In the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, I sought something to read that would take my mind off of the cascade of news in my Twitter feed. I remembered that the literary critic Edmund Wilson, suffering similar problems during the height of the Cold War, recommend Edward Gibbon’s epic history The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes from 1776 to 1789, as ideal relaxation “during periods of political strain.” As Wilson wrote to his friend Mamaine Koestler in 1950, “it always has a peculiar effect on me—both calming and stimulating.” Gibbon also received the commendation of a very different cultural maven, the rock star Iggy Pop, who in 1995 said reading The Decline and Fall made him “feel less tyrannized by the present day.”
Seeking such freedom from the oppression of contemporary events, I went to my bookshelves and found a long-ago purchased copy of the first volume of Gibbon’s work, some six hundred pages long. At first, the book offered nothing but delight. It was easy to get lost in Gibbon’s elegant and sonorous sentences, rife with sly irony and quotable aphorisms. “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful,” the historian wrote, a neat encapsulation of different attitudes towards religion.
Sinking myself into The Decline and Fall first felt like a warm bath, but turned into quicksand. After the lengthy and soothing opening survey, the narrative turned out to be a tale of mad emperors, feckless elites, the plundering of public wealth, the degradation of venerable political norms, and the rise of a military caste that became de facto government. This was hardly a break from news about Trump’s Washington. The escape I wanted was no escape at all, because I couldn’t help reading the eighteenth century classic through a contemporary prism.
I’m not the only one who wants a break from the news. The Trump era has excited a new wave of people indulging (or pretending to indulge) in the age-old fantasy of retreating from the modern world. These escapes, which vary in length from a few days to more than a year, have a pastoral bent: They often involve going off the grid, living off the land, or at the very least turning off the smartphone.
But as my experience with wading into The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire shows, it’s not easy to take a holiday from the news. Nor is it even desirable, as made clear by those who have taken more radical steps of late.
Journalists seem particularly prone to the escapist pipe dream. As The Columbia Journalism Review noted earlier this month, there is an entire genre of stories in the mode of “I went offline, and here is what I learned.” Vice’s Eve Peyser went to a cabin for five days and avoided the internet. The experience helped her sleep better and become calmer (though she was eager to resume her regular life). New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo described how, in January, he “decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers ... plus a weekly newsmagazine.” Unplugging, he argued, made him a better news consumer. “Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed.”
Both of these experiments were flawed. Peyser’s rustic vacation—not even a week, during which she continued to text on her phone—was too brief to count as genuine detoxification. And as CJR pointed out, Manjoo overstated the extent of his supposed unplugging: “Manjoo remained a daily, active Twitter user throughout the two months he claims to have gone cold turkey, tweeting many hundreds of times, perhaps more than 1,000.”
It’s not surprising that Peyser and Manjoo couldn’t quite unplug. If you are a journalist, or otherwise engaged with civic life, partial immersion in social media is a necessity. After all, Trump is a post-literate president whose worldview is shaped by a feedback loop with Fox News and who communicates with the world via Twitter. To understand the Trump era, you have to have some contact—not necessarily a lot, but at least some—with the media that is inseparable from his politics.
Which is why those who really want to retreat from news coverage of Trump era have to also give up on politics and pursue a truly monastic existence. The Times’ Sam Dolnick profiled a semi-retired businessman, Erik Hagerman, who was so disgusted by Trump’s election that he erected a private and nearly impregnable news embargo. “The Blockade,” as Hagerman calls it, consists of living on a pig farm in southeastern Ohio, cutting off access to all electronic media, not reading newspapers, instructing his family and friends not to talk to him about the news, and wearing white-noise producing headphones when he goes to a coffee shop in a nearby city. Hagerman has thus become sublimely ignorant of current events: “James Comey. Russia. Robert Mueller. Las Vegas. The travel ban. ‘“Alternative facts.’ Pussy hats. Scaramucci. Parkland. Big nuclear buttons. Roy Moore. He knows none of it.”
Although Hagerman has a sister, Bonnie, who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, he is blissfully oblivious of the white supremacist rally in that city that left one person dead. But he’s only able to achieve this fantasy because he’s well-to-do. “He has the privilege of constructing a world in which very little of what he doesn’t have to deal with gets through,” Bonnie Hagerman told Dolnick. “That’s a privilege. We all would like to construct our dream worlds.”
