We are now about four months into the Trump administration, but it feels more like 40. Or maybe 400. It’s hard to tell at this point. So much has happened.
So far, it’s been four months of near-constant outrage. And we’ve been told to remain hypervigilant.
But it’s exhausting. I try constantly to absorb and parse each latest round of craziness, and sometimes offer some commentary on it. And by the time I’m caught up on the latest news, we’re on to some new round of craziness.
I’m not sure how much longer I can take. I’m really mentally tired. And I suspect I’m not alone.
Let’s call it “Trump fatigue syndrome”: the exhaustion you feel from trying to stay on top of the nonstop scandals and absurdities emanating from the Trump administration. TFS, for short.
In what follows, I’ll go through the potential symptoms, all of which are dangerous, and then offer some ways to combat them.
The symptoms of Trump fatigue syndrome
If everything is a scandal, then nothing is a scandal. If everything is outrageous, nothing is outrageous. And right now everything is outrageous, and everything is a scandal. It’s a natural human response to become numb to it all. And when we become numb, it’s easy to feel helpless and just give up.
If we are constantly upset and angered by the news, at some point we may simply just turn it off and decide it’s easier to retreat into our private lives, focus again on our nonpolitical hobbies, and stop paying attention. And if we stop paying attention, and stop engaging, that means we’ve effectively given up.
Losing touch with reality
The more we treat everything as a potential scandal, the more we lose our ability to detect what is really a scandal. A sense of hypervigilance keeps us seeing virtual tigers everywhere. We lose context. We fail to see what’s truly unusual or different about the Trump administration, and what is just normal Republican or executive branch practice. If the opposition becomes hysterical and conspiratorial, it loses its ability to be taken seriously. It becomes easier to be anti-anti-Trump, which in this divided times is really just a version of being pro-Trump.
Grasping at flashes of normalcy
Most of us crave some degree of predictability and stability. We just want this insanity to end. One way to deal with this is to grasp at anything that looks vaguely presidential as a sign that he is finally stabilizing. For example, after Trump ordered missile strikes in Syria in April, some praised the move as a sign that he “became president.” Recent events have once again undermined this alleged transition. But the hope remains for some. The more exhausted we are, the more we may just give in to it.
At times it’s unclear whether this is a deliberate strategy to drive everyone crazy and “heighten the contradictions” or, more likely, just the inevitable consequence of the Trump administration’s unusual mix of amateurism, incompetence, and freneticism.
But the risk remains: The longer this goes on, the more likely we’ll go numb, disengage, irrationally grasp at flashes of normalcy, or all of the above. And if that happens, it will be easier and easier for Trump to get away with whatever he wants to do.
Four strategies to deal with TFS
If you think you’re suffering from Trump fatigue syndrome, how do you manage?
Here are four strategies:
- Understand this is a long-term fight that won’t be resolved immediately.
- Don’t let Trump set the agenda anymore.
- Be mindful about media consumption, especially social media.
- Take some time off, and be okay with not always knowing the latest about everything that’s happening.
1) Understand this is a long-term fight that won’t be resolved immediately
We live in an instant gratification culture, where we expect immediate results. Politics is not like that. In politics, outcomes take time. Sometimes a very long time.
If Trump is to be defeated in an election, that election is still almost four years away. If Trump is impeached or removed from office through the 25th Amendment, it will also take a while. It will require a series of investigations that will take time to play out. It will also require Republicans turning against him. A strong case will have to be built. And that case will take time.
If Trump is anything, he is a fighter. He doesn’t back down. And as president, he has considerable resources and power at his disposal. He is also shameless, and has a knack for making baseless red herring claims that take up thousands of investigatory journalism hours that could be used elsewhere. Just think about all the energy devoted to the false allegation that President Obama wiretapped Trump Tower. That was a distraction. Trump has plenty more where that came from.
It’s a cliché to say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But it’s also a helpful reminder not to waste all your energy at the start. Self-care is also important. You don’t have to be constantly “on.” You can jump in and out of the fight. (More on this in point 4.)
2) Don’t let Trump hijack the agenda
Perhaps the most exhausting part of following the Trump administration is the whiplash of confusion and disbelief that follows a particularly preposterous Trump tweet or a singularly screwy public performance.
At these moments, the press goes into a frenzied vortex, and we all wonder: How could that man possibly be president of the United States of America, the so-called leader of the free world? Endless head shaking, head scratching, and, eventually, mocking follows, and then ding! A new scramble.
