Trump withdrawal syndrome

By Robert Wright, Dec 30 2020

The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and its carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living... It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. 

                                        —Chris Hedges, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning

I got my first Trump withdrawal symptom a few weeks ago. It happened while I was listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast—which, I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t spend my time doing, but then again haven’t the last four years been, among other things, a story of almost all of us using media and social media in very suboptimal ways? 

Anyway, Bannon’s podcast had become a kind of nerve center for the effort to overturn the results of the presidential election. So I was in the habit of tuning in to monitor the state of play—and also, I admit, because I find Bannon’s seedy charisma fascinating. You can say a lot of bad things about Bannon—that he’s dishonest, that he’s amoral, that his grooming habits could use an upgrade—but you can’t say he’s not a great demagogue.

Each day, in rants that are broadcast not just via YouTube and podcast apps but on hard-right media outlets like Newsmax TV, he rallies his grassroots army (”the deplorables,” he lovingly calls them), exuding boundless confidence in victory against the enemy—the “globalists,” the Democrats (“the party of Davos”), the “Biden crime family,” and so on. 

So I was listening to the podcast one day and for a moment Bannon’s spirits seemed to sag, as if the accumulated weight of the legal and political setbacks suffered by the stop-the-steal movement had finally sunk in. Bannon uttered his ritual guarantee of victory—“We got this”—but for the first time it seemed to refer not to Trump’s victory in this election but to the eventual triumph of the movement Trump represents.

Or maybe I was reading too much into it. Certainly Bannon quickly regained his verve; he continues to profess confidence that Trump will be a two-term president. But in that fleeting moment of flagging Bannon energy, I suddenly imagined a day—soon, God willing—when the Trump presidency would be in the rear-view mirror.

My first reaction was relief. Then came the symptom.

It wasn’t a feeling of emptiness, exactly. It was just a momentary lack of orientation, and of motivation. Like: So what do I do next? For four years what seemed like an existential struggle has been playing out on media, on social media, and (before the pandemic) in chance conversations. I might get distracted from it for a while, but the battle was always there, like barely perceptible background music that I could turn up whenever my life seemed low on significance. Or when I just needed an excuse to procrastinate.

Obviously, participating in this war had its downsides, including not-wholly-pleasant emotions such as rage, fear, and hatred. Also, there was that unsettling American-republic-teetering-on-the-brink-of-collapse thing. Still, the last four years gave many of us a sense of purpose and the kind of deep camaraderie that is found only in opposition—against armies on a battlefield, against teams on an athletic field, against… Trump.

And that explains the grim realization that dawned on me during Steve Bannon’s momentary lapse of confidence: I was going to miss Bannon. And I was going to miss the war against Trump. At some level, you probably will too.

So what do we do on January 20, when Trump is finally dragged off stage?

Option 1: Just keep doing what you’ve been doing. If you don’t want to kick your Trump habit, you don’t have to. After Trump has left the White House he’ll continue to indulge his own addiction—to attention—by trolling us via Twitter and other avenues. If you want to stay tuned to Trump and react as you’re accustomed to reacting—with raw outrage, with bitter denunciation, with cool, righteous sarcasm, whatever—he will be happy to facilitate that.

But remember: Your outrage is Trump’s fuel. The more visibly hated he is, the more his fans love him. So if you really hate him—if you’d give anything to see his stature drop and his influence wane and his ego sustain grave damage—then your best bet is to ignore him and encourage your friends to do the same. #UnfollowRealDonaldTrump.

Of course, this would leave a Trump-sized hole in your life. Hence:

Option 2:  Take up gardening. Or handicrafts or video games or golf or whatever. In other words: change the channel. You might even consider staying off social media for a while—or, failing that, reconfiguring your social media feed so that it shows you a lot of stuff about… gardening or handicrafts or video games or golf.

