It’s boring, at this point, to talk about the cost of living with Donald Trump as president—it’s the water we all swim in now, so it’s neither unique nor new nor surprising. And yet it’s still true, which is why it’s refreshing to read Matt Ford’s excellent piece in the New Republic, “Trump’s Tax on the National Psyche.” Ford’s formulation is a useful way to think about the massive toll, in terms of time and energy stolen from Americans forced to pay attention to inane tweets and half-baked policy, this presidency has had on all of us. As Ford observes, Trump, himself an inveterate squanderer of time, is wasting all of ours: “Trump’s haphazard style of governance,” he writes, “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.” The problem is that we have no choice but to follow the inane tweets and oppose the half-baked policy. There are serious consequences that follow to transgender soldiers, DACA kids, green card holders, and, of course, families at the border when we don’t.
As Ford further notes, the psychic costs of following and resisting all of this stupidity are not borne equally by 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.” And this stress, in turn, has marked health impacts, again borne unequally by communities with less power. Still, it’s not just that families are ripped apart in immigration raids and that Latina mothers suffer higher rates of miscarriages—everyone following along with the cruelty at home is suffering too. In the spring, Pew polled Americans asking them to describe how Trump’s comments and statements made them feel. The top seven responses, in descending order? They felt concerned (76 percent), confused (70 percent), embarrassed (69 percent), exhausted (67 percent), angry (65 percent), insulted (62 percent), and frightened (56 percent). In the Washington Post, William Wan and Lindsey Bever write that “Researchers have begun to identify correlations between Trump’s election and worsening cardiovascular health, sleep problems, anxiety and stress, especially among Latinos in the United States.” In other words, it’s not just that Trump is wasting our time and mental space; he’s also making us physically ill.
Buried in there is part of the answer to the age-old question of whether Donald Trump’s words—packed with lies and hubris and threats—really have any force. Given that those words are likely not to be truthful, we may not need to take them literally or seriously, as the formulation goes. But meaningless or gibberish or lies or all three, his words still make us anxious, worried, and stressed. As Ford notes, it’s not just the opportunity cost of what we could be doing with our time, though I could have learned to be a master baker in the time I’ve spent chronicling the outrages of this administration. The actual physical and mental toll being taken is even worse than what my family has missed out in chocolate amaretto soufflés.
The actual psychic toll on our mental health is crippling. The lost sleep, the grinding anxiety, the escalating fears don’t just represent squandered time. They start to chip away at your health and at your soul. The healthy response would be to tune it out altogether, but since actual people are actually suffering the brutal consequences, we cannot. And so here we are back in the narcissist’s loop, fueling his need to be at the center because, well, there he is at the center.
I have been writing about Trump burnout for a while now, but I confess that this summer has been harder, both because the cruelty we once dreaded and feared is manifestly occurring all around us every day and because vast numbers of our friends and neighbors are either exulting in it or sidelining themselves as a result of what Vox, waaaay back in 2017 once dubbed “Trump fatigue syndrome,” a kind of fugue state involving numbness, burnout, and a corresponding loss of reality. This is then doubly concerning, because in addition to being jealous of these people’s newfound freedom, as Nesrine Malik writes, for the Guardian, the real jeopardy of authoritarianism starts with fatigue. Moral seriousness seems to require being aware enough of the chaos everywhere that you accept being punched in the mouth with it every day.
The email I have received most often this summer goes something like this: “I am doing too much. I am not doing enough.” The same can be said for all of us. Self-care in the form of manicures and time with the kids isn’t making a dent in it. And if one stops to think about the cumulative effect of gerrymandering, election interference, vote suppression, and a president signaling that he will not concede even if he loses in 2020, pinning all hopes in the next election feels one notch more sanguine than we can afford to be.
So, Donald Trump, who just in the past two days refused to visit Denmark because it wouldn’t sell Greenland, tossed an anti-Semitic canard out to see how it landed on American Jews, retweeted a conspiracy theorist who claims Trump is the king of the Jews, reversed himself on gun policy and payroll taxes, and mulled ending birthright citizenship by way of executive order, just keeps on trucking. No check in sight. Don McGahn is not going to do anything to stop him, Congress is not going to do anything to stop him, Senate Republicans are not going to do anything to stop him, and Sean Spicer is on Dancing With the Stars. Cold comfort perhaps, but if you don’t feel that you are losing your damn mind, something would be profoundly wrong with you.
We are all doing too much. And we are all also not doing enough. And there is nothing wrong with you, beyond being a human being in categorically insane times.