Last Wednesday in Atlanta was warm, but not warm enough. The clouds wouldn’t separate, but clustered together, like a gang of day-drunks grabbing onto each others’ belts so they wouldn’t topple over into the gutter.
So it was overcast when I started reading Michael Cohen’s testimony to Congress. Grey, cloudy days seem timeless. You can’t see the sun move, or the shadows get longer. Until night falls, it’s like living in a world without clocks or calendars, where nothing changes.
But the weather is wrong; the Wednesday show on Capitol Hill made a dent in time and space. This administration is two years old—and even now, after all the nausea and the madness and the melodrama and did I mention the nausea—the Cohen performance still sucked the oxygen from my lungs. It was a dizzying animal pleasure, to read his confession. Why, it was as if a guilty vagrant had managed to trap the devil in a bottle, and we all paid a nickel to stare. Cohen’s statements of fact could not be deleted, or gainsaid, or spun out into non-existence. He had the cold calm energy of a village criminal who knows he goes to the stoning yard at dawn.
The world is full of obvious realities that nobody points out. Cohen gave those facts a sound and shape. Trump had lied, he was a racist; he might’ve committed light treason; he was a definite con man. Now, all mutation-free Americans know these details about the Commander-in-Chief. But to hear Cohen say them out loud was a full-body shock.
Cohen’s spiel happened on Wednesday, three days after the hostless Sunday Oscars, which were officially Not As Bad As Expected.
Now, as I read Cohen’s words, I realized: huh, there’s no president. The more I thought about it, the truer it seemed. Cohen’s testimony made a compelling argument. In the story Cohen told, there wasn’t a president in fact, just a president in name and in law. There was no leader of all the people. Rather, Cohen’s Trump was a factional figurehead who’d stumbled into the White House. A strange, criminal eccentric with billions to his name and racial epithets in his past.
The Oscars weren’t great, but they got along without a host. The country’s in dreadful shape, but managing without its mad king. In both cases, the Throne was empty.
No host. No president. It all seemed abnormal. But since Nov. 8, 2016, I’d gotten used to the weird.
And a thought occurred to me: This is what the future will be like.
There will be No Normal Hosts in Our Future. No Normal Presidents. No Normal Leaders. No Normal Figureheads. That age has passed forever. There will always be leaders, and hosts.
But they will not even pretend to be normal, even in the broadly acceptable sense of the word. They will not be personally normal, their tastes will not be normal, their public life will not be normal, their words and acts will not be normal, and their policies will most assuredly not be blandly normal.
We have entered the age of rule by the Weird. And it’s about damn time.
Again, the most visible symptom for this change is that the Oscars were unable to score a host. There’s a reason for that, and it’s relevant to my point.
The guy they originally asked, Kevin Hart, was pushed out after his homophobia became public knowledge. Between Hart’s dismissal and the ceremony, the Oscars tried to find “qualified” people. Who knows how many folks they asked? The Academy had a narrow idea of the kind of person they wanted.
As they soon found out, their preferred person did not exist.
Consider how many boxes an Academy Awards host had to check off in 2019:
—He/she can’t have a noxious background.
—They must be clever, be relevant … but won’t scare the older demographic who we need … but bring in the young viewers.
—Keep the ceremony short but long enough for the speeches; be bland enough to be acceptable, but irreverent enough to be interesting.
—Oh, and you’ll be paid fifteen grand for a month or two of backbreaking work.
—And we’re only considering people who are already stars.
—Oh, and the next morning, everyone will say you were terrible, even if you were great.
Los Angeles has no shortage of brilliant actors and comedians. There is no lack of ability, or talent. The problem is the Academy’s requirement.
The MPAA has an unrealistic list of demands, filled with contradictory requirements. None of it makes any sense. The world around the Academy keeps changing, so the Academy tries to adapt its old ways to the New Normal. And of course, they keep failing.
Eventually, they’re going to discover there is no Normal now.
Apply this rule of No-Normality across all of American culture. The Oscars will not have a normal host: no more Bob Hopes, or even a Billy Crystal. It will be YouTube Stars, and Lonely Island Guest Hosts. At best, there will be a niche actor; a Christopher Walken, say, or a celebrated activist, like Terry Crews. God forbid, Joe Rogan.
