Easy Chair — From the February 2018 issue

The Uncertainty Principle

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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.

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October 2019


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