As the third summer of the Trump presidency nears its close, it's possible to grasp with enhanced clarity precisely what's distinctive about the era that dawned on the morning of November 9, 2016.
What's distinct is the sameness, the sensation of repetition, the feeling of forward momentum giving way to the permanence of an eternal now. This isn't the static nunc stans (abiding now) of the medieval theologians — the achievement of a God-like state of rest and fulfillment that transcends time and change altogether. Far from it. The "now" of the Trump era is a dynamic one filled with fluidity, flux, and constant turbulence, yet also following certain recurring patterns. Those patterns are so powerful, in fact, that they bring to mind the state of being evoked by philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's idea of "the eternal return of the same."
What Nietzsche meant by the concept is notoriously difficult to discern. Sometimes he seems to treat it as a useful myth, telling us that we should live as if every moment of our lives will repeat exactly the same way for all of eternity, in a variation on the old life-affirming Latin aphorism "carpe diem" (seize the day). But in other passages, Nietzsche writes as if he actually believes everything that has come into being and transpired will come into being and transpire again in exactly the same way in an eternally recurring loop.
Life in the Trump era has me seriously entertaining the possibility of the second option. Not literally. But it sure feels that way — especially for those of us tasked with observing it at close range. Time passes, sometimes at what feels like a hyper-accelerated clip, but it never seems to move forward into anything new. The same types of things happen over and over again. Stories that appear to be monumental in importance explode, leading to a frenzy of coverage, attention, and analysis, but then they recede and disappear into irrelevance, forgotten in a matter of days or a week, only to be followed by the next monumentally important story that then disappears just as quickly and completely, like waves on a vast, boundless ocean.
The repetition occurs at several levels at once, resembling the intricate epicycles invented by pre-modern natural philosophers to explain the motion of the heavenly bodies.
Nearly every day, the president tweets several outrageous statements that would have been considered wildly unpresidential until Donald Trump demonstrated otherwise. The content changes somewhat, but their form does not. There's venom. There's a vindictive kind of humor, along with insecurity, resentment, and a craving for attention and approval. Enemies are mocked and attacked and sometimes given nicknames. Once or twice every couple of weeks, he announces some unorthodox policy he claims to be enacting, but it usually comes to nothing because no one in the administration or executive branch had been informed and no one follows up, or because the president reverses course for no clear reason and claims to want the opposite. The waves rise, crest, and crash, followed by the next swell, and then the next.
The president goes on an international trip. He tweets from the plane. He makes a fool of himself. He insults some of our allies and kisses up to some of our international opponents or rivals (Putin, Kim Jong Un). The allies flatter him to his face as a way of mollifying him but make fun of him behind his back while doing their best to sidestep him on setting priorities and making policy.
Most liberal pundits write the same column over and over again, spicing up the same old arguments and assertions with whatever details have popped up in the past few days. Center-right Never Trump columnists do exactly the same thing. "Here is the latest evidence that Trump is corrupt/ignorant/racist/unfit," week after week, month after month, with only the tiniest variations. Yet Trump remains president through it all. He does what he does, and the critics say what they say, and nothing changes.
Faced with the endless churn of the news cycle, it sometimes seems like dropping out for a time would be catastrophic — I'd miss so much! — but at other times like it wouldn't matter at all. A week, a month, a year — what really changes from one point to the next? You mean if I'd tuned out for the month of August 2019, I would have missed the "Buy Greenland" boomlet and the news that the president thinks it's a good idea to nuke hurricanes? What a loss that would have been.
Certainly the biggest thing to change over the past three years is that the Mueller Report was completed. That's something that only happened once and won't be repeated. But did it really matter? It's culminated in nothing at all. Nada. Zip. Zilch. The president won't be impeached. He definitely won't be removed from office. It was just one long story arc in the circular plot line of the eternal present. It rose and fell like all the others, just over a somewhat longer duration. In the end, it amounted to nothing more substantial than any of the other plot lines. As Trump heads into his re-election campaign, the report and its author are sure to come up again, returning as reruns of past hits, along with attacks on Crooked Hillary, CNN, and "the failing New York Times."
Some might say that speaking this way about the Trump era belittles the great harm the president is doing. They have a point. Migrants are being detained and deported. Trump's escalating trade war is dragging down the economy at home and around the world. Relations with our allies are rapidly deteriorating. Major problems — from climate change to infrastructure to health care and beyond — are being neglected by an administration and Congress incapable of accomplishing anything beyond confirming conservative judicial appointees.
Yet it's important that we not allow ourselves to succumb to the constantly swirling cycle of provocation and outrage that the Trump presidency has helped to set in motion. It threatens to hypnotize us into lashing out repeatedly at the same phantoms, wearing ourselves out in an act of impotence and futility. In doing so, we end up contributing to the enactment of the repetition, despite ourselves.
If something new happens, by all means pay it due attention. But when the latest round of the same old nonsense begins, it might make far more sense to try tuning it out for a change.