As the crisis this weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, reached its depressing nadir, a grim joke (is there any other kind anymore?) circulated through social media that went something like this: We are going to miss those days when all we had to worry about was a nuclear war with North Korea. The days in question, of course, came earlier that very week, when President Donald Trump ratcheted up tensions with Kim Jong-Un’s regime by declaring that he would unleash “fire and fury” on the country if it continued to threaten the United States. On Friday, mere hours before hundreds of neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched on Charlottesville to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Trump tweeted that a military option for North Korea was “locked and loaded.” For no apparent reason at all, he then threatened Venezuela with possible military intervention.
What followed was a weekend of miserable hate theater: a sea of angry white faces, suffused with torchlight; the swastikas and Confederate flags on parade through the streets of an American city; the anti-Nazi counter-protests, which were disrupted when a car slammed into the crowd, scattering demonstrators like so many bowling pins and killing one woman; and the president of the United States refusing to condemn all this, saying “many sides” were responsible for what had happened in Charlottesville. It was a moment that will live in infamy, a low point for a presidency that seems to be composed of nothing but low points. And North Korea faded into what seemed like the distant past, another pile of wreckage in the great ruin that this president has made.
It would seem that the only thing these two crises have in common is Trump. He instigated both of them: in one case, by turning an impoverished totalitarian state thousands of miles away into his personal bête noire; in the other, by legitimizing the grievances of a pathetic group that believes people of other races are inherently inferior. In both instances he was guided by his north star, a white nationalist base that, depending on whom you ask, is either in its final reactionary throes or is experiencing a resurgence alongside its sister movements in Europe.
But what these crises also have in common is the psychological effect they have on the rest of us, joining a long chain of crises to form a single ur-crisis that hangs over our heads like a sword and from which there is no guarantee of reprieve. America has long been a country of hate and prejudice, of war and belligerence, but the last week was the latest evidence that there is something new and disorienting and dangerous afoot. It feels as if the whole world is coming off its hinges, and the vast majority of us can do nothing but watch it happen.
If my daughter were to one day ask me where I was when the tragedy of Charlottesville took place, I would tell her that I was in a playground in New York City as she fooled around on a jungle gym. I watched four different videos on my phone of a muscle car—sleek as a bullet, dark like a bat from hell—smashing through a wall of people. I made some stupid, useless exclamation to no one in particular, to a playground full of screaming kids. I looked up from my phone, at the gleaming slides and bright monkey bars, and it was as if a pall had been cast over our lives.
There was a profound disconnect between the nightmare of insane violence and hatred on my phone and this playground where my child was happily playing. But these two worlds were one and the same, a surreal mingling of its placid surface and its monstrous depths.
I am hardly alone in feeling this way. On one level, there is a widespread feeling of paralysis in the face of a rolling catastrophe that is impossible turn away from. But on another, there is also a creeping sense of meaninglessness, a suspicion that so many of the things we used to cherish—reading a novel, going to work—are not quite as important as we once thought, especially when compared to the national disaster that encompasses our lives and threatens to upend them.
As Morgan Jerkins recently reported for the New Republic, publishers are having a difficult time selling books that aren’t somehow associated with Donald Trump. There just isn’t interest. People have told me that they worry that their jobs are trivial, even when those jobs are the fruition of lifelong dreams. And though I work at a political magazine and engage in these issues every day, I confess that I felt a similar pang of pointlessness when I saw a photo of a young black man coolly torching a Confederate flag with what appeared to be an aerosol can. In a universe that has been tipped on its head, it was a rare act with meaning.
Charlottesville and Donald Trump’s response to it were uniquely upsetting. When there are literal Nazis and Klansmen on the streets and the president refuses to condemn them by name, it both takes us to new heights of despair and provokes a desire for a more visceral response—to spit in the face of evil. But Charlottesville was merely one incident, and there have been countless more that have prompted similar feelings of helplessness, from the splitting up of immigrant families to the near-death of Obamacare.
Take North Korea. There is no person in this country—not the generals, not the civil servants, certainly not the Republicans in Congress—who can influence what Trump does vis-à-vis the Hermit Kingdom. In fact there is evidence that his bellicosity is paying political dividends, which means we can expect more of the same. As The New York Times reported, there are plenty of Trump voters who believe that he should go to the hilt when it comes to aggravating Kim. As one Trump supporter from Colorado told the paper, war with North Korea, which would entail an untold number of deaths on the Korean Peninsula, didn’t concern him because he would not personally be in danger. “We live in the safest part of the country,” he said.
There is so much selfishness and ignorance and hatred in this county, and they have found their concentrated embodiment in Trump, who bludgeons us with the worst aspects of humanity on a routine basis. This is self-evidently traumatic for the body politic, harming our capacity for empathy and reason and decency. And yet it is difficult to express just how awful it is: how it makes us worry for our children in existential terms, how it makes our lives a little more sordid every day, how it slowly bleeds our world of joy and purpose.
The traditional response to bad presidents is to resist, to organize, to prepare for the next election—to have faith, even if everything else fails, in democracy. But democracy already failed us once, handing the presidency to a man who lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It has been subverted by gerrymandering, and is being weakened by those working to keep minorities and the poor from the polls. It was compromised by the intervention of a foreign government, and the president is reluctant to even acknowledge that fact, let alone make sure it doesn’t happen again.
And even if Trump were to be swept from office in 2020, this country will not magically return to the pre-Trump status quo. The damage he has already inflicted, and that he will undoubtedly continue to inflict over, God help us, three more years, will take a long time to undo, if it can ever be undone. A malevolent force has been loosed on the world, moving great invisible gears in unpredictable ways, and no one can say with an iota of certainty where we will be five, ten years from now.
This is the point in the essay where I should say that we mustn’t lose hope, that we must impede Donald Trump at every step, and I do believe that. Still, to quote Howard Beale, everyone knows things are bad. I wake up each morning prepared for something terrible to happen. But something terrible is happening, every day, all around us. The most frightening part is that we’re not sure if Trump’s America is rock bottom or if we have further to fall.