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February 2018 Issue [Easy Chair]

The Uncertainty Principle


The first year of the Trump presidency is behind us. The unimaginable has become the historical. But time, the reputed healer of all wounds, has somehow only aggravated this one. Are we any closer to understanding what happened, or how to respond?

In December, when I sat down to write about my experience of Trump’s reign of error, I realized my need to reflect indicated that I was still in shock. I shouldn’t expect to say anything definitive — indeed, I should be careful not to try. Reality has not been kind to those who’ve made pronouncements about this presidency, from the pollsters who predicted it wouldn’t happen to the pundits who bet it wouldn’t survive this long. Despite being wrong so consistently — deluded, perhaps, by wishful thinking and a view of American history as basically sensible and forward facing — many of these so-called experts continue to confidently forecast Trump’s imminent downfall, precipitated by his corruption or his incompetence. Anyway, just look at those disapproval ratings.

This sort of analytical approach seems poorly suited to our era of disruption. Models that were developed for an orderly world do not work in a disorderly one. Donald Trump would not be in the White House if there weren’t something profoundly strange happening in America, and understanding it will require moving beyond conventional ideas.

The first step toward comprehending and perhaps changing the direction of the country is to acknowledge that we don’t know what’s going on — to adopt a certain level of humility. Right now, poli-sci truisms are useless. There are some moments so bizarre and contradictory and overwhelming that the best tool to describe them is metaphor. If I wanted to convey what this year has felt like, I would need to look instead for images and analogies — modes of narration that function in a less linear way.

My most abiding memory from this past year is of standing with several hundred people on a volcanic cone in Idaho last August, gazing up through a pair of silly cardboard glasses at the total solar eclipse. The glasses were meant to keep me from going blind, but there was no way to know whether they were working — I’d have to wait and find out. As the moon slid smoothly across the sun, the temperature dropped a few degrees and I felt a twinge of foreboding: What if this noonday darkness never lifted? What if this was the end? The eclipse delivered that rare sensation, and so, in a certain way, had the earthshaking election that brought Trump to power. On November 8, 2016, the giant maps built into the sets of the big newsrooms started turning red, state by state, and clouds passed over the faces of the assembled reporters. There was the same sense of finality. The same immensity. The same total powerlessness.

Trump’s election gave me the impression that time was warping. His rise feels at times like something out of myth, not merely a political development — a trick of the gods to remind us cocky mortals that we are not in control of our affairs. That a total eclipse should happen in Trump’s first year, cutting a spooky swath of darkness across the republic, only enhanced my sense of temporal displacement. With his impulsive decision-making, his ominous tweeting, his fetish for golden ornament, and his disdain for science, Donald Trump has a strongly medieval quality. He has established a feudal lordship inside the White House by creating an inner circle of family members and military generals. Trump’s critics often say the nation is sliding backward under his leadership, but a year’s worth of evidence suggests that it may be vaulting backward, skipping whole millennia, whole eons.

But Trump is like an eclipse in another sense too: he blots out everything that isn’t him. Since the moment he took the podium for his grim inaugural address, my awareness of global and local events has been significantly eroded. Instead, what consumes my attention are stories concerning Trump’s latest breaches of protocol, his family tensions and social media feuds, his brittle ego and selfish eating habits: the burger he ordered in Japan, the two scoops of ice cream he demands, even when his tablemates get only one. The problem is that all the stories about Trump are structured as serials, plotted to continue for months or years — or to climax the very next day, you can’t be sure. There is nowhere to go to escape such narratives. They run constantly in the back of your mind and create more suspense when you ignore them than when you track every detail.

Each one of Trump’s actions receives frenzied, desperate attention from the media. On a trip to Asia, during which he trash-talked North Korea and jousted over trade deals with his rivals in China, Trump paused during a boastful press briefing to look for water. CNN proclaimed the incident donald trump’s dry-mouthed victory lap. He is placed at the center of every story, regardless of its content: when a study seemed to show that liberals and conservatives were spending less time together than they once had, Politico summed up the findings as how donald trump ruined thanksgiving.

I began to think that a single analogy, however adaptable, would not do the job. I needed a better way to describe how gloom seemed to be emanating from the White House. Trump, I decided, was a disease; he was an infectious cultural microbe that replicated using technology. Researchers who have studied the effect of negative posts on social media have found that depression and anxiety are likely contagious, and Trump and the cloud of dysfunction surrounding him seemed to be having just such an effect on me. There were days when I couldn’t account for my bad moods. My work was going well; my family was healthy. Yet I was still sinking into the muck. Others were, too. One friend decided to reclaim her psyche by subscribing to a print newspaper. She reads it straight through and then casts it aside, done for the day with current events. She told me she did it because her work was suffering — she could lose a whole day to panic sustained by the churn of the news.

I lack her discipline. I also lack her faith that unplugging from the internet will ease my mind. When I spent a weekend holed up in the mountains, the pathogens sapping my vitality weren’t eradicated. Even the birds seemed sluggish as they flew by, caught up in the force field of my torpor. I could only conclude that absorbing so much alarm, uncertainty, conflict, and derision had started to alter my very chromosomes.

