What to Make of the Jarring Return to News in 2020

It’s no longer a question of what’s right, but what’s real.

Donald Trump speaks at a podium, flanked by military officials.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

I, for one, very much enjoyed the interregnum, while it lasted. It served as a reminder that there is still a seam between discrete, reality-based things—between Christmas and New Year’s, between impeachment in the House and a trial in the Senate, between the darkest night of the year and the start of the light. There were a few brief days in there during which you could turn inward, toward your family and your friends, toward your spiritual and mental health, toward something beyond the relentless pounding of the news and the push alerts and the tweets. For those among us who have largely lost the ability to compose a game face, to wrap gifts or sip drinks and tune it out, this thin seam also meant experiencing the relief of realizing that there was still a boundary between what is true and what is fake, between what matters and what does not.

And then of course that pause, and any respite that it brought, was shattered, first with an extralegal assassination by drone of a state official acknowledged to be an enemy, but not someone whose execution had ever been deemed worth the risk. And with it the flood of hasty lies resurfaced—first that the execution was to stave off an imminent attack that wasn’t; then that this was somehow connected to 9/11, which it wasn’t; then that it was intended to escalate, but also to de-escalate, but also to escalate tensions with Iran. Next came the tweeted threats to cultural sites, which were repudiated, and then the memo about troop withdrawal from Iraq, which was repudiated, and then the White House visit with Saudi Arabian delegates that wasn’t, and the impeachment trial that will proceed without the need for a trial. Having been advised for many months that the military and national intelligence apparatus are “deep state” liars, we are now told to just trust them again. Having previously been told that NATO is the problem, we are now given to understand NATO is the solution. The choice, yet again, is to move through the world as though it’s all just a green screen and none of it matters, or to bear down and fight for truth and for justice, as it becomes ever more apparent that what one is fighting against is mostly just smoke.

The lines grow ever more cloudy. White supremacist Richard Spencer now disavows white supremacist–adjacent Donald Trump. Fox News war hawks are splitting with Fox News opponents of foreign wars, and nobody can remember which team they’re on. Some Senate Republicans believe we should reassert congressional war powers. Americans who went to sleep on Tuesday night in fear of World War III were reassured Wednesday morning that it was all just performative saber rattling done for theatrical purposes. We gaslit Iran, Iran gaslit us, and war was averted by way of fake news. Pick your poison: You can choose to be constantly dialed up to 12 or to tune it all out as a noisy telenovela—you’d be quite justified in either case. As the seam between what’s real and what’s manufactured becomes ever blurrier, the seam between what matters and what does not is similarly smudged away.

Jamelle Bouie observed on Wednesday what it has meant to live for three long years on the boundary between normalizing and fearing this presidency: “The implications are terrifying. They suggest a much more dangerous world than the one we already believe we live in, where in a fit of pique, a single action taken by a single man could have catastrophic consequences for millions of people.” And yet, writes Bouie, “you can even understand the constant drive to normalize Trump as an attempt to turn away from the reality of what he is for fear of what it means.” But that’s the problem. Whatever it is that happened with Iran this week is either catastrophic or inconsequential. Go ahead and choose your own ending. The chaos that surrounds this president, the ineffectual writhing of his incompetent handlers, and his peripatetic and ill-considered impulses are either driving us to the very brink of international collapse, or else they’re all just scenes from a Peter Sellers movie, easily corrected and readily dismissed.

For years we’ve cautioned ourselves against “normalizing” this president. We’ve considered the cruel border policies and environmental wreckage and the payoffs to the very rich on the backs of the very poor, and attempted to stay on the right side of vigilance about the changing norms, around ever more shocking conduct. But if this week has revealed anything, it’s that most of us now casually toggle back and forth not between right and wrong, or reality and falsity, but between alarm and stupefaction, between outrage and acceptance, between abject fear that everything is ending to a mute understanding that maybe nothing has even happened. There is a second axis operating here. It’s not just the line between normal and aberrant, but between aberrant and still inconsequential.

For three years we’ve been afraid that the worst fate that might befall the republic would be for the populace to grow numb to a president who doesn’t read, refuses the advice of experts, and doesn’t appear to understand cause and effect. But maybe the even greater threat is that it’s almost impossible to discern, as we careen from crisis to catastrophe, whether all of these episodes are impactful, or consequential, or even real. The world sees this president as a cartoon; Americans seem to increasingly agree. It is more and more possible to understand the country not as divided between two camps—one of which believes he is the finest president in history and the other which believes he is a buffoon—but as one single camp, all of us attempting to understand what has actually even happened and whether it will ultimately matter.

This is all taking place as the line between reality and deepfakes, tweets and official policy, lies and different lies, has gone missing. In a two-hour span, Twitter was proclaiming the advent of World War III, and then that nothing had actually happened Tuesday night. Someday I hope to tell my grandchildren how difficult it was to compose my face every day of the Trump era, in order to move through the back-to-school nights and the dentist appointments without screaming that we’re all gonna die, while all the while I was in terror that the next shoe, or the shoe after that, would be the final shoe to drop. But more and more I wonder whether our own accelerating internal shifting between what is normal and abnormal, what is private and what is public, what is consequential and what is television, begins to spell out a decline that we have yet to name.

We either did or did not do something monstrously important in Iran last week. Iran either will or will not respond with monstrous consequences. That we won’t know the difference until something else happens isn’t merely a result of normalizing the demented anymore. It’s the result of losing track of whether what is happening is happening at all. It’s not whether we are awake or asleep anymore; it’s what to do about the fact that it all feels like a dream.