Donald Trump’s presidency has baffled me, enraged me and above all saddened me, because I’m a stubborn believer in America’s promise, which he mocks and imperils.
But last week his presidency did something to me that it hadn’t done before. It absolutely flattened me.
I woke up Saturday, made my coffee, shuffled to my computer, started to glance at the news and suddenly had to stop. I couldn’t go on. Trump had yet again said something untrue, once more suggested something absurd, contradicted himself, deified himself, claimed martyrdom, blamed Barack Obama, made his billionth threat and hurled his trillionth insult.
That was all clear from the headlines, which were as much as I could take. He had commandeered too many of my thoughts, run roughshod over too many of my emotions, made me question too many articles of faith.
I was sapped — if not quite of the will to live, then of the will to tweet, to Google and to surf the cable channels, where his furious mien and curious mane are ubiquitous. What I was feeling was beyond Trump fatigue and bigger than Trump exhaustion. It was Trump enervation. Trump enfeeblement.
And within it I saw a ray of hope.
Until now it has been unclear to me precisely how Trump ends. His manifestly rotten character hasn’t alienated his supporters, who are all too ready with rationalizations and fluent in trade-offs. They’re also unbothered by many of his missteps, because he has sold those to a cynical electorate as media fables and rivals’ fabrications. He’s so enterprising and assiduous at pointing the finger elsewhere that many voters have lost their bearings. Defeat is victory. Oppressors are liberators. Corruption is caring. Mar-a-Loco is Shangri-La.
But Americans of all persuasions recognize melodrama when it keeps smacking them in the head, and he has manufactured a bruising degree of it. They’re not keen on Washington or politics, so they don’t care for the way in which fevered discussions of both have become so pervasive as to be ambient.
They’re woozy and wiped out, and they can’t lay their depletion on the doorsteps of frustrated Democrats and Fake News. The president’s tweets speak for themselves, in both volume and vitriol. The president’s thunder is deafening without any amplification by CNN or MSNBC.
The turnover in his White House and the bloat of a Trump-administration diaspora can’t be dismissed as the detritus of disruption, the flotsam and jetsam of an unconventional management style. They’re what happens when you place a cyclone at the Resolute Desk. Everything splinters and screams, and you can’t find a safe space.
“Even Trump’s Supporters Are Getting Tired of His Daily Drama” was the headline on Jim Geraghty’s Monday column in National Review, which sometimes travels fantastically creative routes to reach the sunny side of Trump. Geraghty wrote that the publication’s editors “are exhausted with presidential tweets, from asking whether Federal Reserve chairman Jerome Powell or Chinese leader Chairman Xi is the bigger enemy, to ‘hereby ordering’ private companies to look for alternatives to operations in China.”
He linked to a lament by conservative writer Rod Dreher, who, he noted, “is exhausted from the president behaving like ‘a clown who refuses to meet with the prime minister of Denmark because she won’t sell him Greenland.’ ”
Notice a theme? Apparently weariness with Trump’s wackiness does something virtually unheard-of in the United States circa 2019: It transcends partisanship.
Trump’s instinct and strategy are to conquer by overwhelming. But there’s a difference between wearing people down and wearing them out. He’s like the last seasons of “House of Cards” — a riveting spectacle devolved into a repellent burlesque, so unrestrained in its appetites that it devoured itself.
I wouldn’t be surprised if voters consciously or subconsciously conclude that they just can’t continue to live like this and that four more years would be ruinous, if not to the country as a whole, then to our individual psyches. By the time Election Day rolls around, they may crave nothing more electric than stability and serenity. That wouldn’t be a bad Democratic bumper sticker. It’s essentially the message of Joe Biden’s campaign.
According to Morning Consult’s tracking poll, Trump’s approval rating in vital swing states has declined significantly since he took office. Take Wisconsin: His approval rating in January 2017 was 47%, and his disapproval rating was 41, for a net plus of 6 percentage points. Now his approval has fallen to 41 while his disapproval has climbed to 55, for a net minus of 14.
Maybe that reflects voters’ economic worries. I suspect it’s just as much about their exhaustion. They’ve binged on Trump and now they’re overstuffed with Trump, and if Democratic candidates are smart, they’ll not dwell on his mess and madness, because voters have taken his measure and made their judgments, and what many of them want is release from the incessant drumbeat of that infernal syllable: Trump, Trump, Trump.
They’d like a new miniseries with a different cast, and Democrats aren’t giving them that if they keep putting Trump’s name above the title. On Saturday and then again Sunday, I turned the whole damn show off and fled to the park for fresh air. I pray that’s some sort of omen.
Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.