On some distant future date when historians — if there still are historians — begin sifting through the smoking rubble and ashes of what was once American civilization, they’ll probably pinpoint January 12, 2018, as a kind of turning point, the precise moment it should have become clear that something was fundamentally broken and no one knew how to fix it.
That was the day the Wall Street Journal published a stunning article about the president of the United States that had the all-too-predicable effect of stunning absolutely no one. The newspaper reported, in convincing detail, that Donald Trump’s lawyer had arranged an $130,000 payment to a woman known as “Stormy Daniels” — star of adult-film classics such as “Good Will Humping” — in the final weeks of the 2016 campaign so she’d keep quiet about her affair with the future president in 2006, while his new wife Melania was expecting their only child. Attorney Michael Cohen even established a Delaware LLC to make the payoff, proof that Team Trump is indeed doing something for the economy.
It seemed too ironic that this all happened as the world’s journalists (but few others) marked the 20th anniversary of the Mother of All White House Sex Scandals, Bill Clinton’s hook-up with then-intern Monica Lewinsky. What a different time! I still have vivid memories of January 20, 1998, when I hopped off an exercise bike at a health club the split second I saw a CNN bulletin about presidential infidelity, racing back to the newsroom to write a Daily News cover story with the highly prescient (given Clinton’s subsequent impeachment and the blow to his authority) giant headline, “Can He Survive?” But in 2018, the public reaction to Trump’s dalliance and more specifically the $130,000 — which looks a lot like the mistress payoff by former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards that led to his indictment (and a hung jury) — can best be summed up by that popular internet meme, the Whatever Guy.
The lack of caring over presidential porn-star hush money — in fairness, the cable TV networks that week were already trying to process the fact that Trump had called African nations “shithole countries” in front of a room of U.S. senators and aides — was punctuated when faith leaders like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council — who’d led the charge against Clinton’s defilement of the Oval Office — said they were happy to give POTUS 45 “a mulligan” on his tawdry affair. “They (evangelicals) let him have a do-over,” Perkins acknowledged to CNN. “They said we’ll start afresh with you and we’ll give you a second chance.”
And with that, it was more clear than ever that America has entered a new, frustrating — and highly dangerous — dynamic. As the ball dropped on both 2018 and the second year of Trump’s is-this-really-happening? presidency, we’ve inaugurated the Year of…Whatevs. The hourly cycle of outrage over Trump’s many sins and vulgarities — the classless tweets about “Fake News” and occasional taunting of nuclear-madman-in-arms Kim Jung-un, the rising tide of sexual-predator allegations, the sometimes blatant racism in the Oval Office, etc., etc., etc., etc. — is still spinning around, sound and fury now signifying record cable TV ratings and next to nothing else.
The 36 Percent is maybe now The 40 Percent thanks to the indestructible (for right now, anyway) U.S. economy and an immovable base of Trump supporters who don’t really care what Trump does or doesn’t do, but instead feed on the liberal anger machine the way an Alaskan bear feeds on spawning salmon.
Only one thing feels different now. Trump Fatigue is setting in, a kind of political fibromyalgia marked by the realization that we have an irrational president and yet there is seemingly no rational action that can alter Trump, or the goofy yet destructive Trumpian momentum inertia that was launched on January 20, 2017, or that can change one mind among the millions of CNN haters who back Trump or the millions of Trump haters who still watch CNN, flabbergasted. It’s a debilitating condition that makes you want to stay in bed all day, maybe all winter.
Of course, this national mood was best captured by Saturday Night Live, with its fourth-wall-bending skit about a game show hosted by an increasingly unhinged Jessica Chastain who went through an escalating list of Trump inanities (most of them real, sadly) to ask bemused contestants, “What Even Matters Anymore?” The unwavering answer, of course, is that nothing matters anymore in the Age of Trump.