But if changing the channel doesn’t work—if you keep feeling the lust for battle—there’s this:

Option 3: Keep fighting the fight. But rather than think of the fight as being against Trump, think of it as being against Trumpism. This is not an original idea. Various people have warned that the threat of Trumpism will persist once Trump has finally left the oval office. But they don’t always define what they mean by Trumpism. So:

By Trumpism I don’t mean any movement that advocates policies Trump claimed to represent—like tighter restrictions on imports and immigration. Reasonable people can disagree about these things, and you can imagine a populist movement that favored high tariffs and low immigration quotas and was a wholesome part of the political conversation.

By Trumpism I mean a kind of populism that is inherently unwholesome—a movement that gravitates toward a leader who is proudly cruel, flagrantly dishonest, vaguely authoritarian, and contemptuous of laws and norms that sustain democracy; a leader who brings out some of the worst parts of human nature in his followers and, ultimately, in his opponents. Defeating Trumpism in America would mean creating a country in which this kind of populist leader wouldn’t get traction.

That’s a scarily big job, but, before you decide to shirk it in favor of gardening, consider this: you would be helping to save not only the country but the world. The things that fuel Trumpism—ranging from specific political grievances to generic dynamics of social media to generic dynamics of human psychology—fuel all kinds of trouble abroad: not just Trumpesque populist movements and their attendant antagonisms, but antagonisms of other kinds: between nations, between religious groups, between ethnic groups. The war against Trumpism is to some extent the war against tribalism and the war for global harmony, which is to say the war to save the world from various disasters that could afflict it if humankind doesn’t get serious about cooperating to avert them.

And for me personally, this war brings another bonus: it may mean I don’t have to say goodbye to Steve Bannon! Assuming Bannon’s Herculean effort to subvert democracy on Trump’s behalf is rewarded with a presidential pardon—so he doesn’t have to stand trial for grifting his beloved deplorables and can instead keep warping their minds via podcast—I’ll be tuning in, at least intermittently. I’ll keep trying to understand the nuances of his appeal to them, and the various forces (technological, sociological, psychological, political) that make them susceptible to his demagoguery. The long-term goal being, of course, to better understand how to undermine the appeal of Bannon and people like him. 

But that’s just me. Different people can fight the war—the war to undermine Trumpism and tribalism and build international community—in different ways. This isn’t the time to enumerate all those ways (in part because I haven’t figured them all out). But regular readers of this newsletter know that I consider them to include things ranging from in-the-weeds policy nerdism (especially foreign policy nerdism) to online (and even real-world!) activism to mindful engagement on social media to the cultivation of mindfulness more generally. 

Which brings us to my New Year’s resolution and my buried lede:

New Year’s resolution: I want to get more systematic about fighting this war—develop some kind of project that could make real inroads against Trumpism and tribalism and some kind of contribution to, you know, averting the apocalypse.

Buried lede: As part of that project, this newsletter will transition—as they say in the newsletter business—to a paid subscription model. We’re still working out the details, but this much I can say now:

1) The transition will happen sometime in January.

2) The paid version will come out more often than this newsletter has been coming out. That’s not a high bar, I know, so let me raise it: the paid version will come out much more often than this newsletter has been coming out.

3) The paid version will be different in form from this version—in fact, we’ll be experimenting with different forms.

4) There will still be a free version of the newsletter that includes some but not all, or even most, of the stuff that has earlier appeared in the paid version. The free version will probably come out about as often as the current version does.

The next issue of NZN will include details about this coming transition, along with some elaboration on why I consider it to be part of the larger apocalypse aversion project.

When I’m feeling optimistic, I see Trumpism as the birth pangs of a new world waiting to be born. It would be a world that, recognizing the non-zero-sum dynamics among nations and peoples, congealed into a true global community—a community cohesive enough to solve big problems but also a community in which particular national, religious, ethnic, and cultural traditions could be secure in their identities. In 2021 this newsletter will work harder to help that world be born.

Illustrations by Nikita Petrov.

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