The impact of the Trump era will probably be remembered as crimes and outrages, but what it did to our psyches may be harder to recall. It did a lot to our psyches. The most valuable real estate Donald J. Trump ever acquired in his shady, shoddy career as a developer was the terrain inside our heads. And like so much else he got hold of, he wrecked it. During those four years of his presidency, our perception of time became disrupted and corrupted until it seemed to get stuck, stumble over itself into incoherence, loop, or crumble.
David J. Morris in his The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder calls trauma “a disease of time.” With PTSD, the past refuses to become the past or stay there, and the traumatic event forces itself back, like a zombie rising from the dead, into the present, or the present of the source of trauma has never receded to become the past, either as something receding into the distance or incorporated into one’s historical narrative. When the Biden inauguration happened, I was surprised to find that I was not uplifted or relieved, but freed to feel how hideous the whole thing had been, how damaged I felt—and I heard from many others who had the same experience.
A hundred days since the end of that era and the beginning of the Biden Presidency, the texture of everyday life then does feel at times remote, almost unbelievable, and when some national event transpires, it’s a huge relief not to have the incendiary idiocy of Trump’s commentary added to it (which is a reminder that it was both a presidency the senate could have ended in early 2020 and a long run on Twitter that Jack Dorsey could have ended before he finally did, after the insurrection of January 6).
To those who opposed him, the years felt like a constant barrage of insults to fact, truth, science, of attacks on laws, on rights, on targeted populations from Muslims to trans kids, on the environment, on scientists, on institutions that might protect or promulgate any of these preceding things, and on memory itself. It was a disorder from which we were forever trying to emerge into order, like people clawing a slimy bank, only to slump back into the ooze.
The phrase “drain the swamp,” repeated over and over by the most corrupt administration in a century or more, was part of its promulgation of confusion, its swampiness. The pandemic felt like the final phase, throwing us deeper into uncertainty, isolation, anxiety, and a sea of lies and denials—and mass death. Because so much of what happened in our hard-hit country could have been avoided by a more compassionate and competent administration, it was part of the chaos.
Trump was constantly endeavoring to erase and revise the past and thereby to undermine the capacity of any of us to remember it or reference it. In 2016, he acknowledged that the Hollywood Access tape was real, and a year later he suggested maybe it was a fake, and in the summer of 2019 he falsified a weather chart to make himself right in what he said about a hurricane, and then doubled and tripled down on the petty lie. The Washington Post ran a headline last April that invited viewers to “watch Trump deny saying things about the coronavirus that he definitely said.” CNN put it thus: “President Trump falsely denies saying two things he said last week.”
One got tired of outrage, and then more outrages came. This week was a hungry cannibal that devoured last week.
The political goal was presumably to discredit all sources of information other than himself, to build up a barrage of little lies so that when he floated his big lie he would have prepared the ground and recruited the suckers. His personal goal was surely the vanity of wanting to have never been wrong and the superpower of always being right—George Orwell speaks of the theological nature of totalitarians, who must constantly alter the past to claim to be always right in the present. But also it seemed that for Trump, who was at core a hustler, grifter, and salesman, truth and falsity were not categories into which he sorted reality. There was only what was expedient in the moment to promote himself and his agenda, as well as a psychopath’s or rich boy’s expectation of utter unaccountability. Which is to say he didn’t particularly seem to know, and it was the nihilism of sales pitches unanchored in reality that we were all dragged into, or rather contaminated by.
Whether or not you were buying what he was selling, he was winning by making noise and getting away with it. So something had happened and then it had not, and his followers on Twitter and in the House and the Senate would go along with whatever the current version was. The term gaslighting, hitherto mostly used mostly to describe bullying and manipulation in private relationships, became a term for what a politician and his party were trying to do to the public. To cite Orwell again, the Memory Hole in this era was Trump’s big mouth, swallowing up facts and spewing out delusions. With that mouth at its national headwaters, the river of time became a river of molasses and then a tar pit—it became the swamp plenty of us flailed furiously in without seeming to get anything other than more stuck. The past being constantly sabotaged, in other words, was one way time was disordered.
His obsessive tweeting, often in the early hours of the morning, meant that bizarre and venomous interjections into the political process could erupt at any time of day or night, that at any moment the ground might again shift beneath us. You would think you’d rounded up the facts like sheep, and then some would stray or a wolf would come in the night and devour a few or it would turn out to have been a flock of wolves all along. While the White House traditionally produced news on a weekday work schedule, there was no longer any recognizable workday, just a random spray of firings, scandals, denials, insults, executive orders, reheated lies from his mornings watching Fox and Friends, and more than 300 days without a press conference in which the media could demand explanations according to the customary rites.
