In over 20 years of writing from Washington for German media organizations, a consistent phenomenon I’ve observed is their readers’ high level of interest and knowledge about events in the U.S. On topics ranging from Presidential politics to Federal Reserve policy and everything in between. Interest that is so great that editors occasionally invite me to Germany to hold presentations in front of readers to discuss the current state of affairs in the U.S. One such evening, six years ago almost to the day, has stuck with me since; it has also prompted plenty of reflection on the desensitization of American politics. On the day of my evening presentation, then-President Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord.
During the Q&A session, an elderly gentleman asked a seemingly simple question: “Do you think that, given what we’ve seen from this President already, his transgressions will only become worse, more frequent, and that no matter what Trump does, voters become so used to his behavior that it becomes the “new norm”?
I gave in to the temptation of providing a quick response: “Definitely not, American voters, on balance, are tolerant, but when a politician crosses the line, he will pay the price,” I cited a few examples. Even in the case of someone such as Trump, who had already tested some limits: If, for example, politicians uttered words that could be construed as antisemitic, racist, homophobic, or even just violating standards of common decency. Also, if they personally enriched themselves via their elected office and consequently at the taxpayers’ expense. Or the most egregious example that would lead to complete rejection by voters: If a politician deemed himself above the law and, as a result, felt at liberty to brazenly violate it.
My response seemed to satisfy the audience, yet at the same time, doubts had crept in as to whether I had actually been accurate. I remembered how, when I was a child, one of the old German adages my father had taught me was “Der Mensch ist ein Gewohnheitstier”, meaning: “Man is a creature of habit,” or that any individual or any group of people confronted with a certain situation repeatedly and for a long enough period, will, accept this as the new norm. Fast forward six years, just as the U.S. election cycle is slowly kicking into gear, with around a dozen Republicans having entered the Presidential race already. Isn’t the candidate clearly at the head of the pack one who has provided multiple examples of the behavior that I, in 2017, had predicted in front of European readers would never be condoned?
Antisemitic words? The White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, “There are very fine people on both sides.”
Personal enrichment? Foreign dignitaries staying at the Trump International Hotel during visits to Washington, or how his sons had been escorted by taxpayer-funded Secret Service during trips to the Middle East that negotiated real estate deals.
Violations of the law? The request of “find me 11,780 votes” was made to the Georgia election chief Brad Raffensberger, a clear attempt at illegal election manipulation.
The most egregious and consequential example: The speech on January 6, 2021, that immediately preceded the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the subsequent unwillingness by POTUS 45 to intervene for several hours.
The list goes on…
Note that I’m not passing judgment myself but just citing examples, which brings me back to the German audience member who, six years earlier, had asked a simple question. He recently reached out via email with a candid follow-up. “The list of things done by Trump that would have completely disqualified him from successfully running for office again in Germany or any other self-respecting democracy is endless, yet, as of now, he is favored to become President once again. So do you stand by your prediction that common sense would prevail, and U.S. voters would know where to draw the line?”
The implication in his question was obvious, yet it was spot on, and I proceeded to quote my dad: “Man is a creature of habit.” Hence: No, I cannot stand by my prediction from 2017, I told him. American voters, through this very day, have become so thoroughly desensitized and used to behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere that another Trump candidacy is not only not being questioned but, in fact, being celebrated. This desensitization has not only given rise to characters such as George Santos but, more importantly, paved the way for the possible return of the one consequential politician who does deem himself above the law, immune to any accountability, and could quite possibly proceed to continue the process of completely dismantling what once was the world’s greatest Democracy.
There is, of course, the very real possibility that Thursday’s indictment of Trump by Special Counsel Jack Smith could dampen the Republican frontrunner’s chances at being elected or even nominated. The accusation of illegally removing secret documents relevant to National Security, keeping these in his private residence and and subsequently withholding them in the view of voters will take on greater significance than Trump’s actions in the context of hush money payments to a former mistress. In addition, Smith could follow-up with a separate indictment related to Trump’s role in the January 6th insurrection. With that said, he also might once again come away from this unscathed, and the prospect of Trump potentially succeeding Biden requires voters to critically assess their conditions and the facts, including Trump’s actions and the aftermath of events such as January 6. Despite skepticism towards mainstream media, it’s important that voters remain informed and cautious, with a hopeful view toward a rational voting outcome in 2024.
Peter DeThier has been reporting for German online media and newspapers on U.S. politics and economic developments for over 20 years. DeThier was born in the former German capital of Bonn. He grew up in the United States, has dual citizenship, is fully bilingual, and has published in both languages, including a German language biography of President John F. Kennedy. Peter earned his Master’s in Economics from the Vienna University of Economics and Business in Austria.