The skit is so searingly true that … it’s not particularly funny. Almost instantaneous with its appearance, a flood of think pieces tried to put into less satirical words the utter futility of the Trump outrage cycle, and the growing sense of hopelessness that’s beginning to engender among the roughly half of Americans who strongly disapprove of his presidency. The best of these pieces is by Slate’s Katy Waldman, in which she describes the growing “Trump nihilism” while asking , “What’s left to discuss when you’ve discussed everything, and nothing has changed?” She adds:
Trump possesses a radical power to remake reality—to alter not only the world but also the rules governing it. When he sends a tweet taunting Kim Jong-un about the size of his nuclear button, phallic military grandstanding on Twitter becomes a thing that presidents do. Political experts weigh in; historians take note. We argued that firing James Comey was wrong, imagining our judgments would enter the warp and weft of things, would create consequences. Perhaps our stories offered momentary clarification, illumination, or entertainment. Perhaps they even spurred some change. But they were no match for someone with a near-supernatural command over the country’s ontology. They couldn’t reverse the topsy-turviness Trump wrought. In 2017, we learned just how wide the gulf separating our words from the president really was.
These feelings were almost palpable as I strolled around the Women’s March on the Parkway last Saturday, hours before that Jessica Chastain sketch hit TV. The Women’s March — which drew 4 million people in 2017 and at least a million or more around the nation and the world for 2018’s sequel — is a thing of beauty that generates real solidarity, a real source of strength to the participants. Just consider the many who found their voice in fighting sexual predators in the months following the inaugural march. It cannot and will not be underestimated.
But yet as generations of grandmoms and moms and daughters, some in strollers, rolled past, I also listened for the dog that wasn’t barking. No one, to my knowledge, among the five million at these two signature events of “The Resistance” has been arrested — but is that a feature or a bug? If Trump is the threat to democratic norms and to the American Eperiment that many of us believe him to be, where is an actual resistance that reflects the gravity of that threat, with civil disobedience, for example — people willing to “throw their bodies upon the gears"?
Trump Fatigue isn’t just exhaustion — it’s the clear and present danger that experts who’ve studied the rise of authoritarian regimes over the last 100 years have been warning about since Trump’s shock election on November 8, 2016. This is exactly how autocracy happens, with an unaccountable government that doesn’t just bend the truth but wantonly lies about matters great and small, exacting loyalty from aides and from no-longer-independent lawmakers or judges who are expected to now agree with Dear Leader when he says that “two and two equals five.”
The goal is to wear down citizens who were once inclined to protest, and to discourage investigative reporters that any investigations are futile because, in essence, nothing matters any more. This downward spiral repeats until eventually the foundations of our democratic institutions may appear to be standing but their humanity — and their ability to fight authoritarian government — has been destroyed, as if a neutron bomb had been dropped. Last weekend’s rapid capitulation by Senate Democrats in the vague and all-but-certain-to-be-unrealized hope of an immigration deal was one more sign of how far this erosion has already worn down the system.
I cannot tell you exactly where that road is going to lead over the course of 2018, or even, frankly, over the next 24 hours. I do know this: Very bad things are already happening in this country, from the assault on our natural environment and the denial of the science warning us about climate change, to the human-rights crimes committed by a goon squad called ICE that will only grow worse if and when America steps up its deportation campaign to rip apart the families of at least 800,000 American “Dreamers,” as looks increasingly likely.
Most folks in the anti-Trump movement are focused on the one place where they can and should be focused, on the midterm elections in November. Many of us share that not unrealistic hope — that a new Congress can locate its backbone in January 2019 and start to turn this wayward aircraft carrier around. But so much can happen between now and then — a failure to pursue hard evidence of obstruction of justice or other crimes and misdemeanors by the president, or war in North Korea or the Middle East — that might require a bold response from a public and from institutions already so beaten down by 12 months of Trump. Despite everything we’ve seen over the last couple of years, the majority of Americans cling to an “it can’t happen here” mindset. But anything is possible in the Year of Whatevs.