“All politics is local,” was famously Tip O’Neill’s favorite saying. Today, in the Age of Trump, all is politics.
Tired of the election and our latest First 100 Days already? Too bad. Good luck trying to disengage. Thanks to social media, and to the nature of our new president and his administration, politics is suddenly with us always, in every aspect of our lives, including wherever we may look for diversion.
I’m not just talking about trying to evade your angry, Donald Trump-loving/hating relatives and friends. Starting the day after the election, I would estimate that at least 90 percent of the conversations I have had with people have been primarily about Trump. Perfect strangers, whom I’ve talked to on matters having nothing at all to do with politics, brought up how upset or shocked they are about the election. Receptionists and secretaries, sales clerks and repair people all have invoked the new president, unbidden.
It’s only gotten worse since Trump took office. It seems nearly every big company has asserted a position on his immigration executive order—Airbnb, Apple, Nike, Lyft, Starbucks, Uber, to name just a few—as have colleges and universities. Even local cafés and bookstores are taking stands with storefront signs and sandwich boards. After-dinner cordials are spoiled by debates over the constitutionality of Trump’s latest move. Peaceful brunches devolve into speculations on what our new president will do next. (That is, when Sunday brunch doesn’t give way to actual protests; as one clever sign-holder outside the Trump Hotel in Washington noted over the weekend, “Protest is the new brunch.”) Macbeth may murder sleep, but The Donald kills conversation.
Trust me, I understand that it is Trump himself, and his actions so far in office, that are responsible for the pervasive political confusion, fear and outrage many Americans are now experiencing. But I have never seen anything like this before, and I don’t know if anyone else has in our history.
Surely, the 1860 presidential race, after which half the country seceded, must have been the object of some continuing consternation. Maybe the 1932 race as well, at the nadir of the Great Depression, which was followed by a very serious attempt on the life of the president-elect, or the down-to-the-wire run in 1960. Maybe the triumph of Thomas Jefferson and his Republican-Democrats in the bruising election of 1800, a time when political dissidents were being sentenced to jail for bad-mouthing the president, and pamphleteers from both sides were spreading their own versions of fake news.
Yet I don’t know that any of those races intruded into the quotidian pursuit of happiness the way that the 2016 race and the first days of the Trump administration have, if only because there did not exist the sort of universal, ubiquitous, hyper-polarized communications that social media now provides. This feels like how one imagines life to be in North Korea, or maybe Benito Mussolini’s Italy, or some other national cult of personality. Trump’s claim that his campaign was responsible for lower NFL ratings this fall may actually be more than another of his tall tales. Politics is now everywhere, all the time.
“We need the principled press to hold power to account, to call them on the carpet for every offense,” Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes awards ceremony earlier this month, turning yet another Hollywood acceptance speech into a (pretty good) civics lesson. “That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedoms in our constitution.”
The Screen Actors’ Guild awards this past Sunday featured speech after speech in reaction to the Trump administration’s sudden ban on refugees from selected Muslim-majority countries. Many of these were general, good-natured and even funny pleas that we continue to “love each other” or “keep telling stories that show what unites us is stronger than the forces that divide us.” But a more rooted, and thoughtful, protest came from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who talked of how her father—a Jewish French businessman who fled religious persecution in Nazi-occupied France, and took refuge in the United States. “Because I love this country, I am horrified by its blemishes,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “And this immigrant ban is a blemish, and it is un-American.” Hollywood is traditional liberal territory, of course, but it is rare for stars’ admonishments to be so frequent, and so somber.
It’s not just the movies. Trump trolling has broken out in all sorts of unexpected areas. The day after his swearing-in, with Trump already on a rampage disputing the size of his inaugural crowd, the Jumbotron for the Dallas Stars—a hockey team, in Dallas, Texas—flashed the message, “TONIGHT’S ATTENDANCE 1.5 MILLION,” a joking nod to Trump’s specious claim that as many people had attended the inauguration.
