaxy distant from their own opinions and politics, their recourse to American norms, traditions, and decency is blocked. In undermining normalcy (and objectivity, truth, and bourgeois values), liberal thinkers tossed away the proper tools of political persuasion.
Camp, scandal, irreverence, transgression—they apply to President Trump as well as they do to offbeat 1980s performance artists, or at least to the version of Trump envisioned by the Left. The anti-normal thread is part of a core of illiberal, anti-democratic ideas running through liberalism from the 1960s forward. To hear voices in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other outlets whose cultural sections revel in the edgy and deviant hold up so old-fashioned and conventional a notion as “normal” just doesn’t sound right.