If you’re enough of a traditionalist to trust the calendar, Donald J. Trump took the oath of office as President of the United States one year ago. But as far as we’re concerned, that only goes to show how much calendars have become one more alternative fact. In Trump time, his administration has lasted a week that seems more like a century, except when it’s the other way around.
It’s not just that our brains can’t keep up, look back or anticipate much of anything anymore. The flip side is that coping with Trump’s presidency never lets them shut down. Trying to remember what American life was like before he moved into the White House is a struggle we’ve pretty much abandoned, because what’s the point? (It’s not like it’ll ever be real again, after all.) But that’s nothing compared to the smell of fried synapses clogging our cerebellums whenever some TV dimwit talks as if 2020 will actually materialize someday. Whenever liberals discuss the prospective Democratic field in the next presidential election—or, for that matter, whenever MAGA loyalists assume Trump’s re-election—it all just sounds like sci-fi.
The psychological havoc of waking up every morning on Trump time is like nothing Americans have experienced before, and it seems to be a mass phenomenon. We’re used to intense emotions and rapid readjustments of perception during political crises, but otherwise, one of our system of government’s basic functions used to be to provide dull but lulling continuity: familiar faces, tried-and-true conventions of behavior, the paradoxical comfort of knowing we could count on Washington to bore the wits out of us.
Our inability to keep a grip on the difference between a policy and a personality works to Trump’s short-term advantage.
All that got shipped to the dumpster on January 20, 2017. As we lurch from the “Is POTUS unhinged?” kerfuffle provoked by Michael Wolff’s Fire And Fury—ancient history already, right?—to Trump’s “shithole countries” eruption in the White Outhouse to ousted West Wing strategist Steve Bannon’s subpoena (reminding us that Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is still underway), the average news cycle feels like staggering out of a car wreck and briefly congratulating ourselves for surviving. Then we remember we’ve got a chronic medical condition, too.
Needless to say, getting accustomed to this daily ordeal is a long way from the “normalization” of Trump’s presidency that people either hoped or feared would happen when he took office. Such a transition to complacency would imply at least an agreed-on illusion of returning to business as usual, and nobody—certainly not Mitch McConnell, let alone the The New York Times—can pretend that this is business as usual. That includes the millions of people in Trump’s base who exult in all the rough beasts he’s set loose to slouch toward Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—"real" Americans who are delighted by his assault on truths that, 242 years after the Declaration of Independence, are suddenly no longer self-evident. Instead, from Capitol Hill to Jake Tapper’s psychiatrist, we’ve all adjusted to a contradiction in terms: an abnormal state that feels, nonetheless, permanent.
It’s hard to be sure whether Trump has been only a catalyst for this transformation or its sole cause. Well before he came along, social media and 24/7 cable news pushed us toward life in a permanent present that didn’t depend on awareness of the past or concern for the future, particularly because back then, “news” only needed to make sense for around 15 minutes before another algorithm replaced it. Sooner or later, even without him, Establishment members of both parties would have been confounded to realize that the 20th-century building blocks they’d mistaken for constants—America’s long-standing international role as a stable bulwark of democracy and economic progress, for instance—had become utterly meaningless to countless Americans. But there can’t be much question that Trump hyperbolized and weaponized both trends.
It’s one thing to concede that even 9/11 is becoming a dim memory, but another to feel surrounded by compatriots who already can’t remember Sean Spicer. (Thank God for Google and Wikipedia.) At one level, the way this administration’s latest outrage crowds out memory of the previous dozen obviously works to Trump’s advantage, since one side effect is that North Korea effectively vanishes from our radar between tweets taunting everyone other than Kim Jong Un. Maybe our growing inability to keep a grip on the difference between a policy and a personality, not to mention between genuine, high-octane scandals and mere PR snafus, only works to his short-term advantage, but he’s never shown any interest in any other kind—not only as president, but throughout his career.
That’s why wondering how sustainable his presidency is feels almost beside the point. Jolted bumper-car-style this way and that, we’re all trapped inside the Big Now and Trump’s supporters thrive on it. Asking his MAGA flock to describe their idea of a successful conclusion to the Trump era would probably just get you a blank look, because the simple answer is that they don’t want it to conclude. Meanwhile, those of us who can’t wait for it to end also can’t imagine it ever ending. In that sense, he’s already won.