On Monday morning, I woke up to find that Donald Trump had warned Iranian President Rouhani to “NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE… .” (Caps, unshockingly, his.)
Then I drank a smoothie, dropped my wife off at work, and went for a run (while listening to an Adam Carolla podcast).
In other words, I’m indifferent, and I’m not alone in my indifference. The political commentariat was largely dismissive of Trump’s late-night tweet. Some even chalked it up to a deliberate distraction from the Robert Mueller investigation. We live in a time when people balk at the threat of nuclear annihilation—and this is not an irrational reaction.
In a way, this is a normal coping mechanism. How many times can we work ourselves into a tizzy over something that (a) probably won’t happen and (b) we can’t control anyway?
We are becoming inured and desensitized, and I think this poses several challenges.
There is a boy-who-cried-wolf danger. Trump’s tweet threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” is the most obvious example of Trump ramping up the fear, only to have it dissipate. This trains us not to take the president’s alarming words seriously, lest we look like suckers.
Indeed, in the wake of Trump’s tweet about Iran, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro mocked people who bought into the whole “‘Trump will explode the world’ thing,” reminding us that it “led to pretty much nothing.” Well, two years left!
What happens when we have a legitimate threat to our country, and Trump can’t rally folks behind him because he’s pushed bogus threats so many times? What if he wants to prove that he should be taken seriously and actually launches some sort of preemptive strike?
The long-term problem: Trump’s behavior is rewiring us to stop viewing politics as a serious struggle between good and evil and to view it instead as a reality-show drama performed for our amusement.
And just like that, Trump has redefined our role, transitioning us from the active role of citizen or activist to the passive role of consumer or viewer. In fairness to Trump, this trend predates him. However, he has taken this pre-existing problem and put it on steroids.
Again, this might be a necessary coping mechanism, since taking everything seriously would be too emotionally taxing. Conservative writer Peter Wehner warns that a “feeling of sheer exhaustion from our politics is a defining feature of this era. Increasingly people want to be free of it.”
Conservative writer David French agrees, adding, “But there are also people who thrive on the rage and chaos. My concern is that reasonable people will grow exhausted and increasingly retreat from the public square, leaving mainly the trolls and the truly angry to dominate discourse.”
There are numerous possible negative outcomes to the way Trump operates. At least, for us there are negative outcomes. For him, there are many upsides to keeping us all off balance.
In this milieu, when anyone voices concern over something Trump has said or done, Trump’s supporters can laugh at the “drive-bys” who have their “panties in a wad” over something somebody tweeted. This is similar to what the alt-right engages in with the ironic meme trolling performance art. Except, of course, this is coming from inside the White House.
For those of us who despise moral relativism and who, to paraphrase Tom Stoppard, believe “words are sacred” and “deserve respect,” this is a serious threat to the values of Western civilization and liberal democracy.
We tell our children that words matter. But how much more powerful are the words of the president of the United States of America? He uses them not sacredly, but promiscuously.
In other words, Trump’s tweets don’t exist in a vacuum. Our senses are in danger of being dulled by Trump. I can see it happening, already. Sure, we’ll survive it, but how will it change us, what will it open the door to?