by Brooks Riley
I feel a stress disorder coming on. Call it Persistent Trump Stress Disorder. Or PTSD 2.0.
This is not about Trump himself, the ‘dingo’ here, whose many inadequacies, fallacies and prevarications are scrutinized, dissected, biopsied, and finally lampooned 24/7 in every corner of the fourth estate, reaching every corner of the globe.
This is not about the man who’s determined to crush the zeitgeist Obama left behind and replace it with a deceptively quaint, unworkable fantasy from the mid-20th century when employment was analog, energy was black and endless, skies were ripe for pollution, white men called the shots, and inequality was just fine if you were white, even as America was nevertheless still basking in the glow of its victories in World War 2. Just what ‘great” is he talking about?
This is not about the First Narcissist, whose new Presidential Face must have been rehearsed in front of the mirror for weeks before the inauguration, the grimaces and goofy smirks now replaced by a parody of grim determination and implied gravitas that ends up projecting ‘grumpy old man’, with an emphasis on ‘old‘ that was probably not intended.
This is not about all the progress that this man wants to disassemble–revoking Obamacare, denying climate change, disabling the EPA, eliminating the Clean Water Rule, defunding Planned Parenthood, endangering workers in critical professions, slamming shut the doors to the American dream, undermining an economy that needs to function way beyond its shores.
This is not about the pathology of a vengeful egotist whose priorities verge on the absurd, for whom a chocolate cake, or the performance of Schwarzenegger on his former show, or a department store that drops his daughter’s label, all matter more to him than the names of countries to which he launches missiles, or of leaders he shakes his fist at.
It’s all of the above, of course, but I want to talk about what he’s done to my attention span, turning it inexorably away from daily routines, other entertainments, and the ardent pursuit of knowledge in a vast array of subjects that don’t start with ‘T’. It’s not that I don’t get things done anymore, or that my life has come to a full stop. It’s that Trump has pushed the ‘pause’ button, establishing a caesura with its own timetable and set of behaviors. Instead of a quick trip to the fridge during the commercial break, I now spend far too much time ruminating about Trump, devouring the news about him, playing all the late-night comedy routines lampooning him. I do this partly out of horror-fascination at all the absurdities that arrive on our phones every morning. I do this partly out of Schadenfreude, enjoying each new stumble of the new misadministration–although the freude part of that word is beginning to wear thin. I do this partly out of fear for a future that seems to hang on an impulse.
Trump has disordered our lives in profound ways. He’s a one-man Occupy movement– not against Wall Street, which he’d rather rule than squat nearby–but against any distraction from his person, whatever form that might take on any surprising new day. And he has succeeded to a great extent, removing all the other distractions that make our lives interesting, diverse, polymathic, enjoyable, challenging, rewarding or even pleasantly routine. Even if I wanted to ignore him, it’s nearly impossible to do so. It’s Trump all the time, morning, noon and night. Other news has to wedge its way past the monolithic top story that never seems to end. I resent this mightily, but I can’t look away. Never interested in reality shows, I am now forced to watch one. Not just any one, but one that might affect the future of mankind. I mustn’t look away.
Ever since the political storm of 2016 was supposed to move out to sea after the November elections, we have had to face the grim fact that the storm is here to stay, leaching into our lives, eating into our reserves of adrenalin and waking hours, and turning us all into the mob at the gates, gawking at the spectacle of slow annihilation of all we believe in. Unless or until he’s impeached, more than a 1000 days of deep insecurity loom ahead.
Presidential campaigns in America always go on way too long, eating up major chunks of an incumbent’s brief and precious time to make a difference while in office. It’s one of the joys of living somewhere else, that this long torturous process is hardly noticeable until the first Monday in November of any given presidential election year.
And when it’s over, there’s comfort in going back to real life, knowing that whoever is in charge is experienced and will be infused with a sense of responsibility, tradition, good intentions, and wise advisors, even if things sometimes go horribly wrong, as with the war in Iraq (watch out for those advisors). In a country still based on democratic values, we shouldn’t have to become political vigilantes to insure that it remain so. As Andrew Sullivan eloquently stated in his February article in New York Magazine,The Madness of King Donald‘, it wasn’t meant to be this way: ‘One of the great achievements of free society in a stable democracy is that many people, for much of the time, need not think about politics at all.’
