Do you clearly remember what you were like five years ago? I was definitely thinner, and slightly less cynical, although I think my skin was worse. I hated Nancy Pelosi about the same amount (a lot.) One thing I can say for sure is that if you had asked me five years ago how confident I was in my ability to answer the question “Are you currently living through a coup?” I would have said I was very confident; I was really sure of myself on the coup-discernment front.
Well a hearty haha to former me, in all her glorious certainty, because this precise question has been on everyone’s mind recently and the plain fact is I’m not really sure. Maybe, albeit an in-all-likelihood ineffective one? Something coup-adjacent, I guess? I’ve read persuasive arguments both for and against describing Trump contesting the election results as “a coup,” and I have also read many utterly unpersuasive and frankly quite embarrassing to encounter arguments, mainly in the form the most embarrassing arguments take: Tweet threads.
I will confess a strong bias here against people who begin incredibly self-serious statements with “Friendly reminder.” The past four years have been just lousy with them and I am admittedly loath to join the ranks of coup alarmists for the simple reason that if a coup is actually happening I resent being told about it in all caps or in statements that use words like “shitgibbon.”
Ultimately it doesn’t really matter either way where I come down on the coup question, time will out and all, what is interesting to me is that somewhere in the recent past my ability to make such a call has been eroded. I have lost my sense of which threats I should be taking seriously, and that is something I’m inclined to take seriously.
If I was the sort of person to write those tweet threads, this is where I would probably suggest that a maladaptive threat response—either hypervigilism or avoidance—can be the result of trauma. There are surely essays being written right now about the trauma of the Trump years, just waiting for this coup business to be settled before they are published. I’m not looking forward to them. For most middle-class white women like me, they have been dispiriting and demoralizing and deeply unpleasant but I would save “traumatic” for anyone worried about their mom being deported.
What they have been, universally, is incessant. A ceaseless barrage of information to process, at a rate incompatible with the human mind, and all with the same breathless urgency. The tone of everything—from the very real and dangerous Muslim ban to the countless bizarre theories about Putin—was panic, and each new crisis was heralded as the big fucking deal you must drop everything and pay attention to now. Meanwhile, arguably the most dangerous legacy of the administration will be stacking the federal judiciary with every manner of freak and ghoul the Federalist Society could scrounge up, and that went largely unremarked upon. Evolutionary psychology is for people who make a big deal about the difference between pedophilia and ephebophilia, but it’s not surprising that a brain well adapted to judging if some moving underbrush contains a bird or a tiger gets a bit shortcircuited when it’s constantly ejecting stripy birds and flying tigers.
Perhaps this fog will lift once Trump is reduced to a sweaty, bleating sideshow, traveling the country throwing rallies like those pathetic 20-year olds who still visit their old high school at lunch. I would like to think so, but I’m not so sure. Trump has always exacerbated tendencies latent in this country rather than inventing them anew, and the inability to tell which threats are imagined and which are real has long plagued us. After all, so few really saw him coming.
What might improve matters is to dial back the incentives for people to suddenly become a self-styled expert on each new crisis, acting as though they’ve just been waiting, bouncing on a chair in front of a keyboard, for the precise definition of a coup to come in handy, and berating anyone who dares take the dissenting view. I don’t know exactly what to call Trump’s typically ham-fisted and loserish attempt to not look like a loser, and while that itself worries me, I think I will probably figure it out eventually. In the meantime, maybe if everyone would stop screaming about everything we can reorient our minds toward the things worth screaming about.