The metaphor of Trump as disease felt apt but unoriginal. It also felt dangerous. Seeing the president as patient zero in an epidemic of psychospiritual malaise only deepens the malaise. What I wanted was an image of Trump’s first year that would stimulate the imagination without paralyzing the will. The writer Deanne Stillman put it best, I think, when she wrote on Twitter that Trump is luminol, the chemical that police spray on crime scenes to reveal traces of blood. Stillman was responding to a remark I had made about the astonishing profusion of secrets, tensions, lies, and dirty deals that have been exposed since Trump took office — I was thinking of racial crimes, sex scandals, acts of espionage, political tricks, even the outlandish CIA plots, real and contemplated, that were disclosed in the JFK assassination files. It felt as though the country had been laid out on a slab for a giant inquest, an autopsy of the remains from a mass grave.

Trump had to be the cause. I could find no other. But how the process worked was harder to figure out. What had he done to lift the lid off the coffin? Why had all the bloodstains started glowing? I’d heard it said, for example, that Trump’s alleged sexual assaults were the trigger for the #MeToo movement. That may be part of it, but there was something else going on, something bigger: a realignment of power. Many of the men accused of sexual misdeeds had enjoyed protection from the very institutions — the political parties and media organizations — that were partly leveled by Trump’s election. Silencing women who had been sexually harassed or assaulted was business as usual for the Establishment. But Trump was not allied with the TV networks that employed such once-untouchable figures as Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose. He owed nothing to Harvey Weinstein’s Hollywood, which conspicuously advertised its ties to Democratic causes and candidates. Trump’s election shook the confidence of the wrongdoers within the Establishment, and their accusers sensed that, I suspect. Had Clinton won, Weinstein, an old friend and donor, would almost certainly have been partying at the White House, which might have given his victims pause. With Trump as president, though, no one knew what the new order would look like.

This is not a defense of Trump. Nor is it an apology for him. It is merely an acknowledgment that Trump breeds chaos, and chaos upends everything. It has ripple effects and unforeseen consequences. Conservatives are so afraid of chaos that they tend to oppose even thoughtful, reformist change, lest it spin out of control. Now they have a true maniac to deal with, and things are certainly out of their control. Over at the State Department, Trump’s contempt for tradition and expertise has proved devastating. Morale is down and early retirements have jumped. Meanwhile, the NFL, the consummate fraternity, can no longer count on politicians’ support. The league used to do its business quietly, behind the thickest of closed doors, but now its owners’ thoughtless comments are leaking to the public: one of them recently compared the players to inmates in a prison. The same anarchic forces that dissolved the elite boys’ clubs of the media are destabilizing these other entities that depend on school ties, teamwork, loyalty, and handshake deals. Gentleman’s agreements, for good or ill, the ones that oppress and the ones that foster stability, need gentlemen to maintain them, after all. And Trump is not a gentleman.

When things fall apart, you see what they are made of. That’s been the story of the year — the structure of our society laid low and laid bare by a series of demolitions. It is time to stop thinking that Robert Mueller and his investigators are going to turn back the clock on the election. The damage has been done; now we need to survey the wreckage and draw some lessons from it. Until Trump began taunting North Korea with schoolyard insults, for instance, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which rhetorical restraint is integral to diplomacy. Nor did I fully comprehend why correcting the facts of a news story is helpful but contesting the press’s desire to get the facts right is destructive. Trump, in his self-serving effort to delegitimize political journalism, may end up making sure that no mechanism exists for convincing anyone of anything. Even he may find that problematic, should the time come when he’s in the right about a story that requires confirmation by credible outsiders. Then he may regret undermining trust in every institution in this country — or maybe not.

But I believe there is hope. I am more frightened by systems that run smoothly in perpetuity than by serious breakdowns. If we can’t screw things up, they aren’t truly ours. Sometimes people say that Trump represents a failure of democracy. Quite the opposite. He represents a triumph of democracy — a triumph over every one of our other values, from tradition to equality to common sense. This mess we’re in was ours to make, and perhaps that’s why we made it: because we could. Here in selfie nation, we are narcissists, and narcissists do whatever they want. That’s why Trump disrupts his own winning streak, I think — he’s inherently suspicious of continuity. Continuity means that events are in control, not he. And that means it’s time to wreak havoc.

Trump’s narcissism is larger than himself. With his seemingly inexhaustible hunger for injury and blame and anger, he encourages people to feel his pain, to join him in directing it at others, to wallow in their own. What a strange function for a president: aggravating and revealing trauma. Usually they strive to do the opposite. Obama was like that. He made things seem okay even when they weren’t. He presided over terrible wars, the loss of our privacy, and the consolidation of extreme economic inequality. Once we had absorbed the shock from some difficulty or disaster, Obama would urge us to shift our attention to possible remedies or merely back to normal life. Not Trump. That is not his instinct or his way. He doesn’t buffer; he intensifies. He provides a twisted kind of public service, often dispiriting, frequently alarming, but important nonetheless. America has been the scene of many crimes. Trump shows us where the blood is — the old blood, the blood that has dried and that no one wants to see.

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