Not this time. Instead of going back to our lives and letting the experts take over, we are forced to be on guard every moment, for fear that what we have achieved will be lost forever to the whims of a man whose ego is his only master. There are no experts: We now live in an era of regress, not progress, not even for that segment of Trump voters who couldn’t see that they had it so good, and who still enjoy the show far too much to wake up and have second thoughts.
Even if he wanted to, Trump doesn’t know how to help the people in serious need who voted for him. A slogan is not a policy, and the yawning gap between image and substance won’t narrow any time soon. Far more tragic for these people is the fact that he doesn’t seem to be interested in helping them. His campaign promises were all about feeding the ego beast within, (hence the ongoing rallies to relive his greatest moments), not about those feeders who desperately hope for a better life.
It’s not all about incompetence. Other presidents have been incompetent and the republic has survived. It’s not even about inconsistency: The one consistent thing about Trump is that he is always Trump, and with that comes the certainty that he will always be inconsistent and unpredictable. Who knows, he might even do something right once in a while, in keeping with the ground-shifting nature of unpredictability.
It’s all very fine to hold Trump to account, and the press is doing a good job of that. But there’s a danger in all of the muck that gets raked: One metaphor comes to mind, the great mountains of garbage that impoverished people in third-world countries sift for any small thing of worth they might be able to use or sell. Those mountains have begun to collapse, swallowing up the scavengers, killing them. Trump has created such a mountain, of offenses to be scavenged, but the sheer size of the pile means that we might miss the decisive bit that enables us to hold him accountable. We are in danger of being swallowed up by the sheer volume of compromising material, no longer able to distinguish the bad from the very bad, no longer able to retrieve the bits, some of them huge hunks, that time has buried in the ever-growing stockpile of new transgressions. Add to that Trump’s own stinky red herrings, the lies he launches to deflect our attention away from other looming revelations about his conflicts of interest.
We have already accepted far too much: a President who may or may not have colluded with the Russians to get into office; a business empire that will grow on the compromising political endorsements of dictators and demagogues; a POTUS who would rather flaunt his wealth in Florida than spend a weekend at the White House doing his homework, (thereby saving the taxpayers millions in security and travel); a man for whom lying is second nature; a first lady who refuses to fulfill the role; a fashionista daughter who gets a West Wing job and a seat next to Angela Merkel; a son-in-law who might be a reasonable fellow, but whose only qualification seems to be his fortuitous marriage; a leader of the free world with conflicts of interest so numerous that we are numbed by the prospect of addressing any one of them in proper legal fashion.
As many have pointed out, there are welcome side effects to Trump’s election: More people are becoming politically engaged, newspapers are thriving, even the watchdog ACLU is receiving many more donations than ever before. But will it help keep this man in line? The voters have given him ultimate power. Can he really be kept from abusing it anymore that he already has?
The defining GIF for Trump’s first 100 days is, ironically, provided by Trump himself, the cruel mockery he once performed, of a disabled journalist. It’s now open season to throw that deplorable routine back at Trump, all the flailing about in that GIF more or less summing up all the twists and turns of his first attempts at governing the vast and complicated United States of America.
Before Trump’s inauguration, there was a part of me that hoped he would surprise us and rise to the occasion, that having won the biggest prize any narcissist could hope for, he would begin to think about the grave responsibility he had been given, discard his petty resentments and prove to the world that he was capable of greater things than personal satisfaction and wealth. Now, 100 days later, that hope is gone.
But until he’s gone, I won’t look away, can’t look away. None of us can. I want my life back, sure. I want my own distractions back. But for now I’m glued to the zeitgeist he’s created, lost in the caesura of that pause button he pushed, with its never-ending commercial for the apocalypse, and hoping for a time when I can get back to the show that is my life.