MASHA GESSEN. In the Trump Era, We Are Losing the Ability to Distinguish Reality from Vacuum.May 29, 2018
The Trump Presidency is an age of unanswerable questions and lose-lose propositions. How is one to maintain sanity, decency, and a measure of moral courage? In a pair of thoughtful essays in Slate, Dahlia Lithwick tackles the problems of dealing with the everyday nature of our current political disaster and of deciding on the best way to try to save the country from Donald Trump: by staying close to him, or by walking away. The latter is a question for members of the Administration and for congressional Republicans. “This is the time,” Lithwick writes, to “think about what combination of exit and voice can make a meaningful difference if a real crisis were to happen. Or rather, when the real crisis happens—if we are not there already.”
This is not a new question. Many people will continue posing it to themselves and others with ever more frustrating results, because it cannot be answered. Is the possibility of moderating the damage done by this Administration worth sacrificing one’s moral principles? Should one protect one’s individual integrity by sacrificing the chance to moderate damage done by this Administration? We can’t possibly know. We don’t have the information necessary to evaluate these options in the short term. Did H. R. McMaster, during his tenure as Trump’s national-security adviser, prevent an unknown number of disasters? If he did, was it worth whatever psychic and intellectual price he paid? It’s likely that he himself doesn’t know. For those who have so far decided to stay, whether in the Administration or in the Republican Party, small daily sacrifices of personal integrity become part of their sunk cost in the project of staying in; these people inevitably grow more committed and less critical. The landscape keeps shifting, the stakes keep changing, and the crises keep mounting.
The overstimulation of the age of Trump, meanwhile, makes us lose track of time and whatever small sense humans normally have of themselves in history. We forget what happened a month ago. If we look away for a day, we miss news that seems momentous to others—only to be forgotten, too, in a week. Living in a shared reality with our fellow-citizens is an endless triathlon of reading, talking, and panicking. It creates the worst possible frame of mind for answering vexing moral questions, especially ones that require a choice between two desperately unsatisfying options.
Thinking morally about the Trump era requires a different temporal frame. It requires a look at the present through the prism of the future. There will come a time after Trump, and we need to consider how we will enter it. What are we going to take with us into that time—what kind of politics, language, and culture? How will we recover from years of policy (if you can call it that) being made by tweet? How will we reclaim simple and essential words? Most important, how will we restart a political conversation? Political discourse was in crisis before Trump—no wonder Americans of all stripes have become accustomed to using the words “politics” and “political” to denote substance-free transactions in the electoral arena. But, under Trump, it is nearing complete destruction.
Consider the last month’s worth of conversation about Trump and North Korea. Forgetting the President’s “little rocket man” remarks and building on months of denial that Trump had brought the world as close to the brink of nuclear annihilation as it has ever been, politicians, bureaucrats, policy wonks, and journalists have been speaking as though Trump were engaged in actual negotiations with Kim Jong Un. Some deliriously joined him in contemplating the prospect of a Nobel Peace Prize. The voices of a few experts who dared say that nothing had been accomplished yet and expressed doubt that the summit would actually occur were quickly drowned out. The ritual of analysis and anticipation that normally accrues to diplomacy was accruing instead to Trump’s flailing gestures, in the same way that the normal rituals of punditry have accrued to Trump’s tweets, harangues, and inconsistencies, all of which are the opposite of politics. On Friday, the Times’ morning podcast, “The Daily,” offered up a thoughtful analysis of Trump’s summit-cancelling missive, which was written in the language of a sulking, lovelorn seventh grader. But no sooner was the podcast posted than Trump told the media that he might hold the summit after all.
We are losing the habit, and perhaps the capability, of distinguishing reality from vacuum. This is disorienting in the present and disastrous for the future—it is the one factor that will make post-Trumpian recovery, when it comes, so difficult. We must pose a bigger question than whether Administration members or congressional Republicans should stay or go, for it’s not only Trump’s appointees or fellow party members who are implicated in the daily insults and damage to our perceptions. We should be asking what each one of us can do to assert a fact-based reality at any given time. The great French thinker and activist Simone Weil had a prescription that she wrote down in her journal in 1933: “Never react to an evil in such a way as to augment it.” A few days later, she added, “Refuse to be an accomplice. Don’t lie—don’t keep your eyes shut.”
Throughout the twentieth century, writers and thinkers who faced reality-destroying regimes kept producing similar recipes. “Live not by lies,” the Russian dissident novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote. TheCzech dissident playwright and future President Václav Havel pondered the predicament of living, unquestioningly, “inside the lie”—and the uncanny power of stepping outside of it. In our case, stepping outside the lie means refusing—stubbornly, consistently, incrementally—to lend credence to the opposite of politics, the opposite of diplomacy, and the opposite of sanity. That would require thinking, reading, and speaking critically: not treating an outburst as though it were politics, a tantrum as though it were diplomacy, and a delusion as though it were aspiration. The good news is that this is not an entirely impossible task.
The article was first published by The New Yorker on the 25th of May, 2o18.
Masha Gessen, a staff writer at the New Yorker, has written several books, including, most recently, “The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia,” which won the National Book Award in 2017.