I’m terrified by Twitter. Facebook freaks me out. Every time I check my phone, the appalling facts from yesterday have devolved into today’s even more atrocious news. A climate-change denier may be in line to run the Environmental Protection Agency. A soft-drink lobbyist has the inside track for the Department of Agriculture. A man who doesn’t think there’s evidence for Darwinism could be in charge of education. A sheriff known for bringing back the chain gang might take the reins on national security. And now Steve Bannon, the publisher and propagandist beloved by white-power types, has been tapped to serve as one of Donald Trump’s top lieutenants.
It’s even getting hard to keep the bad news straight. Earlier this week, I saw that Rudy Giuliani would be Trump’s attorney general. But before I’d had the chance to wallow in my outrage, I got an update from a friend: “now he’s favored for sec of state,” she texted me. Well, that’s … still terrible.
Will Trump destroy the global economy? Will he bomb Iran? What’s going to happen to gay marriage and abortion rights? Is the climate toast? What if, God forbid, there were another terrorist attack—would that be enough to make our country over as a fascist state? There’s no way to know, so we can only talk about our fears, dwell on them, spiral, and obsess. The other day I walked by the protests on Fifth Avenue, where tens of thousands of people shouted “Not my president!” in the direction of a building.
I need a break from all this dread and anger, a week or two where I can pretend that Donald Trump does not exist, if only to preserve my sanity and to save my strength for what’s to come. Last year, I made a browser plug-in that blocked stories about the presidential campaign on Facebook, Twitter, and about a dozen major news sites. This week I’ve reconfigured it for Trump. Social media, Washington Post, New York Times, Slate—I love you all, but you’re stressing me out right now. Information hurts more than it helps. Goodbye.
But wait—surely, this is not the time to look away. Our nation is at a crossroads. It’s not insane to throw yourself into a sea of anxious rumor, if it helps ward off enervation and despair. Resistance to autocracy must be stubborn, outraged, and uncompromising, wrote Russian dissident Masha Gessen in a searing piece for the New York Review of Books. “It is essential to maintain one’s capacity for shock,” she said. “This will lead people to call you unreasonable and hysterical, and to accuse you of overreacting.” Yeah, we’re not overreacting. This shit is real. Pay attention, and do something.
I understand that, but I actually do think we might be overreacting. Politics always causes the most distress during and right after an election. Political campaigns are designed to be instruments of fear. Their purpose is to rile; they traffic in outrage and the invocation of end times. For months, Trump insisted that terrorists and rapists were creeping across our borders, that crime is going up and jobs are going down. “People are scared,” he said. And the Democrats were just as wedded to the politics of existential dread. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” Hillary Clinton warned us at the Democratic National Convention. Anti-Trump campaign ads showed mushroom clouds and called the candidate “a threat to humanity“ with “ties to foreign espionage.” A vote for Trump was a vote for Armageddon. Now that he won, is it any wonder we’re worried the world might end?
Perhaps we shouldn’t be so panicked, at least right now. We’re talking about talk, and then we’re talking about the talk about that talk. Should Trump be taken seriously or literally, or both, or maybe neither? It’s impossible to say; the man is not in office yet. He may yet deport 11 million immigrants. He and the Republican majority could repeal Dodd-Frank, build a wall, start a trade war, break up NATO, and purge Jews from public office. Any and all such things could happen, but we won’t know for sure until he gets to work. For the time being, anxious flailing at imagined outcomes only saps our energy. That’s not resistance; it’s shadowboxing.
Sorry, I’m not convinced. Maybe I’d feel differently if everyone hadn’t spent the last year telling me that none of this would ever come to pass. I saw that thing on Twitter, quoting the New York Times profile of Adolf Hitler from 1922: “Several reliable, well-informed sources confirmed the idea that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was not so genuine or violent as it sounded.” Even Mike Godwin—the guy who freaking invented Godwin’s Law—says it’s not crazy to compare Trump to Hitler. Or if you’d rather not go that far, how about comparing Trump to Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines? Pretending this isn’t happening would be the worst thing we can do.
OK, let’s say we’re headed somewhere very, very bad. What the hell are we going to do about it now, before Trump has taken any major steps in that direction? That protest on Fifth Avenue was totally unfocused, an incoherent mess of impotent rage. Not my president? If only. I’m seeing friends break down over things that haven’t happened yet, and which they can’t prevent. What good is that?
Doing something is better than nothing.
Doing what? Reading news, getting migraines, losing sleep?
Well, what’s the other option—living in denial? It doesn’t make me any calmer if I shut my eyes, turn off the news, and hide from social media. When I go dark I’m left with this image in my mind: a black cloud spreading over the country like ink in water. I’m floating there beside it, swimming in place.
Yeah, I’ve been inside that oil spill. It’s called depression. How about this: If we’re going to defend the nation’s institutions, we must protect ourselves. Anything to keep the Babadook at bay.
How about sending letters to Chuck Schumer, ranting to my friends, crying on the subway? Maybe those are better ways to keep the stain from growing in my mind.
I’ll go with my blackout, thanks.
But what if I’m right?
Yeah, what if you’re right? That’s what worries me.
Then let’s figure it out tomorrow.