— Alex Jones (@RealAlexJones) January 31, 2018
Predictably, the teleprompter delusion has resurfaced following Trump’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday night. The often Trump-sceptical Republican pollster Frank Luntz produced a textbook case of the syndrome when he tweeted: “Tonight I owe Donald Trump an apology. Tonight, I was moved and inspired … tonight America is great again.”
This malady matters because it’s a symptom of normalisation, the urge to pretend Trump operates within the usual democratic boundaries when in fact he represents an alarming break from the norms that make liberal democracy possible.
Until now, these tendencies have been mostly confined to the US. But there is some troubling evidence that they are spreading beyond America’s shores. Witness the respectful reception the global 0.1% gave Trump at Davos last week and the chummy TV encounter between the president and Piers Morgan on Sunday. But an even more striking example came on Wednesday morning in the BBC’s most coveted interview slot, at 8.10am on Radio 4’s Today programme.
John Humphrys’s guest was Roger Stone, introduced only as a “political strategist”. The unsuspecting listener would not have known that Stone is in fact a notorious figure, one who cut his teeth as a bit player in the Nixon dirty tricks operation, and who was the youngest person called before the Watergate grand jury.
They would not have known that Stone was banned from Twitter last Octoberafter a litany of racist and abusive tweets directed at reporters. He was banned from CNN and MSNBC in 2016 (though he’s still welcome on Fox). Stone had tweeted that CNN pundit Roland Martin was a “stupid negro” and a “fat negro”. To Jill Abramson, former editor of the New York Times and now a Guardian contributor, he tweeted in caps: “DIE BITCH!” He called the columnist Gail Collins an “elitist c*nt”. In 2015, Stone dedicated a book on the Clintons he had co-written to one Victor Thorn, the author of “The Holocaust Hoax Exposed”, who blames 9/11 on a “Jewish plot”.
There’s more in that vein, but you get the idea. Which is not to say the BBC should necessarily have refused to put Stone on the air, but rather that if he was going to appear he needed to be challenged, and challenged hard. This is surely not a point lost on Humphrys, who revels in his reputation as a rottweiler interrogator.
Yet to Stone he was gentleness itself. First came the teleprompter delusion. “Is he a new Donald Trump?” Humphrys asked, marvelling that the “tone was so different” on Tuesday night. Stone was allowed to muse, uninterrupted, that Trump had “learned how to make the microphone come to him”, and that his tone was indeed warmer. “And less bellicose,” agreed Humphrys.
None of this was so much as mentioned on the Today programme. Instead, the usually ferocious Humphrys asked if the constant attacks on Trump “get to” the president. The result was that a man with a track record of racism and misogyny, with serious questions to answer about a scandal much graver than Watergate, was allowed unimpeded access to the BBC’s most prestigious slot. Which is how the abnormal is slowly made normal.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist