COLUMN: Normalizing the abnormal

It is only a coincidence that Election Day follows so closely on the heels of Halloween, but 2020’s presidential contest couldn’t be more perfectly correlated to the Gregorian calendar. It’s spooky out there.

When Congress in 1845 set Election Day on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, however, lawmakers were thinking of weather rather than witches. The idea was that crop-harvesting would be finished by early November and winter wouldn’t have yet arrived.

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Even though many fewer people are busy harvesting crops these days – and most buildings are comfortably climate-controlled – we nevertheless trudge off to our respective precincts (or the mail box) to pick which of the least-worst people in the world should lead the country for the next four years.

I’m kidding, of course. There are surely people worse than Donald Trump, and Joe Biden looks like Mahatma Gandhi by comparison.

What’s scary about this day, this year? Why, madness. A coarse blanket of anxiety and repulsion has settled over the landscape as we approach the haunted voting booth. Even more frightening is the brief and bizarre normalcy displayed by Donald Trump during Thursday night’s debate. By some miracle or sorcery, he seems to have escaped the coils of COVID-19 not just in good health but with improved mental faculties. Meanwhile, the rest of the country has gone insane.

Psychologists and therapists warned of this when Trump won in 2016. But combined with other factors — isolation, unemployment, fear of contagion, death or months more of cloistered living — even the slim prospect of his reelection has sent people over the edge. Hard data may be in short supply, but I suspect some readers may recognize themselves, or others, in the anecdotal evidence.

I hear about them daily. My New York City niece recently reported walking through Central Park and witnessing a woman she recognized screaming at a passing car bearing a Trump bumper sticker: “You’re disgusting! You’re disgusting!” A well-dressed woman pushing an expensive baby stroller tossed a dirty diaper onto Madison Avenue, signifying to my niece that the usual self-imposed restraints on human behavior are being discarded out of misplaced anger.

Another friend posted a Biden/Harris sign in her pro-Trump town and soon reported lost friendships and unpleasant comments by passersby. Yet another friend, who agrees that people’s heads are exploding, told me he was giving friends from both sides second chances because, he said, “I know we’re all going nuts.”

“My mantra is: It’s not their fault; it’s not their fault; it’s not their fault.

In reality, it may not be. Bonkersville is a short trip for most of us these days, but Republicans have an advantage.

Except for a few renegades, Trump supporters are generally unwavering in their allegiance to the president. To them, Trump makes perfect sense. Even when he says ridiculous things or lies outright, they either shrug with indifference or offer a more-palatable translation of what he really meant.

Otherwise, Trump’s fans find him to be charming and funny — a true-blue patriot who supports the military, fills the courts with conservative judges, and, until the pandemic, boasted the most-robust economy in memory. And by the way, they add, COVID-19 isn’t his fault. In other words, they never doubt Trump or themselves. When certitude is treated as a virtue, psychological breakdown — or self-critical analysis — isn’t considered time well-spent.

Of course, the rest of the country thinks these people are crazy. Being the only sane person in the asylum can do that. When enough people around you see reality in what seems to you like utterly delusional terms, you WILL lose your mind. And, then, because you’re normal, you’ll begin to question your own sanity and wonder: Is it me?

No, it’s not.

But maybe Trump isn’t crazy either. Maybe he just enjoys making other people lose their minds. His modus operandi was plainly spelled out in “The Art of the Deal.” Create chaos, get people to turn on each other, collect the chips when they fall. To this president, everything’s a game.

Trump’s critics have long feared that over-exposure to his errant behavior eventually would lead to acceptance – normalizing the abnormal. It may be, however, that rather than accepting Trump, people are simply exhausted from four years of a psychological siege and weary of the drama. Election Day will tell. But, watching the more-subdued Trump during the second debate, I had a notion that Trump was primed to pull a victory out of his ringmaster’s top hat.

Even a squeaky victory when polling suggests otherwise could lead to a national nervous breakdown. And then Trump, having driven his foes crazy, would, in the fashion of narcissists, become the normal guy who looks down from the dais at the writhing mass of human madness and, with the cool detachment of a visiting alien, observe that the losers seem to have gone stark raving mad.

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Happy Halloween.

Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.