Here, it’s important to understand what Trump is doing. He’s changing the agenda. Notice that any time a media narrative emerges that he doesn’t like, he takes to Twitter and lights a firecracker.
Remember the timing of the “wiretapping” allegation. It happened on a Saturday morning when Trump was unhappy about the story that his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, may have lied to Congress about meeting with the Russian ambassador, which forced Sessions to recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation of Russia’s alleged interference in the campaign the day before.
But rather than that story dominating the conversation, everybody spent weeks talking about the phone wiretapping allegations.
Again last week, after the firing of FBI Director James Comey went poorly for Trump, he tried to change the conversation by rushing out his commission to investigate voter fraud and having Jeff Sessions announce tougher penalties for criminals.
This didn’t work, because there’s more to the Comey firing story. But look for Trump to try something else to change the topic now, something new and made-up that will send everybody rushing to prove him wrong (perhaps another fabricated Obama allegation? Or another “Andrew Jackson could have prevented the Civil War” comment?).
Whatever Trump does, keep focused on what he’s trying to distract from. If you click on stories about his latest distraction provocation, you’re sending a signal to a web editor somewhere that these are the kinds of stories that generate eyeballs. Understand that you are influencing content with your clicks, and if you want to see more steady reporting on actual scandals as opposed to coverage of Trump’s latest distraction gambit, you need to click accordingly.
3) Be mindful about media consumption, especially social media
In addition to clicking on articles of substance rather than articles of trivia, we should all be mindful about how we check the news, and what it does to us.
In a 24/7 media environment, it’s easier than ever to get a constant stream of news. And worse, in a time when it feels like everything is going off the rails, it’s easier than ever to feel that at any given moment, there might be some new scandal breaking that we need to be on top of. So we’d better check to make sure.
Media companies understand this. There is a rush and competition to be the first with some new revelation or leak or potential scandal or clickbait pastiche of outrages that will drive up web traffic further. In the rush to publish, some of these stories turn out to be overblown or wrong, which further contributes to our continued sense of uncertainty about what is and isn’t actually a scandal. All of it adds to the sense that everything is insane.
Also, and perhaps most significantly, much of what gets reported, and particularly shared via Twitter, comes across in snippets lacking context. Consuming too much of it quickly overwhelms our limited information processing capacity. Too much is happening. We can’t keep track. It’s like a flood.
This is driving us all crazy. Constantly checking the news, and especially social media, is a form of hypervigilance, which again provokes the fight-or-flight response that drains us of energy.
What can we do?
Instead of checking the news and social media constantly (or, more realistically, every time we get snagged or bored with our actual work), it’s probably better to check at a few scheduled intervals during the day. When we’re reading news more intentionally, as opposed to just looking for a diversion, we are better poised to select stories that are more deeply reported and substantive, and, most of all, stories that are not just “Trump said something ridiculous” stories.
Personally, I’ve purchased software that blocks social media websites for extended periods of time so I can stick to real work. It was the only way I could stay focused in these times.
I’ve also taken a month-long break from all social media, because I was consuming too much of it rapid-fire. I plan to go back at the end of the month, but when I do, I’ll be much more deliberate in how I consume it.
4) Take some time off, and be okay with not always knowing the latest about everything that’s happening.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously: It’s okay to take some time away from the news. Again (see point 1), this is a long haul. If you exhaust all your energy and capacity for outrage upfront, you’re going to get burnt out, or go a little crazy, or both. You’ll lose your capacity for reasoned criticism.
Personally, I’m shutting off my devices in the evenings and reading novels again. I know there’s always more news I could be reading. And there will be some topics on which I’m not as informed as I should be. But I need to stay sane. I also have two young daughters and a wife I want to be present for.
Every productivity book I’ve ever read has some form of this advice: Take time away from your work to renew yourself. You need to recharge the batteries. You need to sharpen the saw. Whatever the metaphor, the point is the same. If you are attenuated and exhausted, you won’t be effective at anything. If you’re suffering from TFS, take a little time away before you burn out entirely.
You don’t have to give in to TFS
There’s a long fight ahead still, and plenty of developments to be genuinely outraged by.
But it’s also easy to let constant outrage turn to exhaustion, and to just let yourself accept what’s happening as normal. And if that happens, Trump wins.
Hopefully, if we can understand that this is a long haul, if we can see Trump’s attempts to constantly distract us and drive us crazy for what they are, if we can consume media mindfully, and if we can take time off now and then, I think we’ll be okay.
But if we grow numb, if we disengage, if we go crazy or rush to normalize just to get our sanity back, Trump will have won.