A world on fire: Trump's dizzying outrage cycle fuels our anxiety like a drug - but his presidency's dangers are very real
I took my first hit of speed in 1970 during my freshman year in college. That little white pill -- Dexedrine -- was a revelation. It made whatever I was doing absolutely fascinating. Amphetamine sharpened my focus and banished all appetites except a hunger for knowledge. I spent that entire night writing 35 pages of hand-scrawled notes about a 35-page article by the philosopher Ludwig Feurbach, thereby convincing the professor who would become my advisor and mentor that I was absolutely fascinating.
Speed was definitely not a respectable drug in those days. I bought mine from a seedy hippie who hung out on the edge of campus with some of my edgier friends. My college was probably one of the few in the country whose infirmary actually prescribed Dexedrine for its students, presumably to keep us from buying it from guys like him.
Nowadays, respectable doctors all over the country prescribe speed for people with ADHD, under brands like Adderall and Ritalin. It does for them what it did for me -- makes whatever they’re doing fascinating, allowing them to focus for many hours at a time. My students now don’t have to buy it on the street. They can cadge (or buy) it from friends with prescriptions. I sometimes wonder whether they think they have a choice about this, or whether it’s considered almost a dereliction of duty to write their papers without a chemical assist.
Of course, speed had its ugly side, and I’m hardly recommending it as a cure for boring classes or a boring life. Coming down is horrible, the prelude often to a nasty, gray depression. Campus lore said it intensified menstrual cramps and I believed it. (When you’re depressed, it’s certainly easy to believe that this month’s cramps are worse than the last batch.) In any case, I quickly realized that I liked the stuff far too much for my own good. I learned to drink coffee instead.
And then, decades later, Donald Trump got elected president and I felt I was back on Dexedrine with all the usual liabilities and more. Like the drug, Trump speed gave the new president’s every action a deceptive fascination.
The Whole World at Trump Speed
There’s speed and then there’s Trump speed: the dizzying, careening way that the president drives the Formula One car of state. Just when we’ve started to adjust to one outrage -- say, the ripping of migrant children from their mothers’ arms (a procedure that continues to this day, despite court prohibition) -- here comes another down the track. This time it’s the construction in Texas of a tent city to house immigrant children. No, wait. That was the last lap. Now, it’s the mustering of almost 6,000 troops on the border, authorized to use lethal force "if they have to" against people desperately fleeing lethal conditions in their own countries.
No, now it’s the president, like Humpty-Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, redefining the word “rock” to mean “rifle.” During a press briefing in November, he told reporters, “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. I told them to consider it a rifle. When they throw rocks like what they did to the Mexican military and police I say consider it a rifle.”
Oops, that was the last lap, too. Now it’s the launching of tear gas grenades -- a weapon that the Geneva Conventions prohibit in actual warfare -- against a few hundred mostly peaceful migrants, including small children on Mexican, not U.S. territory. And now it’s the president blaming the decision to deploy a toxic chemical agent against unarmed people on individuals whom -- he says -- an unidentified “they” call “grabbers.” Those grabbers are apparently seizing random migrant children to use as “human shields.” Before we can absorb that bizarre contention, he follows up with a new lie: that “three Border Patrol people yesterday were very badly hurt, getting hit with rocks and stones.”
Unlike the speed of my college days, which sharpened the attention, Trump speed makes it impossible to focus on anything for very long, not when the next outrage is already heading for you at full tilt.
In ordinary times, we would have focused, at least for a while, on any one of these occurrences. There would have been space to carefully consider the unlawful practice of taking children from their parents and shipping them thousands of miles away. We could have paid more than a fleeting moment’s attention to the cruel bureaucratic incompetence that left officials unable to reunite some families because records had been lost or destroyed -- or were never kept in the first place. There would have been time to discuss the legality of deploying U.S. troops inside this country on what has essentially been a policing mission, in possible violation of the Posse Comitatus Act. We could have stopped to consider whether such a deployment might be a prelude to other domestic uses of the military under an increasingly authoritarian president.
We might even have had a moment to ask ourselves what it means that we’ve stopped being surprised by a president who consistently makes things up. Maybe it is a matter of opinion whether the caravan of refugees traveling from Central America in hopes of getting asylum in the United States constitutes an “invasion” (as Trump told CNN reporter Jim Acosta the day before the White House pulled his press credentials). Reasonable people can certainly disagree about the truthfulness of a metaphor. But we generally would expect at least some data to back up a presidential assertion that the caravan includes “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners.” When pressed for evidence, the president simply said, “There's no proof of anything but they could very well be.” He then added, “over a course of a period of time you [will] have [Middle Eastern individuals in the caravan], or they don't necessarily have to be in that group. But certainly, you have a lot of people coming up through the southern border from the Middle East and other places that are not appropriate for our country.”
How should we interpret the meaning of statements like this that simply have no basis in fact? Should we focus on how the president is shoving us into a pond of epistemological quicksand? (What is truth, after all?) Or should we turn our attention to the racial implications of the presidential view that -- whether or not they exist -- people “from the Middle East and other places... are not appropriate for our country”? Are those “other places” perhaps the “shithole countries” the president has mentioned in the past? And if so, then what exactly distinguishes those immigrants who are“appropriate for our country?”
But really there’s no time for thoughts like those, because it’s on to the next outrage! The crazy keeps piling up, along with the exclamation points. (There were eight of them in that November 20th 633-word statement on U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia that the president released in response to international outrage about the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.)
And Speaking of Outrage...
