America finds itself in the grip of an endless and inscrutable daily mystery: How is it possible that the president—whose chief occupations seem to be tweeting, lying, lying about what he tweeted, watching television, and committing crimes—is not on the hook for anything? Not for the lying, and not for the criming, and not even for the endless truculence and meanness. More broadly, one wonders, how is it possible that nobody within his orbit—including those who refuse to comply with subpoenas, and those who openly commit flagrant acts of greed and corruption, and those who have broken federal laws—is on the hook for anything either? This vast epistemological question can consume every ounce of energy that remains after an average day spent watching atrocities directed at small children and humanitarian volunteers being put on trial. The atonal incantation of “imagine if Obama had…” has by now lost all meaning; it’s more or less just a drinking game.
Once upon a time in America, the things we witnessed this past week—the president’s defense of a murderous dictator, the president’s claim that he would welcome foreign dirt on his opponents, the president’s claim that he cannot be investigated criminally by Congress—would be the end of a presidency. But it’s just more of the same song, perhaps with a slightly different chorus. The operative question is no longer “what did he do now?” It’s the exhausted afterthought of “what could he possibly do that would bring about any consequences?”
The answer, of course, is that we’ve let him get away with it. As Michelle Goldberg argued Thursday, we let him because we are numb and tired and losing our capacity to react. This is partially because while Donald Trump remains a first-order attention grabber, he no longer feels like a first-order problem—perhaps because we have learned that there isn’t much to do about him, or because we think that voting him out in 2020 is the best answer. Instead of trying to stop this administration that is simply and stubbornly still there (and surely getting worse), we seem to have decided to spend most of our energy on our other priorities, on our lives, and on following the 2020 Democratic primary. Who can blame us, really, with Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats focused on infrastructure, hearings, reelection bids, and their own races? They are the people who can do something tangible to end this presidency, and from the looks of it, many are not very focused on that task (opting instead to spend time fighting over what to focus on). That means that every day House Democrats send out the message that “this is a crisis” and also that “I’m working on other projects” becomes a day in which they look like they are either overstating the crisis or declining to take appropriate action. Democracy is on fire. Nobody knows what to do. Therefore, democracy can’t really be on fire? Repeat.
Perhaps it isn’t so much that Americans are numb. More accurately, it feels like everyone is waiting around for their instructions. This makes sense, as we do find ourselves in a rather unprecedented moment in American politics. But with so much of progressive leadership writing books or sitting on panels or running for president, the folks who might be able to give instructions seem to still be workshopping their plan. I admit that it is strange to me that, in the face of mass uncertainty about what the president did and didn’t do with respect to foreign election interference and obstruction of justice, Democrats wouldn’t take advantage of a process that is designed to showcase for the American public exactly these things. But they don’t seem to be biting.
We kept hoping that someone trusted and unifying would come along and “bring us all together.” Perhaps if not around a plan, around an idea or a value. But we are not coming together; we are cracking apart. And that feeling—of a country cracking apart—is in no small way responsible for the feeling of creeping numbness that Goldberg describes. Among the stories that barely broke through the mayhem of the week, we have Kellyanne Conway laughing off Hatch Act violations that should have ended her White House career, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders slinking away from the White House, such that 25 percent of the surviving senior staffers are now evidently related to the president. Maybe all this misery is resolved by way of free and fair elections in 2020. The problem is that maybe there won’t be free and fair elections in 2020: The president has invited the same foreign election interference he once declared never happened to repeat itself, and efforts to suppress the vote continue apace. Republicans in the Senate made clear that they intend to do nothing to secure those elections. That is not a good trend for electoral victory.
A year and a half is a long time. It represents a lot of new federal judges who will bless Trumpian claims that he is above the law. It represents a lot of time for foreign interests to pay to play in the elections and to hack and misinform as they go. We can be numb without being naïve about how risky it is to put complete faith in voting. That was the original sin of 2016. Nobody can tell you what to do (and certainly, no one official is), but Goldberg’s suggestions—protests and gumming up the Senate—are a start. Calling your elected officials like its 2017 is also good. Donating time and money and airspace to entities trying to ameliorate suffering is good. Nobody should presume to tell others what the work should be. But nobody should presume that engraved invitations to do the work will show up in the mail. Numb is not necessarily contagious, but it is very possibly terminal.