Erik Hagerman’s dream world is a private utopia which would, if widely copied, produce a public dystopia. To be sure, most people don’t have the luxury of building an extensive psychic moat to protect them from the news. Still, those with fewer resources could, if they wanted to, follow Hagerman’s example and abnegate civic responsibility. If many other people followed this path—which is admittedly unlikely—Trump wouldn’t face the widespread resistance which has imperiled his presidency.
Hagerman’s actions are rooted in politics (his hatred of Trump) but they ended up producing a type of anti-politics, which bring him personal comfort at the cost of surrendering public life. Hagerman does have some civic engagement, but it involves nature, not people. He’s purchased local land, a former coal mine that he’s turning into a wildlife habitat. But environmental charity, however positive the results, isn’t really politics in a meaningful sense. All large-scale politics is inherently collective and social: politics requires immersion in the messiness of other people and their competing interests and ideas.
With his love of nature and hermetic life, Hagerman belongs to a venerable American tradition that goes back to Henry David Thoreau, who was also a media-phobe and complained about the news. “I am sure I never read any memorable news in a newspaper,” Thoreau sniffed in Walden (1854). “To a philosopher all news, as it is called, is gossip.”
Thoreau has cast a long shadow on American culture. On the right, he is the ancestor of the retreatest line that runs from Albert Jay Nock to Karl Hess to libertarian seasteaders. Thoreau has inspired a raft of back-to-nature escapades among liberals and leftists as well, a heritage that runs from E.B. White to hippy communes. But there’s also a deep tradition on the left of distrusting Thoreauvian retreatism, seeing it as in tension with any attempts at social improvement, which by necessity are collective. The Thoreauvian, so the argument goes, is so busy tending his or her own garden that they let the world go to pot.
As critic Kathryn Schulz argued in The New Yorker in 2015, Walden “is less a cornerstone work of environmental literature than the original cabin porn: a fantasy about rustic life divorced from the reality of living in the woods, and, especially, a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people.” Thoreau, Schulz insisted, “is not the stuff of a democratic hero. Nor were Thoreau’s actual politics, which were libertarian verging on anarchist. Like today’s preppers, he valued self-sufficiency for reasons that were simultaneously self-aggrandizing and suspicious: he did not believe that he needed anything from other people, and he did not trust other people to provide it.”
Schulz’s anti-Thoreau polemic went too far. She only glancingly acknowledged that his extreme individualism also made him a passionate and active abolitionist. Still, she was right that Thoreau’s hermit ideal is at odds with democracy. As the literary critic Irving Howe observed in a 1967 essay, “Thoreau drives to an extreme those implications of anarchic individualism which in the end must undercut both the fraternal vision and the democratic polity.” What Thoreau offers, instead, is “a utopia for curmudgeons.”
Retreatism didn’t work for Thoreau. His anti-slavery passion led him toward collective action, working with the Underground Railroad. (And, like Manjoo, Thoreau overinflated how off the grid he was: his mom continued to do his laundry and bring him food.) Nor will retreatism prove useful today, where the world faces graver threats than Trump poses. From extreme inequality to global warming, there’s no pressing concern that doesn’t demand awareness of the news and political organizing on a mass scale.
Even on its own terms, hyper-individualism is contradictory. The Thoreau-style hermit claims to be concerned only for his or her individual salvation, but also wants to be admired and even emulated. Walden, after all, is a kind of how-to guide, a self-help book for aspiring eremites. And Hagerman, by the act of sitting for a New York Times profile, seems to suggest that his private path has wider lessons. “I’m emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt,” Hagerman said.
It’s hard to begrudge anyone their emotional wellbeing, but Hagerman’s escapist lark illustrates the larger folly of retreatism. The product of hypertrophic egoism, it’s as grandiose as it is impractical and likely unsustainable. After all, when does “The Blockade” end? When Trump is impeached or otherwise leaves office, at risk being traumatized anew by post-Trump politics? Or will Hagerman continue like this for the rest of his days, living in reaction to Trump even after Trump is long gone? If so, he will have accomplished precisely the opposite of what he intended. He will be the last person on Earth still psychically trapped by Trump’s presidency.