When I was on a year abroad in Varanasi twenty years ago, we used to play a lot of games. Rock, paper, scissors was easily the most brutal. It is, fundamentally, a game of dominance. When you play it over and over again, you begin to see the psychological habits of your foes; use that advantage and you can crush a person's spirit by beating them so often.
One of the guys on the fellowship with us relayed the experience he had playing it in college. The variant they played came from Asia, and the symbol for paper was "chi." There's this common mistake players make, where the symbol for paper and scissors scramble in the brain and you end up doing a kind of Spock gesture. In Syed's gaming group, the "banned Spock chi" was permissible in one circumstance: if you knew that the other player was going for rock you could announce "banned Spock chi" as you were playing the gesture as a way of committing a kind of coup de grâce to finish off a particularly pathetic foe. It was the move of ultimate dominance, because you were announcing your move ahead of time. It was a brutal way to go down.
This is the game Donald Trump is playing with his foes, and we don't realize it. Members of the media and the left have been mystified why Trump can behave so outrageously without consequence. He lies, he offends, he surrounds himself with sycophants, incompetents, and nuts, he loses his shit. Why don't the normal rules apply to him?, we wonder. It's because he's not playing by normal rules. Josh Marshall has been discussing this for months, and others have touched on it as well, but it was Masha Gessen was speaking on On the Media that it really hit home.
In autocracies (particularly Putin's, with which she is most familiar), the valence of speech is entirely different. It is not used to communicate meaning in the conventional sense. It is used to project power and authority. One of the most effective ways to do that is to violate norms. Lying transparently, making bigoted comments, attacking people in public--these are incredibly effective ways of demonstrating your dominance. The real message is: I have just lied, we both know this was a lie, and you are powerless to do anything about it. When Trump does this, he's saying "banned Spock chi!" to America.
This is precisely the reason people support Trump. They understand this power play and delights them. They delight in it partly because there is nothing we can do about it, but also because the people to whom it's being done don't even realize what's happening. We don't understand the rules. The media dutifully reports Trump news as if he were playing by the old rules rather than running a propaganda war. Trump wants to jail people who burn the flag? Doesn't he realize this is unconstitutional? Let's have five think pieces that discuss whether this is viable, what Texas vs. Johnson tells us, and oh yeah, what about that time Hillary proposed a law against flag-burning?
Trumpies must have found this response highly amusing.
We are relying on norms and institutions to navigate the Trump years, and we must--they distinguish functioning democracies from dysfunctional autocracies. But that doesn't mean we should continue to extend Trump the same deference we do other leaders. He is attempting an entirely undemocratic power play (for reasons we don't yet understand), and our failure to understand it only enables him. This is a dangerous moment.