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Overcoming Trump Fatigue

Updated: Jun 28, 2020

Max Stearns

I haven’t posted in a while, perhaps too long. It is not because I do not care about Trump’s having been acquitted despite his obviously deserving to be convicted and removed from office. It is not because I am indifferent to the horrific campaign of disinformation Trump has spewed, and continues to spew, concerning the COVID-19 pandemic, thwarting benign policies that could have saved tens of thousands of lives. It is not because I am indifferent to this administration’s routinely placating a base that oddly cares about bizarre displays of religious symbolism, yet reveals shocking indifference to the horrific plight of persons of color and marginalized communities. It is not because I am unaware that over the past three years, the United States has lost any claim to moral leadership in the world. And it is not because the choice between Joe Biden—whomever he picks as running mate—over Donald Trump fails to matter profoundly, indeed existentially, to our nation’s well-being and to the state of the world. Each of these concerns matters more deeply than I can express. And yet, it is a profound challenge, including for me, not to feel overcome with Trump fatigue.

Along with everyone else, I am thinking of creative ways to do more. One role I hope to play, however modestly, is helping to persuade frustrated Democratic voters, especially young ones, those who rallied for Warren or Biden, but who find Biden uninspiring, of the moral imperative to not vote third party or stay home in November. We all of have a moral obligation to educate themselves about the effect of our choices in light of the actual dynamics of institutional structures. (I also lament libertarians who vote third party, but I have found attempts to persuade them to vote Democratic unavailing.)

Politics is not about feeling good. It is about doing good, or at least doing better. Those whose great passions involve the environment, social justice, police reform, prison reform, the pandemic, the border refugee crisis, saving our constitutional democracy, or, most simply, caring about those who are less fortunate than we are must do what’s required to educate ourselves and take action. Education takes time and effort, yet is a moral imperative in times of crisis. We are not merely in crisis; we are in crises. At this moment, we have lost more lives to COVID-19 than the Vietnam War, Gulf War, Afghanistan War, and Iraq War combined. Think about that. And this loss of life, certainly in the numbers experienced, was not inevitable.

So how do we overcome Trump fatigue? There’s a psychological phenomenon, psychic numbing, in which individuals are inspired by some tragic event. Some family might suffer a terrible tragedy, causing individuals to come together, make contributions, write letters, or otherwise offer help. But multiply that by a million, a thousand, even a hundred, and suddenly individuals are stymied. Empathy lets us experience others’ pain, but this innate human characteristic operates most effectively on an intimate scale. Absorbing the pain of countless others overwhelms, with the counter-intuitive effect of rendering us paralyzed.

The greatest threat in Election 2020 is not indifference; it is feeling overwhelmed, sensing that nothing we do possibly matters. I have experienced this myself. It’s a gnawing sense of “where to begin?” And “I don’t know” too easily translates into “nowhere.” Please allow me to suggest an antidote. It involves unpacking the crises, making deliberate choices, and regaining our focus. No one can engage forever in a multifront war. But we can each pick a battle, maybe two, not because the others don’t matter—they all do!—but because we can each take comfort trusting others to fight those battles, and having others, likewise, trust us to fight ours.

One of my favorite economics concepts is called comparative advantage. It’s a bit counter intuitive. Many people imagine that effective specialization demands being best at what you do. That’s just not true, and realizing it is quite liberating. Here’s why. If only the best can effectively specialize, how discouraging that is for the rest us ordinary mortals, confronting the endless anxiety that, try as we might, that’s not us. Of course, no one can ever know if they are, or have the potential to become, best at anything. Consider a virtuoso cellist who also loves great coffee. The cellist can focus on her music, join a symphony, or perform solo. Or she can perfect her coffee making, perhaps opening a café. But let’s face it, more people can do the coffee thing well than can become a virtuoso cellist. When our cellist buys a cappuccino at a nearby café following a concert, she doesn’t assume the barista makes better coffee than she does. Our cellist is better at both, but given her special musical talent, the world is better off when she focuses on music and when the barista focuses on coffee. Both make highly valued contributions, not because either is absolute best at what she or he does (even our cellist might not quite match Yo-Yo Ma), but rather, based on comparative advantage.

Here are my top five reasons to overcome complacency in fighting Trump fatigue.

