Midway through the 2014 science fiction thriller Interstellar, impossibly good-looking astronauts Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway plan to spend an hour exploring a planet right next to a black hole. They know going in that because black holes warp space-time, what they will experience as an hour on this planet will actually be seven years for whomever they leave behind on their ship.
The planet turns out to be weird and hostile, an inhospitable and uninhabitable waterworld of constant tsunamis. Disaster forces the team to stay a bit longer than expected. When they return to their ship, 23 years have passed for their orbiting crewmate, Romilly, who is now old and understandably irritated by the whole fiasco.
For the last month, Americans have all been Romilly.
It is simply exhausting keeping up with the flurry of dysfunction, fringe ideas, and fact-defying tweets and TV appearances emerging from Team Trump. Since President Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, we've been assailed by a whirlwind of extreme policies like the Muslim ban, and tormented by a seemingly endless stream of outrageous draft policies, like the rumored deployment of National Guard troops to deport undocumented immigrants, or the sale of national park lands to speculators and investors. Every time President Trump lies, or signs a disastrous executive order, or deems his critics "enemies of the people," or delivers a self-indulgent, incoherent tirade cloaked as a press conference, or appoints clueless oligarchs to important administrative positions, space-time is irretrievably bent.
We have aged years in a mere month.
It's particularly bad for Democrats, who now live in fear of their news alerts. Trump's bloated, hate-filled visage stalks them in their dreams. In darkness, they blink and see the haunting, empty blackness set deep in Stephen Miller's eyes. They wake up with hearts racing in the middle of the night and jump on social media to discover the newest, crisis-inducing inanity that the president has posted to Twitter. That the president and his allies are clearly taking delight in torturing their opponents only makes it all the more unbearable. The Trumpists brag about drinking liberal tears.
How long can liberals sustain this psychological abuse? How can they struggle through the powerlessness of watching decades of progress erased in a matter of weeks? America is just two percent through Trump's apocalyptic four-year reign and already we are exhausted.
Many liberals darkly joke that during the Obama administration, they could get up and go about their daily lives — shopping for groceries, taking vacations, watching sports, posting pictures of pets and kids to social media — without having an overwhelming sense of political crisis hanging over their heads. But this nostalgia for the comparative normalcy of the Obama years should teach an important lesson: Many on the left were not politically engaged enough during the Obama administration. Democrats were cocooned in a magic bubble of administrative competence and good intentions.
Liberals: What were you doing when conservatives were mobilizing to fight affordable health care and to obliterate Democrats in state elections? Be honest with yourself.
When Democrats lost one and then both branches of Congress, too many blamed the president for the left's national political paralysis or simply gave up fighting. And the most marginalized members of the Democratic coalition never experienced the Obama years the way their more privileged counterparts did. Indeed, for too many Americans, the constant threat of economic ruin never meaningfully retreated despite the very real macro-economic progress that was made. The failure to transform the lives of such people was one of the root causes of the colossal meltdown experienced by the party in November.
The incredible, inspirational mobilization that we have seen on the progressive left since Trump's inauguration — starting with the Women's March and continuing with spontaneous protests and raucous town halls — should not be a tactic reserved only for when liberals are stuck in the political wilderness. Indeed, had the left been able to muster this kind of energy in 2009, liberals might well have convinced Democrats to include a public option with the Affordable Care Act, to include relief to homeowners in the bailouts, or to negotiate a better and fairer trade deal than what became the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The difficult-to-swallow truth is that politics should feel like this quite a bit more often than it actually does. True progress requires near-constant mobilization and engagement with seemingly distant political processes. It begs for more and better people to run for and win office at the local and state levels. While it is encouraging that many people have watched confirmation hearings and attended town halls for the first time, liberals must be committed to sustaining these actions for the next four years and beyond.
When our heroes returned to the spaceship in Interstellar, they asked Romilly why he didn't put himself into cryogenic sleep for the long years of their absence. "Something seemed wrong about dreaming my life away," he replied.
There can be no long nap for us either. Think of the extra time instead as an invitation to become different, better, and more engaged citizens.