The political establishment of this country works the same way. So does every other powerful institution. Powerful folks want to apply 1990 standards in a 2019 world, but those “standards” can’t be met, because the world’s moved on.
Here’s the Democratic idea of Normal:
—This candidate must appeal to the base, but to the donors.
—This candidate should be progressive, but not mention economic justice.
—This candidate should mention social justice, but not mention the ERA, or the brutal policing of minority neighborhoods.
—This candidate needs to appeal to the middle-class, but never bring up the rich.
—This candidate should have a record of experience, but be daisy-fresh.
—This candidate should be both young and old.
—He/she should disapprove of Trump’s bad behavior, but not mention our many client wars.
—It would be nice if this candidate was a woman or POC, but that solidarity shouldn’t extend to advocating for radical justice on behalf of marginalized people.
The Republicans had their own must-have checklist in 2016: they wanted a candidate who could blow the typical dog-whistles, appeal to the populist base … but also make the money men happy. Their result was … Donald Trump.
That’s what you get for pretending Normal still holds sway.
When you try to meet the old rules of Normal, you get Mitt Romney or John Kerry; you make movies like Green Lantern. In culture, the future isn’t safe generic stuff like Wrinkle in Time or, God forbid, Michael Bloomberg. It’s Black Panther and The Nun; the future looks more like Awkwafina and Drip Season 3, not Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj’s “Queen.”
Similarly, in Democratic politics, the future isn’t Amy Klobuchar. It’s AOC and Tlaib and Omar; it’s Sanders and Warren and Ro Khanna—figures who would have been marginal during the Clinton era. This is the age when Elliot Abrams gets called a mass-murderer in the halls of Congress.
Take Bernie’s candidacy as an example. Bernie, thankfully, is not a Normal Politician, and not a Normal Man. In the old days, the public wouldn’t have even known his name. He would’ve been finished off in a cycle.
But in 2019, since he announced his candidacy, the media has tried to slash Sanders’ tires, and they have been found out every time. When CNN had a town hall filled with unvetted plants, they were called for their laziness in a day. When the Washington Post published four Sanders hit pieces back to back, they were publicly shamed. The standard for what is Normal and Acceptable no longer holds.
The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are the folks who pick Oscar hosts and the people who decide national policy.
There are a several reasons for the downfall of the Normal. Two will suffice.
First, the Normal Leaders have been debunked. Everyone’s browser history is searchable, people are harder to intimidate, and many of the old truisms have been laid bare.
For all our flaws, we are much more civilized than our grandparents. We are less bigoted, less murderous, less sexist, and less trusting of authority. To the extent the country needs leaders, it does not need normal ones.
Our society has matured enough to suspect all traditional figureheads. Religious leaders are outed as hustling businessmen or abusers; magnates are discovered to be exploiters of workers; Senators are found to be on the take or harassing their staff. Actors and directors and musicians and comedians are correctly outed by the #MeToo movement. Those normal leaders who are not knocked down by scandal or crime are inevitably uninspiring, or in service to big money. This last year saw the probable end of Davos as a venue for world-changing billionaires.
The second reason is far more important. For decades, the big idea in American politics was “sensibility.” In other words, there is a Sensible Center with Sensible Squares saying Sensible Things. Sensibility said that people with ideas were dangerous. Sensibility preferred neutral people who had No Positions.
But “neutral,” like the term “centrist,” is a euphemism for anyone who accepts the status quo. Here is what the neutral person says: the unjust who have power should remain unjust and powerful. The neutral politician is not objective, or disinterested. There is no such thing as an apolitical politician, or an apolitical piece of art, or an apolitical economic arrangement. A piece of art or an idea is called “political” when it disagrees with the people in power; that’s all there is to it. The rules of “Normal” dictated what could and could not be debated in decent company. But society is not a polite brunch. No wonder people got sick of Normal; it had nothing to do with their lives.
If our leaders are no longer Normal, what will our future politics look like? Perhaps there will be rule by meme, or rule by Facebook likes. Perhaps Weird Twitter will become the public forum our long-dead Founders dreamed of. Will we ever log off? Or perhaps the future America will be a lot like the 91st Oscars: a bunch of Names handing out awards, and moving the show along. An odder and fairer world awaits us. But we are up to the task. The Earth turns, and still we face the strange.