Easy Chair — From the February 2018 issue

The Uncertainty Principle

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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.

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