About a year ago, in early 2017, I briefly joined a stress-management program that functioned sort of like a support group. I was feeling brittle and panicked; alongside millions of other Americans, the generalized anxiety that normally keeps me company had grown exponentially in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
The program requires regular “check-ins” with yourself or other members of the group to determine your stress level—from one (very relaxed) to five (very stressed)—and gives you “tools” to manage each level. If you’re at a three, for example, you begin with an expression of rage. “I AM ANGRY THAT...” you’re meant to yell, describing why you feel angry, even if you don’t particularly feel angry. If all goes according to plan, anger should eventually collapse into sadness. “I am sad that…” you say quietly. Then you’re afraid. This was always easy, if embarrassingly self-centered. I’m afraid of dying alone. I’m afraid I have an extremely early-onset case of Alzheimer’s that is so rare it will remain undiagnosed until I wander into the street in my underwear and get hit by a bus. And then you are “grateful for…”, “happy that…”, “secure that…”, “proud that...”
The idea is to methodically acknowledge your layers of feeling, and to cycle through your anxiety in a way that allows you to climb out of it. Though I found it effective, it can be a frustrating exercise. How does a person in a state of passive dejection generate fury? How do you mime security when you’re much more accustomed to dread?
Though I eventually dropped out, I think about this program every once in a while as the powerful feelings I’d experienced directly following the election become increasingly and somewhat mysteriously inaccessible to me. How are we (“we” meaning those of us who are not at peace with or indifferent to Trump’s policies and behavior, and those of us who are not living underneath a more immediate and palpable threat of forced detention and deportation; “we” meaning those of us in the position to be sitting around pondering this question in the first place) processing the impossibly long-term and unprecedentedly visible insanities of the Trump era? It’s one thing to push yourself into various emotional experiences based on intimate daily anxieties. It’s another thing altogether to remain indefinitely grounded in the terror of a democratic meltdown; to “maintain one’s capacity for shock,” as Masha Gessen’s now-canonic essay on autocracy instructs us.
In the year since I wrote about the chaos of the first days of the Trump administration, everything and nothing about the Trump White House has changed. It’s as ludicrous, corrupt, and malicious today as it was when Sean Spicer berated reporters about the allegedly massive size of Trump’s inauguration crowd last January. But the way the Trump administration’s captive audience relates to this chaos has changed; it had to, because it has invaded every nook and cranny of our lives. As nonstop political turbulence intersects with our relatively newfound ability to watch it unfold in real time, we must be, in some slippery but fundamental way, different than we were. It’s a disconcerting process, watching yourself get used to something terrible.
It was around the time of Spicer’s big, false brag about the inauguration crowd that Jezebel’s The Slot launched a nightly feature called “Barf Bag.” At the time, the onslaught of outrageous breaking news was still relatively new, and absent a comprehensive way to cover it all, we decided just to shove all the extra political news down everyone’s throats at the end of each day. It seemed like a decent idea at the time.
Barf Bag quickly morphed into a crushing daily reminder of the impossible vastness of the changes afoot; I can count the days on one hand when we’ve had to scrape around for items to fill this blog. Today’s version of a “slow news day” would be unrecognizable two years ago, what with the gleeful degradation of environmental regulations and protections, the parade of comically unqualified judicial nominees, the endless foreign policy disasters, the investigations, the hearings, the resignations, the palace intrigue, the nuclear threats, the racist rhetoric, the steady violent rush of deportations.
The story of this presidency can be distilled into a cluster of cartoonish declarations and images—“shithole” and “I’m not trying to suck my own cock” immediately spring to mind; as does the president pretending to drive a big truck, the president shoving the Prime Minister of Montenegro, the president’s teeth appearing to fall out of his mouth mid-speech, and Ted Nugent posing happily for photographs in the Oval Office. You’d think that our newfound capacity to see everything that’s happening would turn us all into super-citizens, but increasingly, it feels like we are driven to process these more absurd items as entertainment—a result, maybe, of what’s become known as “outrage fatigue,” meaning, according to Yale psychology professor Molly Crockett, that “constant exposure to outrageous news could diminish the overall intensity of outrage experiences.”
“[Trump has] spent his life creating and surrounding himself with chaos,” former Trump Organization vice president Barbara Res told Politico in July, “so that he can be the one person who can emerge in charge. The winner. The guy on the top. It’s a way of slaying his enemies.” The enemies, in Trump’s case, appear to be the American people.
Almost immediately, a relatively large community of commenters began to convene in the comments section underneath Barf Bag, obsessively offering news items we’d missed, gifs, dark humor, pictures of their pets, and occasionally alarming expressions of despair. “I just want him to stop. Please god, just stop,” a commenter pleaded in October.
“Basically every day can be summed up with ‘Trump or someone from his administration did something remarkably stupid, made illogical and irreconcilable comments about it, and are now lying about what they said and did,’” another commenter noted, in March of last year. “And yet I still have to click. I always thought it would be a viral pandemic that took us down, turns out it’s a psychological one.”
About a month before the 2016 election, the American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America survey found that 52 percent of American adults described the 2016 election as a “very or somewhat significant” source of stress. The following year, in October 2017, the same poll found that 63 percent of Americans named “the future of the nation” as a “very or somewhat significant” source of stress. Notably, 20 percent of Americans said they check their social media “constantly,” a three-point increase from the year prior.
