Lol nothing matters. Or does it?
On our collective exhaustion with the Trump era
Those who read me regularly at The Week and on Twitter have probably noticed an occasional tendency toward nihilism. I don't mean that I sometimes act as if everything is permitted in a godless universe. I mean that I sometimes become tempted by the same knowingness and spiritual lethargy — with a positive spin, you could call it resignation — that inspires so many during the Trump era to shrug their shoulders and pronounce "lol nothing matters."
I'll admit this is how I greeted news on Wednesday that Trump spoke to journalist Bob Woodward in February about the looming pandemic and disclosed that he understood as well as anyone back then how dangerous and deadly it was — even as he was preparing to discount the risks before all the world over the coming months. Which was of course followed by him careening between sounding grave about the risks and then dismissing them, sometimes within the same news conference, and occasionally within the same sentence.
So Trump knew the truth, but he deliberately lied about it (most of the time). And here we are six or so months later with the country about a week from reaching the morbid milestone of 200,000 dead of COVID-19. We also just passed Italy in per capita deaths and are poised to rise above the U.K. and Spain within the next month, leaving only Belgium with a worse outcome in the developed world.
No wonder, then, that Trump is on track to lose in the biggest landslide in decades. Unless, of course, he only loses the popular vote by 3-4 million or less, in which case he might win. Because the United States, self-proclaimed beacon of democracy, has an electoral system that now routinely bestows presidential power on the candidate who wins fewer votes.
So yeah: lol nothing matters.
Except when it does. Which is most of the time.
Things certainly mattered last week, when The Atlantic published a piece in which four anonymous sources confirmed that Trump referred to American soldiers killed in the line of duty as "losers" and "suckers." After I read the piece, I permitted myself a public outburst on Twitter: "What a thoroughly repulsive human being." It took only a few minutes for me to regain my composure enough to think, "I'm going to regret that." Not because I'd begun to doubt my judgment of the president. And certainly not because I was tempted to embrace the situational skepticism of the president's defenders, who treated the Atlantic story as the greatest opportunity in hours to rail against the dishonest liberal media for relying on anonymous sources in order to spread lies that echo things that the president has said publicly on multiple occasions.
No, I regretted it because I'd allowed the mask of world-weary knowingness to slip. I'd taken the bait, reacted with anger and disgust to an example of the man who holds the nation's highest office acting like a thoroughly disgusting human being instead of responding with something more cynical, like "we knew this already, it won't hurt his polling or prospects on Nov. 3."
In other words: lol nothing matters.
But here's the thing: Both reactions (disgust and indifference) express part of the whole truth — a truth that is actually more shocking than either part alone. Trump is in fact a thoroughly repulsive human being, and we all know that it won't matter because a sufficient number of Americans actively like or just don't care that he's a repulsive human being. Some of them probably like it because it triggers liberals like me, which is both entertaining and politically satisfying. Others probably like it because they are pretty repulsive themselves and enjoy having a champion in a position of power and influence who can truly represent them. Still others may not exactly like his repulsiveness but are perfectly willing to tune it out in return for getting concrete goodies in return: cuts to taxes and regulations, right-wing judges appointed to the courts, and so on.
But what am I supposed to do with this information about my fellow Americans? How should I respond — as a citizen, as a human being — to the knowledge that more than two-fifths of likely voters are cheered by or indifferent to the fact that the commander in chief thinks soldiers are chumps for giving their all for their country in acts of sacrificial valor?
Or that he was more concerned last winter about propping up the stock market than with protecting the country from a far greater danger than any of the ersatz threats he routinely hypes for political gain?
Or that so few appear to care that a significant portion of the country is on fire, turning its skies the color of blood and rust, and rendering the air a toxic fog of soot and ash — a vivid glimpse of the kind of world that awaits all of us if we continue to deny the reality of climate change?
What's the right response to this knowledge? The options often appear to be a stark either/or: Either a constant primal scream — or a cynical shrug of the shoulders. "Lol nothing matters" is the latter, and it's immensely tempting.
It's tempting for the same reason that mindfulness meditation is gaining in popularity. Both grow out of a desperate need to disconnect from the circus. To soothe the anxiety. To stand with composure before the uncertainties that encircle us. To stop caring quite so much, if only for a brief time, about a world that seems to be coming apart.
The problem is that the flip side of achieving composure before the whirlwind is hopelessness — a surrender to forces and trends we feel powerless to master, control, or tame. Equanimity can be indistinguishable from spiritual exhaustion. It can feel just like achieving peace by giving up.
That's why "nihilism" is the right word to describe it, at least if it's understood in Friedrich Nietzsche's sense, to mean moral and creative enervation. Maybe you're like me and you've found yourself every so often exclaiming to no one in particular, "I'm so tired." Tired of what? Tired of standing up straight before the onslaught of B.S. that's now flung in our faces every single day. Just getting out of bed to face it again every morning can feel like it takes too much energy. How much easier it would be to slouch into the gutter for a day-long nap.
Why is it all so draining? What produces the pervasive feeling of entropy? Answer: The instinct to care about a world that shows so many signs of coming unhinged.
What isn't exhausting is laughter, which is life-affirming, renewing. But laughing at our world takes detachment — caring somewhat less. That's why we've come to pair laughing out loud with the assertion that nothing matters.
But maybe there's a mean to be found between the extremes of giggling in giddy indifference and gaping in exhausted horror at the world. Maybe we can love the world, mourn our losses, and recognize the awfulness of so much of what swirls around us while also striving to place it in a perspective that makes some space for wry smiles. In dark times, a little irony can go a long way — transforming a tragedy not so much into a comedy as into a chapter with a mixture of darkness and light and an indeterminate end that leaves a little room for hope.
Yes, Trump is awful, but he's not a demonic figure. He's a buffoon, a fool, a portrait in ignorance, rapaciousness, and groundless self-regard. That an entire political party, from grassroots voters on up to leading officeholders, bow down before him and parrot his bilious lies is pathetic and alarming. But it's also ... a little funny. Not because nothing matters, but because lots of things do — and this is something that Trump and his ridiculous party appear not to understand. Like a man convinced he's Superman running headlong into a brick wall he's sure will crumble on impact, allowing him to crash through unscathed to the other side, Trump acts like he can conjure a re-election out of thin air and positive thinking, even as he consistently trails his opponent by nearly eight percentage points.
Could it work? Possibly. But probably not. And that's kind of funny, too. So go ahead and laugh out loud from time to time at the Trump travesty. Just don't think it's because nothing matters.
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