Over the past year, I developed a stock answer for when new acquaintances asked what I wrote about. “It used to be language, books, and culture,” I’d say. “Now it’s language, books, culture, and Trump.”
While the rise of the former Apprentice star changed my beat explicitly—after the election, I was tasked with critiquing his political performance as theater—this general turn Trumpward is an experience most journalists share. A single person has become omnipresent in the news, and in all of our lives, to a degree that hardly seemed possible prior to November 2016. Writing in the New York Times about his quixotic quest to avoid the 45th president, Farhad Manjoo suggested in February 2017 that Trump “is no longer just the message” but also “the medium, the ether through which all other stories flow.” Reading ostensibly non-Trump journalism, Manjoo wrote, was “like trying to bite into a fruit-and-nut cake without getting any fruit or nuts.”
With Trump’s sun dominating our mental sky, the media ecosystem now evokes some darkest-timeline version of an energy pyramid from freshman biology: POTUS feeds the grass that feeds the herbivores that feed the carnivores that feed the decomposers. The specifics of the analogy hardly matter. Line up grass with reporting, herbivores with first-day analysis, carnivores with second-day analysis, and decomposers with social media. Or maybe political writing is the plant life, and arts, culture, business, and tech writing are the animals. At any rate, if you looked at a screen or leafed through newsprint in 2017, what you saw couldn’t have existed absent an overfamiliar ball of glowing orange gas.
There’s something fantastical about Trump’s dominion, a sense that we’ve been cursed. All the paragraphs we’ve read in the past year have transformed into a pinwheel of red-hatted presidents, a sick whirligig that doesn’t fade even when we close our eyes. Most of the time our mind isn’t playing tricks on us—there’s an unspoken imperative, it seems, that every story contrive to incorporate the head of state. “My Angle for This Piece Is That We Live in Trump’s America Now” ran a satire on the Awl, a compendium of pitches about, for instance, what “ ‘gourmet’ mean[s] in America in an era when our president dines almost exclusively on well-done steaks and chicken fingers.”
I remember how I felt when Trump got elected last November—the dismay but also the energy, how fascinating it all seemed.* Yes, the country was screwed, but our reality TV president gave us so much to unpack and question and observe and uncover. Was he a canny strategist channeling the resentment of America’s forgotten workers? (Who exactly were the forgotten workers? Were we covering them correctly at all?) Or was he a supremely inept guy making the right angry noises at the right time? Did he have dementia? Could we ask that? What were Trump’s formative experiences? Where did his loneliness come from? His bigotry?
And how about that amazing supporting cast? Ghost-in-the-shell Melania, Carmilla-lite Ivanka, Kush, the idiot sons, neglected Tiffany. Lieutenants came in both the “craven opportunist” and “true believer” flavors, and you could go hoarse debating which was worse. You could throw a roll of paper towels from the stoop of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and hit a novelistic type: grossly underqualified cabinet pick (check), granite-faced general (check), slippery communications people (check, check), blustery turncoat (check).
There was so much to say, and we said it all. We really did. But after a certain point, one’s hunger to cover the White House morphs into nihilism about White House coverage. What’s left to discuss when you’ve discussed everything, and nothing has changed?
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.
Cut to the present day, after 12 straight months of wall-to-wall 45. We’re worried we’ve lost all sense of perspective. Either we’re overreacting, ready to declare the death of democracy with each asinine tweet, or underreacting, because we can’t possibly process all of Trump’s crimes against humanity. We were driven to chronicle a presidency that broke every paradigm; now, satiety wrestles addiction in an endless downhill somersault. Trump is the leftover holiday pie we wish we weren’t eating, but we just keep cutting more slices.
Why? Why are you still reading 10 articles about Trump a day and why am I writing them? I think your voraciousness and my compulsion stem from a misunderstanding of what it is we really crave. Trump is a question to which we don’t have an answer, a dissonance we can’t resolve. We’re galant-style harpsichordists pounding on a dominant seventh chord that refuses to melt to tonic. The more we cover him, the more we excite the desire to explain away, account for, and tame his outrageous behavior. But we can’t. All we can do is stoke the fever with fresh data points, new revelations.
It didn’t take long for us to get a handle on Trump’s character. He feels no need to disguise who he is, and who he is turns out to be pretty simple to discern. But the portraits of entitlement, racism, and rage that continue to roll off the presses fail to address how it is that we wake up every morning to any number of astonishing facts—for instance, that the grifting U.S. president may not have even wanted to win the election. Explaining Trump, in other words, doesn’t make the world Trump has created (or that’s created him) any more legible. It also does not throw light on the relational space between Trump and us—how a single man wields such profound power to shape our inner lives as well as our outer ones, or how we found ourselves in a present defined by the ludicrous, the ridiculous, and the unbelievable. I’d bet this existential bewilderment—and our misplaced belief that more data might assuage it—is why everyone got so mad about the New York Times’ “softball” interview in December, though people said it was because Michael Schmidt didn’t press the president on his lies and errors. That piece, which revealed Trump in his uninformed, rambling state of nature, could only ever be a broken promise. It would never expose anything we didn’t already know.
Welcome to the condition of having, as Alanis Morissette put it, 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife. Trump is a lot, but he’s a lot of a particular quality called nothing. No qualifications, no ideology, no substance. He’s turned glut and scarcity into a snake eating its own tail. Of course we want a blade to cut to the heart of that empty commotion. We’re like Macbeth grasping for the phantom dagger that might finally put an end to all this sound and fury. And you’ve probably already figured out the grand diabolical twist: that meditating on the Trump experience for 1,300 words only feeds the unslayable beast. Then again, what else am I going to do with all these spoons?
*Correction, Jan. 23, 2018: This piece originally misstated that Trump was elected in January. He was inaugurated in January and elected in November.