In early 2017, William Doherty, a therapist and a professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, founded a group called Citizen Therapists for Democracy; in 2016, he’d published a manifesto signed by thousands of therapists that declared Trump a threat to Americans’ mental health. The group, he told the Los Angeles Times, would allow psychotherapists to confront the relatively unfamiliar concept of “public stress.”
Trump isn’t coming up as much in therapy these days, Doherty told me in a recent phone interview. According to Doherty, for those who haven’t yet been directly impacted by the administration’s policies, the acute anxieties that were widely felt a year ago by his patients and the patients of other therapists in his group have curdled into something subtler, more chronic. (And research shows that chronic stress can lead to long-term physical and mental health problems, including insomnia.)
“The president is a kind of parental figure, whether we voted for the person or not, and when that person behaves in an erratic way, in what seems to be a vindictive way, I think it affects people, it affects the country, kind of like the father in the family who is impulsive and vindictive,” Doherty said.
Trump has a nearly unprecedented “umbilical cord to the American people through social media,” he added, “where his impulsivity, his brittleness, gets communicated right away to millions of people and picked up constantly by the media, and I think it creates a kind of underlying emotional disturbance in the population.”
Reality television has many corollaries to the machinations of the Trump administration. Some are more literal than others, but perhaps none is more useful than the observation that with a certain amount of acclimatization, a person can grow to accept almost any set of rules, no matter how stupid or wrong they are. This applies both to participants and to viewers; no one is better at pointing out the absurdities of any given reality show than someone who doesn’t normally watch it. “Is it true that Bachelor contestants aren’t allowed to have books?” my editor, a woman who doesn’t watch much reality TV, asked me incredulously while reviewing a recap I’d written. Why would they be allowed to have books? I thought.
As Donald Trump transitions from looming imposter to permanent resident in the locked, book-less mansions of our psyches, his ubiquitous presence threatens to take a new kind of toll. “[T]he spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere,” Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle. Building on Debord’s premise of the “spectacle,” in 2013 Jonathan Crary described our world’s assault on sleep in his book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. A “society of sleepers,” Crary argues, has often been used as a dystopian trope. But what if it’s just the opposite? What if being human means being able to step away, to close your eyes, to stop watching for a moment? And what happens to us when we can’t—when we face, as Doherty phrased it, “the perfect storm of an unstable president and the possibility of continuous communication about his instability”?
Though Crary wrote 24/7 three years before Donald Trump became the Republican nominee, his thesis would suggest—as some research on smart phones also indicates—that the relentless spectacle of the Trump administration, as viewed through our portable devices, affects observers’ ability to clearly perceive what’s going on. “With an infinite cafeteria of solicitation and attraction perpetually available, 24/7 disables vision through processes of homogenization, redundancy, and acceleration,” Crary writes. “Contrary to many claims, there is an ongoing diminution of mental and perceptual capabilities rather than their expansion or modulation.”
Hannah Arendt, Crary notes—who also wrote of the “perpetual motion-mania of totalitarian movements”—spoke of our need to occasionally escape the “implacable bright light of the constant presence of others on the public scene” in order to be whole, functioning human beings who can then properly contribute to society. Crary also points to philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ work on insomnia, which Levinas suggested “is a way of imagining the extreme difficulty of individual responsibility in the face of the catastrophes of our era.” Crary writes:
Insomnia corresponds to the necessity of vigilance, to a refusal to overlook the horror and injustice that pervades the world. It is the disquiet of the effort to avoid inattention to the torment of the other. But its disquiet is also the frustrating inefficiency of an ethic of watchfulness; the act of witnessing and its monotony can become a mere enduring of the night, of the disaster.
Could it be that this “necessity of vigilance” and its corresponding constant wakefulness—seen by many as a primary responsibility of the informed citizen—can also diminish our ability to adequately respond to what we’re seeing?
An abiding hope that this isn’t true has been a pillar of “the resistance” since January 20, 2017, and there has undoubtedly been a massive uptick in activism on the left over the past 12 months. In the months after the Women’s March became the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, Indivisible grew from a spreadsheet on grassroots organizing tactics to a national movement with thousands of local chapters, a wave of Democrats nearly toppled the Virginia legislature, and Alabama elected a Democratic senator. 25,000 women have reached out to Emily’s List about running for office, and tomorrow marks the second annual Women’s March, with a “Power to the People” rally in Las Vegas and hundreds of related events and marches around the country.
A refusal to submit to sleep, a maintenance of one’s thumb on the pulse, is what we’re told is to thank for this. But if vigilance is the first step to resistance, there’s also a risk that some of us will start to treat vigilance itself as a form of protest. And if you can’t keep up, what then? “The chaos that you talk about, I think, if we take it to its logical extreme, is basically producing two groups of people: people who have to obsessively one-up each other in terms of transmitting how much they get this political moment, and people who are basically erasing themselves from politics,” Yanna Krupnikov, an associate professor of political science at the University of Stony Brook, told me. “My bet,” she said, “is depending on the social network that you’re in—your in-person social network or your online network—the idea that the other group exists is entirely shocking to you.”
There is still a giant swell of people across the U.S. putting their lives on hold and sometimes on the line to enact their values in opposition to the policies of this administration. Maybe you’re one of them—or maybe you’ve become overwhelmed, exhausted, gradually content just to read about it. As we look once again towards the Women’s March, it’s worth differentiating between how much we’re watching and how much we’re doing—and noticing how endlessly watching can wear down our ability to do. When we think about the spectacle of Donald Trump, it’s worth asking where the spectacle ends, and where we begin.