Commentary

Susan J. Demas: Normalcy bias is a hell of a drug

We’re living through worst-case scenarios, but are constantly told that things aren’t that bad 

July 16, 2022 4:13 am

American flags on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

When life becomes overwhelming, it’s normal to try and protect ourselves by insisting that things aren’t that bad.

That coping mechanism can work, at least in the short-term, but most of us know that choosing to live in denial will never solve the real issues at hand.

So what happens when we’re living through this phenomenon on a global scale?  

What happens when worst-case scenarios become real life, like a neverending pandemic that’s killed over 1 million people, abortion bans that make 10-year-old rape victims needlessly suffer and a former president planning a violent coup with far-right groups? 

That adds a whole new layer of stress to our lives, whether it explodes on a TV screen like Donald Trump’s newly found draft tweet urging a march to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 or it’s just the day-to-day struggle of staying safe amid COVID, a sort of dysfunctional hum in the background.

I would argue that we haven’t gotten a mental break since at least 2015 when Trump launched his presidential campaign by declaring Mexicans are rapists. We had to live through a jaw-droppingly racist and sexist campaign (although many pundits denied that, especially the latter), followed by a reign by the twice-impeached Republican marked by wanton corruption, vile anti-immigrant and anti-trans policies, celebrations of violence against the left, attacks on everyday people on Twitter that put their lives in danger and more.

Normalcy bias doesn’t make us savvier — quite the opposite. It promotes powerlessness and will never shield us from the evils in the world.

– Susan J. Demas

That culminated with Trump’s somehow now-forgotten response to a deadly pandemic in 2020, which consisted of a stream of egregious lies about public health and punishing political enemies by withholding help to blue states. (That was something reporters again questioned when Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called him out for it, because things couldn’t be that bad. They were, as Trump happily confirmed.)

And while we were all just trying to stay alive in the pre-vaccine era, Trump plotted to stay in power even though he (badly) lost the 2020 election. GOP leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) mugged for the cameras after they eagerly met with Trump in the White House while he methodically searched for any way to deny Joe Biden the presidency. But we were told by pundits, over and over again, that Trump knew the jig was up and was just blowing off steam. He’d never try to break democracy, oh no.

Even as Trump supporters ransacked the U.S. Capitol to storm Congress from ratifying the election on Jan. 6, smearing the walls with excrement and brutally attacking police officers in an insurrection that left five dead, analysts still told us it was just a few rotten apples, some “deadbeat dads” with beer guts we could all sneer at.

This is normalcy bias in its purest form. It goes way beyond the infamous “This is fine” cartoon — we’re asked not to believe what we’re seeing with our very eyes. For some, the horror is too much. 

How can the human brain comprehend that 1.02 million Americans have died of COVID, which is like losing everyone in the state of Rhode Island?

How can we process that 19 children and two teachers were mowed down by a shooter in a Texas school, their bodies mutilated beyond recognition, and the police waited more than an hour to help?

How can we deal with the fact that the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade means 10-year-olds will have to risk their lives to give birth to their rapists’ babies?

How can we accept that it can happen here — it almost did on Jan. 6, 2021, when we almost became a democracy in name only — and the fight is far from over?

It’s something you can feel in your bones — the heaviness, the hopelessness.

The reality in a post-Roe world is that children who have barely mastered their multiplication tables are going to be forced into dangerous pregnancies and childbirth.

– Susan J. Demas

But a lot of people, including those in the media, are still in denial themselves. That’s why it’s easy to revert back to old, comforting habits, like blowing up comments taken out of context during elections.

Republicans like gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon have gone from tweeting super-weird attacks on drag queens to proposing schools can be sued if they hold drag shows (even though there’s no evidence this has happened in Michigan and anyway, so what?) But when Attorney General Dana Nessel took aim at Republicans’ homophobia and joked she’d put a “drag queen in every school,” that suddenly became a Very Important Election Story and was proof the Democrat would lose in November. 

It sure is interesting that it wasn’t considered a scandal for Republicans to unveil bat-poop crazy legislation (reporters even helpfully used bigots’ language that parents could sue if their children were “exposed” to LGBTQ+ people.)

Pundits can argue this will never come to pass, despite a well-funded, well-documented national Republican push to roll back LGBTQ+ rights and criminalize people, starting with Justice Clarence Thomas giddily announcing that the court should reconsider same-sex marriage and sodomy laws.

Those self-styled experts also smugly claimed that Roe would never be overturned either. And then they pivoted quickly to buying into the well-circulated GOP talking point that case of the 10-year-old rape victim who traveled from Ohio to Indiana had to be fake (it wasn’t). And it’s far from an isolated incident. Thousands of kids are sexually assaulted every year and some become pregnant (you’d think with the GOP trafficking in QAnon conspiracies about pedophilia, they would know more about this.)

The reality in a post-Roe world is that children who have barely mastered their multiplication tables are going to be forced into dangerous pregnancies and childbirth. No one wants to deal with this — especially anti-abortion politicians who don’t want to be on the record of supporting something so draconian — but that’s the world we live in now.

Time and time again, elites and pundits have told us things aren’t that bad, even as almost all of us know someone who has taken their last breath due to COVID. Nowadays it’s almost a competition to fire off the most flippant take, from bragging about your mild symptoms to castigating anyone who hasn’t caught the virus — a societal good, by the way — as shut-in freaks.

The pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Alex Kent

Even as the Jan. 6 committee has presented devastating evidence of how close America came to mass violence and a full-blown constitutional crisis, that’s been followed by stories (nakedly sourced by Trump allies) that the mad king may not have tried to grab the wheel from a Secret Service agent when he was told he couldn’t go the Capitol. (As if that one detail changes how dire the threat to the country was that day?)

It can never be that bad — this is America, after all, they tell us. Never mind that Republican officials today openly embrace the insurrection and are installing pro-Trump hacks in key election posts across the country who stand ready to overturn the next major election Democrats win. Never mind that Trump is planning to run again in 2024.

Normalcy bias doesn’t make us savvier — quite the opposite. It promotes powerlessness and will never shield us from the evils in the world.

Buying into this idea only delays and weakens our ability to fight back. Because most of our problems are man-made, from attacks on democracy to the destruction of fundamental human rights — and the majority doesn’t support this. 

One of the most powerful things you can do right now is stop trying to deny what’s happening, but get to work to change it. This fight isn’t an easy one, but we have nothing to gain and everything to lose by pretending that autocracy isn’t knocking on the door.  

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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