One year in, the state of the union in Donald Trump’s America is exhaustion.
Trump’s presidency has proven to be a uniquely overwhelming experience, one that’s strained America’s political institutions, stressed its governing officials, and produced a never-ending series of five-alarm political controversies.
It is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the no-drama Obama ethos of the last administration. And those who know the president say that’s by design. Trump has thicker scar tissue than most and his modus operandi has been to claw, scrape, and nag the opposition until they finally acquiesce. It defined his business life and it’s followed him into politics.
“It is going to be unsustainable for people who don’t get him or haven’t been around him,” said Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide who was fired from the election team. “If you work for him for many years like I have—and trust me I’m not trying to get a job here—but this would be normal for me.”
To wit, in the first 12 months of this presidency, federal courts axed multiple versions of Trump’s travel, aka Muslim, ban, the White House has been engulfed in a cascade of Russia scandal turmoil, Obamacare repeal tanked (repeatedly and spectacularly), immigration deals stalled, the government shut down, there’s been a sloppily handled nuclear standoff with North Korea, equivocation over the murder of a protester by a neo-Nazi, the president clashed with the family of a fallen soldier, he accused a top Democrat of facilitating a terror attack in New York, called a nearby island (and various African and foreign countries) a “shithole,” said Haitian immigrants all have AIDS, flirted with firing a special counsel, ended up firing his FBI director, endured loud criticism for mixing his private business dealings with his governing responsibilities, and lost a humiliating Senate election in Alabama after backing a candidate credibly accused of molesting teenage girls.
This doesn’t touch on the recent scandal involving revelations that Trump allegedly had an affair with a porn star while his wife was at home with their months-old child, after which he reportedly paid hush money to keep said porn star quiet. Such a news item would have crippled any president in the past. With Trump, it was dumped into the “LOL nothing matters” category of political, or celebrity, news.
Those paid to follow, cover, or manage it all have been left to figure out ways to cope with the pace. Of the half dozen Trump administration officials The Daily Beast spoke to for this story, all expressed weariness, but mostly numbness, to reality-TV-style entropy of Trump’s Washington. Unsurprisingly, White House officials declined to comment on the record about how exhausting or frustrating they find their boss.
“You get used to it, you stop tearing your hair out [eventually],” one senior White House official noted. “You can plan something out for the day meticulously hoping that it can [work] just to see it upended by a single [@realDonaldTrump] tweet after you wake up… But you get used to it. You have to, really.”
Those, like Nunberg, who worked for Trump before he entered politics, insist that the president is not some attention-seeking pinball; that it is his ability to endure controversy, even if he invites it, that is a key ingredient of success. The attitude that made Trump notoriously litigious in real estate compels him to push for additional Obamacare repeal votes after they fail in the House and, then, in the Senate. A lifetime of being on the covers of magazines imbues him with nonchalance when he’s accused of having a porn-star affair.
Most human beings simply aren’t built this way. And for the rest of the political world, it’s taken time to adjust. Some have simply moved away from the chaos.
“I was so exhausted that I left Washington,” said Tim Miller, a former GOP operative and Jeb Bush’s campaign communications director, who relocated to California after the election. “I was sick of it. There were a lot of things about Washington that in the past were mock-worthy but harmless. But all of those things that felt gross but relatively harmless in the past felt unbearably gross in the Trump era.”
Others have stayed put, but been forced to re-imagine their professional lives. Matt Gertz, a senior fellow at the progressive media watchdog group, Media Matters, said he was always an early riser. But now he spends his mornings—every morning—trying to figure out which of Trump’s tweets corresponds with the content being aired on Fox & Friends.
Ideological foes have offered their concern over his lifestyle choices.
But even though “there is a certain grind to it,” Gertz also says it can be addictive. “I can’t really let it go at this point. I think the work is important and I think I’m good at it… There is a sort of endlessness to it, but I don’t necessarily find it intimidating.”
On the Hill, there is a similar duality to how Trumpism has been experienced. Aides say that the pace has been unrivaled, even with how little has been done. And, to a person, there is a sense of dread at the likelihood that the government will bounce from standoff to standoff over the next few months as lawmakers divine just what, exactly, Trump wants in, say, an immigration deal. But they also find the battles invigorating too.
“I’ve found it, often times, more exhilarating than exhausting,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE). “I’m used to working 14-hour days for as long as I can remember. In adversity lies opportunity, and God knows there’s plenty of adversity. I’m convinced that there’s plenty of opportunity here as well.”
Whether the political dopamine can sustain folks like Carper through the next few years is a legitimate question. Already, there’s evidence that Trump is proving too much for some to endure. Numerous Republican lawmakers have announced their retirements. Few top professionals seem eager to go work for the administration. And, in the coming months, staff turnover among those already there seems poised to get even worse. There is widespread and seemingly growing distrust in American institutions. Trump’s presidency appears to have split families apart.
Even stand-up comics and late-night stars are ready for a break.
“Just trying to keep up with him, I mean... for any other president, the [“shithole”] comment would have resonated for a couple of weeks. He’s on a two-day cycle. It’s very hard to keep up with him,” Conan O’Brien told host Jake Tapper last week on CNN. “It’s exhausting.”
Exhausting or not, Trump is, of course, not just a uniquely compelling media fascination. He is the president and leader of the free world, which means he simply can’t be ignored. For some, that can be a drain. But for others it’s become a cause.
“He made me realize that I’m an addict,” said Jon Favreau, Obama’s former speechwriter and now one of the founding members of the Crooked Media empire. Favreau had moved to the West Coast to start a consulting firm after leaving the White House. Now he finds himself waking up at 5 or 5:30 each morning to keep on an East Coast media schedule.
“I thought I’d be able to stay away. But I am as busy at Crooked Media as I was during the heyday of the Obama campaign in ’08… It has thrown me into campaign mode even though there is no campaign.”