You’d think, by the way, that a brutal murder of a U.S. resident inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, might spark a little bit of horror, even in this White House. In his statement about Khashoggi’s death, however, President Trump went out of his way to remind the rest of us that, although he doesn’t “condone” murder, the Saudis had good reason to dislike the journalist. After all, their “representatives” personally assured him “that Jamal Khashoggi was an ‘enemy of the state’ and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood” -- charges that are both untrue and irrelevant to his murder.
Once again, we found ourselves caught up in a Trumpian epistemological vortex, as our philosopher president offered us this summary of the situation:
“It could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event -- maybe he did and maybe he didn’t! That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran.”
And don't forget that fantasy $450 billion the Saudis are going to spend in the U.S., creating “over a million jobs,” or the $110 billion in Saudi arms purchases included in that figure, which turn out to be the particular fantasyof presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.
It’s almost enough to make you forget to wonder why exactly we’re so much fonder of Saudi Arabia than Iran. Let’s see, Iran hangs a lot of people, including a woman who at 17 killed her violent husband in self-defense. Saudi Arabia doesn’t do that. It beheads them instead, sometimes even for non-violent offenses. Iran meddles in countries in its neighborhood -- unlike the Saudi state, except, of course, for its actions in relation to Qatar... and, oh yes, that little intervention in Yemen’s civil war, where Saudis flying U.S.-made planes (there’s that wonderful Saudi investment) have killed untold numbers of civilians, while the fighting and blockades have sent the price of food skyrocketing so that as many as 85,000 children have already starved to death and half the population is at risk of famine.
But how could there be any time to think about that, when Donald Trump is already racing on to his (and our) next distraction?
A World on Fire
It’s enough to make your head spin -- or your heart break. Among other things, the news about planetary destruction just keeps piling up. At the end of September, we learned that the Earth has lost half its wildlife in the last 40 years. Only a week later, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report on the harm likely to be caused by even a 1.5-degree Celsius average warming across the planet -- which seems likely to happen much more quickly than previously thought. As the New York Timesreports, the IPCC has concluded that “avoiding the damage requires transforming the world economy at a speed and scale that has ‘no documented historic precedent.’” Given an American president intent ondriving the U.S. economy full-tilt in the opposite direction, it’s obvious that, in every way imaginable, Trump speed is literally going to kill many of us.
And before we could even digest that IPCC report, the federal government had issued its own National Climate Assessment -- conveniently trundled out by the Trump administration on Black Friday, our annual Day of Maximum Consumption, with an intent to bury it. The Assessment concluded that, by century’s end, climate change will have caused thousands of deaths in this country and the U.S. economy could shrink by 10%. And that’s not this administration’s first apocalyptic report. Who even remembers that in July of this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency issued its own environmental report, anticipating not the dire 1.5 degree Celsius rise, but one of at least four degrees?
A few days after the National Climate Assessment was released, in an interview with the Washington Post, President Trump was quick to dismiss it. As he put it: “One of the problems that a lot of people like myself -- we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers [in human-caused climate change].” Why not? Because he relies on the evidence of his own eyes, which are presumably more observant than the combined work of more than 1,000 scientists in 13 federal agencies. “As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it,” he assured the Post.
Just in case he hadn’t quite said what he meant, he then offered this Trumpian clarification:
You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including -- just many other places -- the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small.
Well, that explains it. Oceans are very small. After all, they only cover about two-thirds of the planet. For some, this observation might have proven a tad disconcerting, since there had been little time even to absorb his contention days earlier, on touring areas of northern California hit by the worst fire in its history, that such blazes only happened because, unlike Finland, my fellow Californians have failed to properly rake our forests.
At least we no longer have to worry about having a presidency that can't tell fact from fairy tale. The administration that once brought us “alternative facts” recently developed a sudden affection for those “stubborn things” (as John Adams once called them), at least when it comes to climate-change denial. The president’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, explained that Trump’s problem with the report wasn’t that it didn’t convince people like him with “very high levels of intelligence.” The problem, she claimed, was that the report was “not based on facts.” As she put it, “It’s not data driven. We’d like to see something that is more data driven. It’s based on modeling, which is extremely hard to do when you’re talking about the climate.”
We can only hope that Sanders will let us in on the secret of collecting data from the future. Or maybe someone should tell her that our confidence that summer will follow spring is based on data and a mathematical model of planetary motion.
Racing through our minds as fast as a California wildfire, the president’s pronouncements, by turns vicious and comical, fly by so fast that it’s impossible to concentrate on any of them. One day he’s warning us about marauding migrants; the next he’s retweeting an image of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein behind bars, along with former president Barack Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Robert Mueller, among others. (“Now that Russia collusion is a proven lie,” read the caption, “when do the treason trials begin?”)
Once, the spectacle of a president accusing political opponents of treason would have horrified most people in this country. Now, we’re so whiplashed that we hardly react. We just brace ourselves for the next shock. As New York Times opinion writer Jennifer Finney Boylan recently observed, Trump’s “paranoid inventions suck up our attention and make us focus, week after week, upon him.” Like that first hit of Dexedrine that I took all those years ago, Trump’s version of speed narrows our focus in a dangerous way.
Every decade or so, safe driving campaigns reinvent the slogan “Speed Kills” to encourage motorists to slow down and save lives. Anti-drug campaigners then pick up the phrase, using it to remind people (quite rightly) that another kind of speed -- amphetamines -- also kills.
And so, in a very real way, does the zig-zagging speed of Donald Trump’s government. A world traveling at Trump speed is, to use the president’s own words (and punctuation), “a very dangerous place!” It’s a place where people burn to death in climate-change-fueled forest fires or starve to death in man-made famines. And it only gets harder to focus as the president keeps on riffing, faster and faster, just like someone on speed. Coming down is definitely going to be depressing.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua.
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Copyright 2018 Rebecca Gordon