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The psychic burden of life under Trump

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Dahlia Lithwick flags this interesting essay by Matt Ford about the psychic costs of paying attention to the daily madness of the Trump era. This cost is paid most directly by government officials, but ultimately by any decent human being — although naturally that cost is much higher for the more vulnerable members of the polity:

Wasting time is a defining feature of Trump’s presidency. He is fairly adept at frittering away his own days, spending an indeterminate number of hours languishing in front of the television, simply to watch cable news coverage of himself so he can then offer comments about it on Twitter. But when it comes to wasting the time of everyone around him, the president is without peer. Trump’s haphazard style of governance forces journalists, lawyers, and government officials to expend innumerable hours on doomed initiatives and errant tweets. His corrosive effect on American politics forces Americans to devote far more hours of their life to thinking about him than they should. All of this amounts to a tax of sorts on the national psyche—one that can never be repaid. . . .

The constant exposure to Trump’s rhetoric and governance carries its own measurable toll. Surveys by the American Psychiatric Society (APS), Politico reported last fall, have found a marked increase in stress and anxiety among respondents with regard to the future in recent years. One poll taken shortly after Trump became president found that nearly six in ten Americans thought 2017 was the lowest point in living American memory, surpassing the Vietnam War and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats said they were stressed about the nation’s future, a view shared by clear majorities of Republicans and independents as well.


This effect does not fall evenly on all Americans. A Gallup poll from April found that younger and less affluent Americans felt more daily stress in general. Women reported higher rates than men in the APS survey; black and Hispanic Americans also registered higher levels of anxiety about the future than their white counterparts. In some communities, that stress may have serious consequences for health. A study published last month in Obstetrics and Gynecology found a correlation in Centers for Disease Control data between the 2016 presidential election and premature births among Latina women in the seven months that followed. Other studies reported similar results after large-scale immigration raids.

Among many, many other things, the Wisdom of the Framers failed to anticipate the possibility that a malignant narcissist with 24/7 Twitter access would one day occupy the presidency:

Trump’s gnawing hunger to be at the center of the daily news cycle is a poor fit for our system of government. Higher levels of political awareness and news literacy are always welcome, of course, but they have their limits. “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time,” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, one of the two dozen Democrats running for the party’s nomination, recently quipped. “I’ll do my job watching out for North Korea and ending this trade war. So you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”


Bennet’s overall campaign hasn’t caught on among prospective Democratic voters. But the underlying theme of a return to normalcy is propelling former Vice President Joe Biden to the front of the crowded field. Biden’s message, a gauzy nostalgia for a pre-Trump world that didn’t really exist, could carry him all the way to the White House next November. But a return to this hallowed Before-Time will not be quickly achieved. Should someone be so lucky as to supplant Trump, they will likely spend the bulk of their first term cleaning up after Trump’s last: restaffing a depleted State Department, reversing the Sessions-Barr policies at the Justice Department, reorienting the EPA back toward fighting climate change, and much more.

And it never, ever stops. Here’s the king of comedy in action:

President Trump jokingly told a group of veterans Wednesday that he wanted to award himself a Medal of Honor, but said his aides convinced him otherwise. Mr. Trump made the remarks at the 75th annual convention for American Veterans (AMVETS), a volunteer-led organization formed by veterans.

The president also praised World War II hero Hershel “Woody” Williams, who was present at the event. The retired Marine is the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient to have fought in the pivotal Battle of Iwo Jima. “You are looking good, Woody,” Mr. Trump said. “Woody is looking good.” 


“Nothing like the Medal of Honor. I wanted one, but they told me I don’t qualify. I say, ‘Can I give it to myself anyway?’ They said, ‘I don’t think that’s a good idea,'” he said to laughs. 

Remember that time Obama dishonored the office by wearing a tan suit?

Trump is a literal draft dodger. He avoided military service at a time of a universal civilian draft for young men not on the basis of any principle, unless “I don’t want to serve my country” counts as a principle. And the audience laughed.

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

That’s Auden’s Epitaph on a Tyrant, which I’ve always imagined was written with Stalin in mind, although it was published 14 years before that particular tyrant’s death.

But reading it in this context reminds me once again of how even someone like Stalin is an admirable figure in comparison to Trump. Trump is not after any form of perfection, and it’s impossible to imagine him inventing poetry of any kind, or of being greatly interested in anything but himself, or even of the simple human act of shedding actual tears.

Stalin was a moral monster, but he was still recognizably a human being. Trump is not even that.

But as Ford and Lithwick both point out, ignoring him — while undoubtedly the best course for preserving one’s mental health — isn’t an option for anyone who doesn’t want to participate in the classic process by which authoritarian states anesthetize dissent.

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