How many times can one presidential administration end life as we know it? Buckle up, friends, because we’re about to find out.
Well, scratch that. Unless you’re professionally required to follow the crazed and breathless ins and outs of today’s by-the-minute news cycle, you’ve probably already tuned out most of the ruckus. Based on dozens of conversations with friends and acquaintances of various political stripes, this seems to be a popular move.
“It’s exhausting to try to follow the news.” “I’m paying much less attention than I used to.” “I don’t even know what’s real.” I’ve heard all three lines repeatedly, and if this also sums up your personal approach to politics and media in 2017 — a year that has offered a general mélange of panic topped with garnishes of palace intrigue paired with spurts of random outrage over one thing after another — congratulations! If you’re reading this, it means you’re still alive, and have survived the approximately 5,000 world-ending decisions that the Trump administration has supposedly made thus far this year.
The Russians, at least as far as I know, have not yet taken over. Faced with budget challenges and various logistical challenges, including the fact more than 1,000 miles of our border with Mexico is actually a river, it seems that Trump’s much-decried Great Wall of America could be slowly shuffled off into the “it seemed like a good idea at the time, but maybe not really” pile. When it comes to health care, congressional Republicans seem to be in the political equivalent of that one unlucky bumper car that gets stuck in the corner, no matter which way you steer. As Francis Fukuyama addressed the panic in Politico this week: “Trump’s a dictator? He can’t even repeal Obamacare.”
But never mind. Back to the news! “President Trump Risks the Planet,” The New York Times declared on Tuesday, in the wake of Trump’s executive order rolling back Obama-era climate regulations. (This seems an overly optimistic view of the U.S. government’s power to micromanage the same global mechanism that brought us the Ice Age, but let’s go with it for now.) With his characteristic flair for the dramatic, filmmaker Michael Moore took the idea to its logical endpoint on Twitter: “Historians in the near future will mark today, March 28, 2017, as the day the extinction of human life on earth began, thanks 2 Donald Trump.” (Moore’s casual “2,” unfortunately, negated his tweet’s otherwise somber and compelling tone, much as the “2”s in 2 Fast 2 Furious surely weakened its otherwise airtight grip on the Oscar for Best Picture. Many readers also helpfully pointed out to Moore that in the scenario he described, future disapproving historians would be extinct, too, unless they were robots, aliens, or immortal. Details, details.)
New York magazine, meanwhile, has kept a running tally of “All the Terrifying Things That Donald Trump Did Lately,” which unintentionally offers a master class in the media’s classic problem with covering Donald Trump: If everything is terrifying, then nothing is terrifying. Was Trump’s push for a mess of a replacement health-care bill sinister and nightmarish, or a textbook political misfire? Surprise, surprise: It’s on New York’s “terrifying” list. What about the specter of cutting government funding to Meals on Wheels, which ended up raising the group’s overall visibility, bringing in a flood of private donations? Also “terrifying,” at least according to New York.
At a certain point, unless things change, we’re all going to run out of eye rolls.
“This is what it’s like to experience true dissonance,” Buzzfeed’s Katherine Miller wrote this week. “There’s so much discordant noise that just making out each individual thing and tracking its journey through the news cycle requires enormous effort. It’s tough to get your bearings.” Miller was largely referring to social media, but the same holds true for much of the news these days: “Trying to find your way under the crush — to determine the truth amid the complexities of protocols, regulations, legislation, ideology, anonymous sources, conflicting reports, denials, public statements, tweets — it’s too much. We can’t live like that!”
Many Americans have decided, quite simply, that they won’t live like that. They’re tuning out, and that’s bad news for Americans of all political persuasions. But the media’s current modus operandi — a flurry of panic, too quick to process, tossed out on social media before stories are completely cooked — seems unsustainable. If and when it corrects itself, it will be a very good thing indeed.