It was like living in the aftermath of an earthquake, when the aftershocks can come at any time, or in a place where explosions happen unpredictably, or with an unstable abuser, and in fact it was living with an unstable abuser, who was on one hand not in the house with us and on the other hand was our president and the most powerful person on earth. It kept you on edge. It kept you thinking about him and them, speaking of the psychic real estate they occupied, and thinking about that also kept you from thinking about other things—about deeper meanings, longer timeframes, broader perspectives, things that were less tethered to electoral politics and the USA in this very moment. Alligators, speaking of swamps, drag their prey into the water; this dragged us all into the shallows. I felt like I and we became more banal and superficial, because this sense of having to attend to yesterday and the last ten minutes and tomorrow in national political life and struggle to refute another lie meant that everything else got pushed back, including deeper involvement in local and international issues.
The sheer volume of these outrages and eruptions also meant that it was hard to keep track of it all, which was surely part of the plan; how could you remember last week’s scandal or last month’s crimes when today something amazingly corrupt had just happened or been revealed? Or perhaps it only seemed unprecedented because it was so lurid that hindsight was blinded. What would have been the most memorable and shocking scandal of any previous presidency would disappear in the glare of the newest scandal; for example, Trump’s astounding weekend phone call trying to bully Georgia’s Republican Secretary of State to change the vote tally was forgotten in the drama of the coup attempt he also instigated a few days later (the coup attempt did add coherence to the stuffing of the Pentagon, a couple of months before, with thugs loyal to Trump rather than law or country, for those who in January remembered November).
While the White House traditionally produced news on a weekday work schedule, there was no longer any recognizable workday, just a random spray of firings, scandals, denials, insults, executive orders, and reheated lies.
But this last attempt to stop Joe Biden from assuming the presidency was part of the sheer overload that made people forget the first attempt, in the fall of 2019, with the wielding of aid to Ukraine as a lever to try to force the president of that country to comply with a smear campaign. Someone remarked to me in the fall of 2020 that their college students did not remember that Trump had been impeached earlier that year for his Ukraine crimes, which meant they had surely also forgotten that Trump was trying to stop Biden almost before the campaign started, which meant that the pattern or maybe the arc and intent went undetected. In normal life—or at least a more sedately paced life—something happens and we commit it to memory, incorporate it into a narrative of meaning, but this stuff came at us too fast to process.
The present seemed so intense it left little room for the past, and sometimes that meant that this week rubbed out almost all memory of last week. Which made time seem both incredibly fast, in an action-movie car-chase-with-explosions way, and interminable with the sense that the barrage might never stop. In the first months of the Trump presidency, I saw a journalist joking on Twitter, “I went out to lunch. WHAT HAPPENED?” because the sheer unpredictability meant you might miss something dramatic if you took your eyes off the drama for even the length of a lunchtime.
For a lot of us this meant we entered a state I called “informational hypervigilance,” convinced that I needed to read the news constantly, scan Twitter for the very latest, check in after any absence to see what happened while I was out running or buying groceries. I read news obsessively, which meant that I didn’t read books nearly enough, and the very mindset of a reader was undermined by this jumpy, twitchy news surveillance. I heard from others that they too felt they had forgotten how to read, in the sense of how to pay attention to long complex narratives.
The writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor said to me earlier this year that what she was trying to do with her writing during the Trump Administration was to make sense out of it all. Sometimes I felt as if I could, with enough hours cutting from one news outlet’s website to another to all the journalists and politicians I follow on Twitter, do exactly that, find and document the pattern that would somehow make it sensible and something we could respond to adequately. But I was and we were Sisyphus, forever pushing boulders of coherence up a slippery hill, and the supply of boulders seemed inexhaustible, and they had a tendency to roll down again.
Other times I felt more like a sentry, keeping watch over it all, convinced somehow that the fact I was watching mattered (it did result in numerous articles and a lot of social media posts, but the fate of the world could have staggered along if I took more time off to read history or do something else pleasant).
Trump wanted to hide forever in his presidential immunity from the lawsuits, civil and criminal, waiting for him just outside the gates of the White House.
The links between Trump and his associates and the Putin regime was part of the incoherence. There had been more than enough news stories before the election to convince those who were paying attention—apparently vanishingly few were—that there was a strong case that the Trump campaign was in cahoots with the Putin regime and the election had been corrupted. The newspapers reporting those stories tended to play them down. Stories that should have blown up on the front pages and had follow-up stories to flesh them out—like Senator Harry Reid’s insistence on Halloween 2016 that FBI head James Comey was sitting on “bombshell” information the public had a right to know—were just dropped casually along the way to the election. Shortly thereafter came the news that Obama had called Putin on the nuclear phone to tell him to stop meddling in the election, and surely that was both major news and strong confirmation, but few seemed to notice it.