1. Trump poses an existential threat to our nation’s constitutional democracy. A second Trump term threatens to permanently harm, even to end, the United States as we know it. This is not hyperbolic. It is a clear-eyed observation by a near thirty-year professor of constitutional law based on having watched, for going on three years, this most lawless president, not merely in modern history, but in our entire history. The implications of an unfettered and unchecked second term are beyond frightening. This is my number one priority. I believe it is also my comparative advantage to work toward driving this point home again and again and again.

2. Trump poses a threat to the health and well-being of tens of thousands, or more, US citizens, including his supporters. Trump has demonstrated ample willingness to risk lives, through his policies and through improperly held press conferences and open rallies, discouraging or even disallowing social distancing and masks, and for one reason: to feed his endless narcissistic need for adulation. He has even politicized wearing masks, which have a demonstrated benefit in reducing the spread of COVID-19. We have to end the threat that this vile, evil man poses once and for all. I mentioned the specific threat to Trump supporters. Caring about them by defeating Trump is a bit like destroying a city to save it. So be it. The way to prove being on the right side of morality, and history, is to care more about the well-being of Trump’s supporters than Trump, and those who surround him, ever have.

3. Trump contributes to ongoing existential threats to the environment. Global climate change is perhaps the single greatest threat we face as a nation and world. I am honestly skeptical that Joe Biden (or, for that matter, any of the other candidates for the Democratic nomination), will exhibit the commitment required to do what is necessary to reverse, or even to suspend, the dire trends in the US, and working with allies, around the globe. Although I’m certainly not making any assessment on tradeoffs here, I have found the pandemic effect on the environment striking. The pandemic might even offer insights, on a grand scale, analogous to the biblical command, Shemita, requiring that land lay fallow one year in seven. This is not my expertise, but I do know we confront a crisis with international implications, and that the most severe consequences if we do not take truly drastic action will fall upon the most destitute communities in the US and around the globe. Even in this one field, there is a profound risk of fatigue, but, again, individuals can focus on specific aspects where there is a possibility of making a difference.

4. Trump has allowed people to be their worst selves, and this just has to stop. I am personally tired of the word mincing of Trump apologists. Yes, Trump speaks from both sides of his mouth, lies constantly, and is almost never precise. Nailing him down is like trying to nail a jello-mold to a wall. Highly educated persons can and, far too often, do look for nuanced ways to defend even Trump’s his most offensive rhetoric against his challengers. Gaslighting is among the Trump era’s most defining features. Let’s be clear: Trump has freed up racists, anti-Muslims, anti-Semites, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant, anti-anyone and everyone who is not among the wealthy, white, privileged, male class to say whatever they wish and to feel self-righteous, claiming anti-elitism as their mantle, in doing so. And this just has to stop.

5. Trump, a corrupt narcissist and liar, is also almost certainly a criminal, tax cheat, and fraud. We must not lose sight of any of this. I won’t make the case here, but those who follow this blog know my views. Yes, I use the lawyerly phrasing “almost certainly” in part because Trump has managed to fight disclosures that would allow affirmatively proving these things. (Others have felt more comfortable expressing these conclusions definitively based on materials in the public domain.) Regardless, this all matters because we can never trust a word he says or any action he takes as sincere. To have a president whom we utterly distrust is a disaster. The one great political constant is never being able to anticipate the next crisis. Campaigns are inherently problematic because they either focus on what has already happened or imagine future plans unencumbered by unforeseeable changes in circumstance. Our choices must therefore not be based on checklists of policy positions, but rather on assessments of character, judgment, experience, and wisdom. Whatever uncertainty the future holds, one thing is entirely clear: Biden defeats Trump on each of these bases, hands down.

Our nation and world are in crisis. There is no time to spare. Come November 2020, serious decisions will be made. Let’s each find our comparative advantage. Doing so requires dedication, and some humility. None of us has to be the best; but we all have to work toward making a tangible difference. Everyone can play a vital role.

We must also not let Trump fatigue overcome our commitment. I plan to do more, and I hope that’s true of everyone reading this post. Fight the sense of fatigue by making concrete and deliberate choices. Pick from my list or some other. Please don’t let despair turn fatigue into inaction. Your role is vital, and the stakes could not be higher.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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