Jared Yates Sexton is associate professor of creative writing in the department of writing and linguistics at Georgia Southern University
When Donald Trump retweeted a meme of himself driving a golf ball that struck his political rival Hillary Clinton, I sent the link to a friend and received a reply that shocked me: "Are you surprised?"
I had to admit, I wasn't. After all, like everyone else, I'd seen the President retweet content that had been dredged from the deepest and ugliest recesses of the Internet, including a meme of himself beating a personification of CNN in July. I'd reported on that one myself and, after discovering its creator was a racist, anti-Semitic troll, I was subjected to round-the-clock harassment and threats, but, even with that experience, I was still surprised by just how unsurprised I was.
Monday morning, while watching the morning shows, I noticed pundits and reporters alike only gave the story a cursory nod before moving onto a myriad of other stories, including former White House press secretary Sean Spicer's cameo at the Emmys, where he lampooned his now-infamous rant following Trump's inauguration and laughably denied the event's low turnout. Discussion centered on the comedy of the segment with literally no talk of what had been a truly unprecedented attack on facts and the legitimacy of a press charged with the sacrosanct task of keeping a new president honest.
What we are seeing, unfortunately, is a normalization of abnormal and dangerous behaviour that is quickly eroding the American system of government. In the recent past, it would have been unthinkable for a sitting president to allude to assaulting a political rival, much less a woman. Now it's not even a headline.
Before, a press secretary attacking journalists for reporting objective facts would have been a breach of etiquette. Now, the perpetrator is being treated like a supporting character on America's favourite TV show.
The sad truth is that democratic norms are being tested every single day by the Trump administration, and though journalists and citizens are doing their part, there is a price to pay with staying informed. This restless onslaught takes a toll as each new development and encroachment desensitizes the country and ultimately makes possible future trespasses.
If this sounds like a slippery slope, it's because it is. With every news cycle, and one reckless tweet at a time, we are sliding closer and closer to a place where, once we reach the bottom, we may not even recognize where we've fallen. Authoritarianism, after all, isn't a spontaneous state of being – it's built on a foundation of creeping trespasses.
Unfortunately, developing a callus is much easier than continually suffering a raw wound, but if we are to survive this crude disaster of a presidency then we must do just that. Our democratic norms depend on citizens remaining vigilant and sensitive to encroachments on liberty and civility.
I know personally just how exhausting a task vigilance can be. My own reporting has led to threats on my life and livelihood, a startling development that, over time, became as normal and pedestrian as checking my mail or brewing a pot of coffee. This normalization happened with little to no warning, and one day I looked up and realized I'd accepted a reality where practising journalism, a constitutionally protected venture, meant living in near-constant fear for personal safety.
There will be some who argue this is alarmist, that this is just another outrage in a climate of outrages, and that's fine: an alarm needs sounding and outrage is prudent in the face of outrageousness. In a few months, Donald Trump and his surrounding cast of characters have shown little regard for democratic customs and too much ground has already been ceded.
If the republic is to resemble anything approaching a free and civil state, our only hope is to remain vigilant, to remain sensitive, and never surrender our ability to be surprised by our outrage.