And then came investigation after investigation, by both media outfits and government institutions, and often a new source or small piece of the picture was delivered as though the whole story was new, or people forgot that we already knew its general outlines, players, and many of its details, or could have if we’d paid attention. Even after the Biden inauguration, when the Guardian reported that a former KGB agent asserted that Russia cultivated Trump as an asset for decades, people indignantly exclaimed to me that this information should not have been withheld. I replied that there had long been more than enough evidence for us to know all along; this was confirmation, not revelation. But they had forgotten. We were forever discovering and forgetting and rediscovering this story, as though a kind of amnesia had seized us, and that was another way that time itself seemed disordered. It was as though we were living in a version of Groundhog Day in which, unlike the plot of that movie, we would never get the story right enough for it to escape the cycle.
Another source of meaninglessness was how many things that normally had consequences turned out not to in the Trump era. Violations of the Hatch Act, emoluments violations, nepotism, scamming, lying to Congress, sometimes literal assaults on a free press, and all the rest kept taking place, brazenly. Key participants in the Russian business—Flynn, Manafort, Stone—got pardons, and there were indications that in some cases pardons may have been promised in advance. Cause and effect relations are one of the ways we track time, and in the moral universe that means consequences; the lack of consequences for innumerable violations of law and acts of public criminality was another form of temporal disorientation.
The blunt assault on fact and truth and meaning was moral nihilism and intellectual gibberish, a strategy of brute force that said you could have whatever version of reality you wanted, including one in which victims were really perpetrators and vice-versa (like trying to steal an election by pretending it had been stolen or preventing people who have the right to vote from voting by claiming they don’t—the wildly corrupt attorney general of Texas recently had his staff spend 22,000 hours looking for voter fraud, at the end of which they turned up 16 cases of wrong addresses). It’s worth remembering that did not begin with Trump, since the Republican Party has long promulgated lies about, to name a top few, climate change and the impact of huge numbers of guns in civic life and the vanishingly small issue of voter fraud and the largely positive economic impact and low crime rates of immigrants.
Another way time has form is in looking forward to what is to come, and this too became scrambled; it felt as though anything might happen, and the ways in which the past—for example past presidencies—unfolded was no longer a guide to much of anything. There was a reasonable fear that 45 might try to suspend future elections and make his reign as long as his lifespan, but also the sense that abused victims have that escape may be impossible, that the situation was irremediable, and this too stretched the elastic that time had become. This was why in the immediate aftermath of the transition of power, a lot of people began to obsess about Trump running again and winning, which by 2024 seems to me to be extremely unlikely for a number of reasons.
Did laws matter? Did the Constitution? If they didn’t matter now would they matter later? One got tired of outrage, and then more outrages came. This week was a hungry cannibal that devoured last week. There had previously been a pattern to a scandal, which was an event that stood out, had consequences which prevented sequels, and suddenly there were endless scandals in that cloud of inconsequentiality.
The Trump era ended with an extraordinary attempt to stop history. I had always heard “make America great again” as a promise and threat to make time roll backward to an America where only white men wielded power and cis-gender heterosexuality was enforced by threat, violence, and law (which it still is to some extent, but the fact that this is changing is what drives the backlash of MAGA). Of course Trump wanted to hide forever in his presidential immunity from the lawsuits, civil and criminal, waiting for him just outside the gates of the White House, so he had a very specific history to stop.
And then very real violence—the January 6 coup—was used in an endeavor to make the Trump era without end, the election have no meaning, the facts be whatever raging white men armed with bear mace and flagpoles repurposed as spears wanted them to be. It was inane—a few hundred or thousand brawlers were not going to change the outcome of history in a way satisfactory to the world’s other nations or the public here—but their belief they could was part of the madness of people convinced that facts can be bullied too. It felt as if the United States was a woman who had filed for divorce from her abuser, and here he came in all his furious confusion, convinced he could terrorize her into patching things up.
There may be one salutary consequence of those four ugly years: the blithe confidence that “it can’t happen here” is gone, and people are more aware that rights and truth and justice need defending and are more willing to do the work. Dread is a sense of wanting time to stand still, lest worse things come; and loathing is a desire to get away from the monstrosity already present. Those were the bookends to the Trump era and in between them was this turmoil in the White House, and the government more broadly, but also in the nation and in our own heads. Let us not forget.