Right after Donald Trump was elected president, I interviewed Masha Gessen, the Russian dissident writer, for an essay I was thinking of calling “What to Expect When You’re Expecting Fascism.” The idea became obsolete when Gessen published her own superlative piece on the same theme, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival.” But during the first surreal, harrowing, humiliating month of the Trump presidency, I’ve often thought back to that conversation, and particularly Gessen’s answer to one of my questions: How do you stay sane when a despicable man is in your head all the time?
Basically, she told me, you don’t. Gessen’s family immigrated to the United States when she was a teenager, and she later returned to Russia but then moved back to America three years ago to escape mounting anti-gay persecution by Vladimir Putin’s government. “In the last three years, since I got to this country, I realized what a mental price I had paid for living in a state of siege and a state of battle for a decade and a half,” she told me. At times, she said, being part of the righteous opposition was exhilarating, “but it’s intellectually deadening. When you are fighting, you stop learning. You stop reading theory. You stop reading about things that aren’t part of the immediate fight.”
Intellectual enervation is a luxury problem. Many in Trump’s America are facing material emergencies such as deportation or the loss of health insurance. A leaked draft of an executive order revealed on Friday would seek to use the National Guard to round up and detain undocumented immigrants, an idea that will spread terror even if it’s never implemented. Compared to this, Trump’s denial-of-service attacks on our attention are nothing. But they have still ruined the daily fabric of life in this country.
Every day there’s a new Trumpian outrage that in an ordinary presidency would be a multiday scandal: an ostensibly light-hearted threat to invade Mexico, a casual dismissal of a potential Palestinian state, a feud with a reporter or an actor or a department store. Trump lies so much it’s as if he’s intentionally mocking the impotence of truth. He shamelessly profits off his office, reveling in our powerlessness to stop him. His closest aide is an unkempt racist who has described Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl as a role model. A senior adviser uses her administration perch to hawk the president’s daughter’s line of polyester-blend workwear in a blatant violation of ethics rules. Trump himself is either enmeshed in a subversive relationship with Vladimir Putin, or he’s willing to appear to be. He and his coterie make a fetish of patriotism yet take a perverse antinomian pleasure in defiling the presidency.
Those of us who are part of the growing majority of Americans who hate what’s happening look at each other and say: This is not normal. But let’s be honest: One month in, constant low-grade panic interspersed with bursts of manic outrage is starting to feel more normal than it should.
I will meet someone for lunch or coffee, and after an hour offline, we will both warily check our phones, wondering what new horror transpired while we were away. My mind has grown coarse. I hold on to distant hopes that the intelligence community will save us. In the past, I would have been intrigued by the moral complexities of the deep state undermining an elected but compromised president. Now I think: Do whatever it takes to get him out of there.
In Commentary, John Podhoretz, an anti-Trump conservative, worries that potential Democratic efforts to remove Trump from the presidency for possible legal and constitutional violations could trigger “political violence of a sort we haven’t seen in 50 years, and maybe haven’t really seen in this country in the modern era. Those who believe Trump is a unique menace … to our democratic way of life will be met with those who believe the elites are using illicit means to oust the legitimately elected president of the United States.” I hope this is not true. But if it is, it would mean that the problem with black bloc anarchists isn’t that they’re adolescent vandals who don’t respect liberal values like free speech. It would mean that the real problem is that there aren’t enough of them, and unlike their enemies on the right, they aren’t armed. It would mean that the real problem isn’t too much left-wing militancy, but too little.
To talk about Trump as a menace to our democratic way of life understates the crisis. The more significant issue is that right now America isn’t really a democracy. Some conservatives will say that it was never supposed to be—it was conceived as a constitutional republic. In recent years, however, this was mostly an academic distinction, because there was usually some correspondence between the intentions of at least the plurality of voters and the results of elections (2000 aside, obviously). That’s no longer the case. The majority of people did not want to elect Trump. The majority of people disapprove of what he is doing. But the majority of people have little power.
Worse, that may not change anytime soon. No matter how much Trump is hated, political professionals remind us that the map looks bad for Democrats in 2018, when they will be defending 25 Senate seats and Republicans only nine. “The Democrats regaining control of the Senate, which they lost in 2014, is almost impossible to fathom,” the Los Angeles Times convincingly argued last week. In the House, gerrymandering and the clustering of liberals into big cities provides a massive advantage to white rural and exurban voters. At FiveThirtyEight, Harry Enten tells us that if Democrats win 10 percent more House votes than Republicans, they may—may—gain control of the chamber. Even if a majority of Americans want to elect a Congress that can curb Trump, it’s far from clear that they can. Somehow we treat this as an indictment of Democratic strategy, or of liberals’ geographic preferences, rather than an indictment of our system of governance.
Meanwhile, across America, congressional Republicans are treating their dissenting constituents with unprecedented contempt. Vice reports that more than 200 Republican members of Congress aren’t holding traditional town hall meetings during the February recess. In California, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher described Democratic residents of his district who are clamoring for a meeting as “holier-than-thou obstructionists” and “enemies of American self-government and democracy.” In Tennessee, Congressman John Duncan Jr. wrote a letter rejecting his constituents’ request for an open forum, saying he would not provide “shouting opportunities for extremists, kooks and radicals.” Trump himself, in a rare moment of lucidity during his unhinged press conference last week, dismissed the desperate people demanding a hearing from their political representatives. “I know you can say, ‘Oh, Obamacare,’ ” Trump said, seeming to acknowledge widespread objection to the GOP’s repeal plans. “I mean, they fill up our rallies with people that you wonder how they get there, but they are not the Republican people that our representatives are representing.” This is a government for Trump’s people and Trump’s people alone.
During the campaign, when some Republicans expressed qualms about Trump, it was possible for a liberal to imagine that, beneath our mutual partisan loathing, a baseline civic commonality still bound the country together. Hillary Clinton bet all her aspirations on it. She argued not that Trump was a typical Republican, but that Republicans were better than Trump. She was wrong. Republicans in Congress have watched silently as Trump has shredded American credibility in the world, terrorized immigrants, and flirted with treason. We can now see that there is nothing—not sexual lasciviousness, not corruption, not meddling by foreign adversaries—that Republicans abhor more than they abhor Democrats, nor anything they value above power.
It turns out that some anti-Trump conservatives doubted the president not because he’s a cruel authoritarian, but because they secretly worried that he wasn’t cruel and authoritarian enough. “I have a lot of friends on the right who did not support Donald Trump for president,” the conservative Erick Erickson wrote after Trump’s recent press conference. “They thought he was a closet liberal who would go left the moment he was elected or the moment he hit rough water. He has actually stayed largely on course. Yesterday, almost to a person, those friends of mine who did not and still do not really care for Donald Trump loved him.” Trump isn’t going to drain the swamp of Washington self-dealing, make the United States respected in the world, or bring back manufacturing jobs. But he gives the right something it wants much more: revenge. “He is a means to an end and that end is finally giving back to a group of people who behave as cultural elitists and insist people of good faith and conscience conform to values that do not reflect them instead of embracing a live and let live culture,” says Erickson.
Erickson is right about conservative motives, though it’s a bit rich to describe those cheering on Trump because he terrifies the Americans they disagree with as “people of good faith and conscience.” Whatever you call them, by sanctioning Trump, Republicans have made sure that any common ground that existed in America—the space where we might debate what a live and let live culture looks like—has been burned and salted. If America survives this presidency, it already seems as though it will take some sort of truth and reconciliation commission to rebuild a functioning polity. And this is only month No. 1. Happy Presidents Day.