The next day, it was the turn of…the dictionary. Kellyanne Conway, the perkiest presidential adviser since Pierre Salinger, had described the White House press secretary’s inauguration crowd claims as “alternative facts.” So the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, in its online presence, decided to tweet the definition of the word “fact”—“a piece of information presented as having an objective reality,” followed by an infobit titled “Conway: ‘Alternative facts’: Lookups for ‘fact’ spiked after Kellyanne Conway described false statements as ‘alternative facts.’” Is there any form of media that is not taking on Trump? Reference books, now? What’s next, The Baseball Encyclopedia?
Speaking of which, arguments over the new president have even insinuated themselves into America’s favorite pastime, on the brilliant and generally hilarious New York Yankees blog, “IT IS HIGH! IT IS FAR! IT IS … caught.” There, in blog posts and comment sections, Yankees fans are turning on each other, rather than uniting to bewail the shortcomings of the George Steinbrenner boychiks and general manager Brian Cashman. “If Yankee-free Benghazi Night is all we can expect from a Donald Trump presidency, then I’m with her,” one post this summer concluded. Is nothing sacred? As much as the blog tries to put a smiley face on this—a more recent headline read, “Yankee Doomsday Clock edges closer to midnight, but let’s forget armageddon and ponder the lineup”—even the Evil Empire is rife with division.
What is going on?
To be certain, there is the gravely important matter of what Trump and his confederates are actually doing, and what that means for us all. So far, the new president seems to be trying to roll back almost the entire history of social progress in this country over the past 80 years, and maybe longer. And while it would be nice to switch the conversation from politics, I honestly don’t know if we can just now, in the face of this threat.
It’s understandable that many Americans are taking his actions personally—they feel the consequences pervading their lives. When Trump’s most radical, far-right adviser, Steve Bannon, can effectively order the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, as we saw over the weekend, to detain not only refugees but even legal residents of the United States, that’s not just politics as usual, but something that we as a free people have to respond to. As someone with a pre-existing condition who depends on “Obamacare” for affordable health insurance, I cannot simply file away Trump’s pledge to trash the Affordable Care Act. Nor can I ignore House Speaker Paul Ryan’s assault on Medicare, with other entitlements certain to follow. I have been self-employed most of his life and usually pay out double in payroll taxes, so the idea of letting the Ayn Rand-loving ideologue Ryan hand my money over to his Wall Street friends is, well, aggravating. Trump and congressional Republicans have also floated a series of proposals that will accelerate climate change and besmirch much of our natural environment. I can’t put that aside when I think about my nieces and nephews and godchildren, let alone the fate of the human race.
But sure, I would occasionally like some relief from this cold reality—a good movie, a simple trip to the grocery store. After all, if even the parts of American life that unite us are politicized—even baseball and brunch—how do we hold the country together? What do we share when our most innocent pastimes are reduced to partisanship?
I fear that Trump is not about to let us keep hold of these blissful diversions. One of the reasons we are so preoccupied with the 45th president—beyond his grotesque violations of civil liberties and determination to accelerate the ruination of the planet’s climate, of course—is the fact that he will not go away. Whether as a real estate developer or a television personality, the whole idea of Trump was never to let your eyes turn away. Attention must be paid. Sure, that has probably helped him, at least with his supporters, in the early days of his administration, when hopes and expectations are at their highest, and the country is most favorably inclined toward its new chief executive. But it’s the nature of human beings to eventually ignore what is always there, no matter how much they love it or hate it.
“It is time for me to disappear for awhile,” Franklin Roosevelt liked to tell his advisers, even when things were going well—and FDR was the most enduringly popular president in our history. What Roosevelt meant was that Americans did not want their president in their face, all the time. After some extended push to secure legislation, FDR would make sure to absent himself from the headlines and the airwaves as much as possible, often leaving Washington altogether, and generally keeping a low profile for a period of weeks or even months. He understood that a great captain wants to be seen only when it is most important, to preserve his aura of leadership for when it is needed most.
If Trump really wants to continue to command our attention, he will need to learn to step back. Even reality shows take hiatuses.