It never ends.
One day President Trump is attacking the mayor of a city devastated by a Category 5 hurricane and blasting black NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. The next day he’s practically baiting a nuclear-armed power into war and then rails against “fake news” and sends out tweets with ominous threats against news organizations that report stories he doesn’t like.
A health care bill that has helped tens of millions of Americans is actively and unabashedly sabotaged. Environmental protections are scrapped, all for the benefit of polluters and big corporations.
That’s just the past two weeks. The firing of the FBI director and the admission that it was done to obstruct an investigation into his possible collusion with the Russian government is largely forgotten. Even relatively minor outrages like calling the White House a “dump” or lying about inauguration crowds or falsely accusing a former president of wiretapping him or ethics violations after ethics violations just get pushed down the memory hole.
It’s impossible to keep up. It’s all-consuming.
For millions of Americans, Trump has become an unbearable, infuriating, enraging, and draining presence in our national life. As a political columnist, there’s no escaping him. Going on two years he’s become an omnipresent force in my life. But what about the rest of America? What about those not afflicted by the need to constantly be spinning on the news cycle hamster wheel and those who don’t count themselves part of the MAGA crowd?
I surveyed friends and threw the question out to my Twitter feed about the emotional toll of Trumpism. The responses speak to the extraordinary and largely underreported national trauma — and increasing pessimism about America’s future — that Trump’s presidency is creating.
“There are no grown-ups in charge, no protectors, no one to make sense of things, no one to assure us it will be OK,” said a professor who lives in Las Vegas. “It is so deeply, and continuously, disturbing, that I sometimes doubt our country will survive him.”
A former Obama administration official said, “I am exhausted. All. The. Time. I simply can’t keep up.” A friend and former member of the intelligence community told me he is “utterly exhausted from having my humanity and standing attacked. Wary and anxious that we can’t change it.”
Others struggled for the right words. “Nausea is difficult to describe succinctly,” said an old friend who lives in a blue island in Kansas.
In all the responses I received to this query there was extraordinary and debilitating sense of hopelessness that I’ve never seen before in American politics. “My sense of political efficacy of being able to have any larger impact in the world individually or even as part of a group, has been radically diminished,” a close friend and fellow New Yorker vented. That is, she said, “a bad thing for me and a very bad thing if it gets multiplied out to all of us.”
On Twitter, the angst is even greater.
Every day is spent with a base level of anxiety and dread, waiting for the next bit of terrible news to fall.— HopeDiamond (@berg_jade) October 12, 2017
I feel like there's someone sitting on my chest every single day.— Alison ITMFA (@alisonrae00) October 12, 2017
A dark cloud has settled over the landscape. I fight for light every day— Bev (@salemswamp) October 12, 2017
I don't sleep well. I cry a lot. I feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the disaster that is upon us and utterly powerless to stop it.— Godless Mama (@TheGodlessMama) October 12, 2017
I am in a constant state of disbelief, shock, and anger. It's exhausting. I've never been more concerned for our future.— Mary Ehret (@NativePalate) October 12, 2017
I feel as though America's future is slipping away. We are, step-by-step, being made less safe, less competitive, more numb 2 looming issues— BA (@ba_wells77) October 12, 2017
Many expressed fears of nuclear conflict; others of losing their health care if Republicans succeed in gutting Obamcare. Some talked about moving out of the country, while some compared Trump’s presidency to being in an abusive relationship. People report weight gain, increased anxiety and depression, and sleeplessness.
But above all, there is an abiding sense that the America we once knew, or perhaps that we believed existed, has been swept out from underneath us — and that the country has become unmoored from not only its political traditions but its common decency and compassion. There is a rawness and anger in American politics that is deeply dislocating.
Some conservatives will likely chalk this up to liberals being “precious snowflakes” or they will laugh at liberal tears, which of course perfectly captures the ugliness of our political polarization. But make no mistake, there is something more visceral going on here.
I’m the ultimate optimist. I’ve written countless articles about how the world is getting safer, freer, wealthier, and healthier — and it is. But the collective effect of Trump’s presidency has caused me — and many I’ve spoken with — to question our belief in and hopefulness about America. Reactionary forces that we all know existed, but many of us believed were on the decline, have been unleashed on the country. Racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, which of course have always existed, have become normalized and part of the political discourse in ways that are completely alien to our experience of American politics. Public corruption, the shredding of political norms, and a deficit of public compassion now seems to define our body politic. The presidency, which so many of us were raised to revere or at least respect, has become a punch line as we watch, in horror, a president who is unhinged, clearly unfit, and utterly incapable of doing his job.
Events that never would have seemed imaginable in American politics are now not only accepted; they are practically daily occurrences. Last month in the Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky wrote about how the “scale of outrages is so monumental and relentless that it overwhelms us; but one little detail emerges, fights its way through the fog, and is somehow clarifying.” For him, it was Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch giving a speech at Trump’s Washington hotel. For me, it’s the profits that Trump continues to make from spending weekends at his resorts and from diplomats and foreign leaders staying at his hotels in order to curry favor with his administration that no one seems to talk about anymore. In non-bizarro America, these would be huge national scandals. But today they don’t even penetrate. Such behavior has become tacitly accepted, an “oh by the way” at the end of a litany of Trump excesses. Indeed, for all my incandescent rage over watching a president profit from the presidency, I haven’t found time to write about it. There just isn’t enough time.
Beyond the daily parade of outrages, there’s also the fact that our politics have never felt so inconsequential. Less than two weeks after a mass shooting in which more than 500 people were killed or wounded — an unbearable level of carnage — there is no momentum in Congress to do anything of real substance to stem the bloodshed. The opioid epidemic took more than 30,000 lives in 2015 and is destroying countless families and communities across America, and yet Washington does nothing.
In the last two months, terrifying hurricanes that are almost certainly tied to global warming have done catastrophic damage and yet the Trump administration is focused on loosening, not tightening, environmental regulations. Indeed, the only issues that seem to animate official Washington is destroying Obamacare, cutting taxes for rich Americans, undermining an international agreement that has helped stop the spread of nuclear weapons, and denigrating black athletes for protesting the deaths of black Americans.
The challenges facing America today feel immense and urgent, and yet our politics couldn’t be smaller. “Our loyalty to a shared concept of ‘America’ seems to be evaporating, and that’s the scary part for me,” a Republican friend bemoaned. “If we don’t agree on what we feel binds us as citizens of a nation, if can’t see our common interests as American citizens, then we splinter apart.”
Yet, we have a president who actively is seeking to divide us; who only governs to his narrow base of reactionary and resentful voters and who not only doesn’t speak to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” but doesn’t even understand the concept.
“How could this be happening in my country?” asked a Democratic friend. It is the question that millions of Americans are asking and for which there is seemingly no good answer.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.