President Trump And America’s National Nervous Breakdown

Unlocking your phone these days is a nightmare.

There’s an old Sprite commercial, from the 1990s, in which it's a hot summer day on a city basketball court. Someone cracks open a Sprite, then jumps and cannonballs into the blacktop. It’s OK, though, because the asphalt has become a swimming pool.

This ad does not relate to President Trump or this year in any direct way, but it does in this conceptual one: that these days, looking into a phone screen — a hard, flat surface — is like dropping through a portal into an anxiety spiral.

Everything might seem so normal, then you unlock your phone and — bam — everything gets LOUD again. You have almost certainly had this experience: You wake up in the morning or from a nap, or walk out of a movie, then check Facebook, Twitter, your texts to find people mid-thought, context-free, frozen in emotion, angry at Trump or the Trump people or the anti-Trump people or the media, angry and mocking at hypocrisy whose details aren’t yet clear to you, angry at how ineffectual someone is, or maybe they’re doing something even more indecipherable — it’s not anger, it’s just a meme or a quotation or a screenshot with "lol" or “2017” or just an emoji.

The mystery begins: What happened? What has Trump done now?

There you find yourself, physically in the car or outside the gym, but nevertheless creeping at the edge.

There you find yourself, physically in the car or outside the gym, but nevertheless creeping at the edge, taut, listening just long enough to pick up contours of the argument, trying to put together the news from these fragments.

The longer you listen, though, the more likely you are to be pulled under because this is a distraction, it’s a distraction from last night and it’s working, I'm losing track of whatever this is supposed to be distracting us from, not everything is 3D chess, I’m getting tired of this 3D chess stuff, this is classic Trump, this is classic Bannon, I’m not saying this is like the 1930s buuuuut, tfw democracy ends, that we're even talking about this is insane, this is lit, this is FALSE, he lies, he’s a liar, why don’t they say he’s a liar, if the media spent a little less time hysterical like this and more on actual news, fake news, FAKE NEWS, notice what day it is when this happens, this is the third time that Jared and Ivanka were away, actually if you look at when this happened in 1993, a few thoughts on how this affects Trump’s base 1/x, oh now they care about this, now you pretend like you care, I don’t remember them caring about this when Obama did it, I can remember when Trump cared about this, if these people cared about this in June or October or ever in their lives then maybe I’d take them seriously — and on and on and on.

There’s a Twitter account that tweets just one thing, all day.

While this is funny, if you step back and imagine that the people who retweet this even slightly feel that “AHHHHHH” reflects what they actually think, you can then imagine Twitter as a village of intermittent, solitary screams.

And why are we living this emotionally fraught, all-consuming, fluid yet didactic, meta argument over how to act or think about each day?

“Usually around 6:30 p.m., or sometimes later,” the New York Times reported earlier this year, “Mr. Trump retires upstairs to the residence to recharge, vent, and intermittently use Twitter… he is almost always by himself.”

In the morning or late at night, like Moses down from the mount to repeatedly slam a car door into your forehead, here’s Trump: accusing Obama of wiretapping him, indirectly accusing Obama of using the Brits to spy on him, quoting Andrew Napolitano (“All we did was quote a very talented legal mind”), joking that he and Angela Merkel share Obama spying on them, retweeting Bill Mitchell (“EXACTLY AS I SAID - House Intel Chair: We Cannot Rule Out Sr. Obama Officials Were Involved in Trump Surveillance“), explaining how it's actually fine what he did (“Now remember this, when I said wiretapping, it was in quotes. Because a wiretapping is, you know today it is different than wiretapping.”). Then, of course, there's every little part that blossomed from the original tweet (“Terrible!”), every dismissal (GCHQ, FBI, DOJ, the Intelligence chairs), every theory and story about how this idea got into Trump’s head, every blind quote about whether someone has apologized (“no way, no how”) or just who should apologize to whom ("That's up to him"), every lecture about how FISA courts work, every lecture about under what conditions the CIA can make your television spy on you, every sick own, every GIF of grim ol’ Angela Merkel. Hey look, in the meantime, he can’t be doing so badly, because he’s president, and you’re not, you know. Say hello to everybody, OK?

That’s just one thing that’s happened this month. There are a hundred more, of various sizes and shapes.

This is what it’s like to experience true dissonance. There’s so much discordant noise that just making out each individual thing and tracking its journey through the news cycle requires enormous effort. It's tough to get your bearings. Trump’s presidency currently poses a fundamental question for each person: Is this overall moment weird but ephemeral, maybe not so bad — or is it an emergency? Given the current level of uncertainty (does Trump really mean X?) and the sheer volume of incoming information (what will Trump do tomorrow?), each day demands your judgment. Is this normal? Is this normal? Is this normal?

These questions are exhausting. And sometimes they drift in a slightly more meta direction. There’s, for instance, a tide of previously apolitical, or softly political, people now sorting out where politics is OK (South Beach Wine and Food Festival) and where it is not (a Facebook group for Outlander fans). Parts of the left have become obsessed with enforcing the purest standard of resistance to Trump for their own party — how total can opposition be? That must be the standard. Parts of the conservative movement have devolved into an “anti-anti-Trump right” — consumed with attacking the left or clowning the media, and backing themselves into indirectly defending the president. As Jonathan V. Last recently wrote, “Trump is the thing. And focusing on the excesses of the anti-Trump forces means focusing on a meta-issue rather than the primary issue.”

This is what it’s like to experience true dissonance. 

Who can blame us, though?

We’re more than a year into doing politics all the time at general election saturation (that's not normal), nervously waiting for a resolution that isn’t coming. Trying to find your way under the crush — to determine the truth amid the complexities of protocols, regulations, legislation, ideology, anonymous sources, conflicting reports, denials, public statements, his tweets — it’s too much. We can't live like that!

Besides, this is the era of the cable news revival and the weighted social media algorithm. People's reactions — their theories about what's really going on here — end up occupying as much space as the actual action. And nothing's more infuriating than the wrong reaction.

Other perspectives on this story

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