For much of the past week, one story has dominated the news: The share price of GameStop, a brick-and-mortar retail chain that sells physical copies of video games in the cloud computing age. A few weeks ago, we would have found it remarkable that any kind of news event could be fashioned from these raw materials. But at second glance, it is in many ways a perfect story for the internet news age. It concerns staggering sums of money. It is complicated enough to merit multiple explainers. It involves social media’s ability to create profound consequences with far-reaching and as-yet-unknown implications in the real world: Is this a rubicon moment in the gamification of everything? Will the economy be changed forever because of a subreddit?
Meanwhile, at the margins of the story, there was a whiff of populist uprising—Reddit users fed up with casino capitalism take on hedge funds at their own rigged game!—and the meat of the matter was enthrallingly complicated, making it well suited to sustain a frenzied take cycle. What’s happening? Who are the good guys? Are there good guys? It has also scrambled the exhausting polarization of American politics, with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, and Dave Portnoy all more or less on the same page. Chances are, we will look back on these past few days of GameStop mania as the Wall Street version of Balloon Boy or the Bloomberg terminal version of llamas on the lam; grabbing the news cycle for a brief instant before being forgotten. For the moment, GameStop is everywhere, everything.
There may be a simpler explanation: The GameStop saga is the first big post-Trump story. Sure, there have been attempts to tie it to the president: Some argue that the merry gang of day traders on Reddit were analogous to Trump’s own social media army; Donald Trump Jr. has predictably pledged allegiance to Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets channel, hoping its users will help propel him to 4 percent in the 2024 Republican primary. But the story has been more or less blessedly free of the former president’s grubby fingerprints. Last year, tens of millions of people voted for Joe Biden in the hope that, one day, they could think about something, anything, other than Donald Trump for 24 hours. GameStop is that dream fulfilled.
Are we not entertained? When was the last time a non-Trump story stuck in the news for three straight days? Trump’s megalomaniac tendencies always dragged the spotlight back in his direction; whenever attention strayed, a 5 a.m. tweetstorm, an insane, unsubstantiated allegation, or even a late-night misspelling was typically enough to compel its return. Nearly all news has been Trump news, in one way or another, for the past five years. And when we weren’t thinking about the weird and/or vile stuff the president of the United States was saying and/or posting, there was a grinding anxiety about what he was doing that we didn’t know about. Writing in the summer of 2019, my colleague Matt Ford argued that Trump’s “corrosive effect on American politics forces Americans to devote far more hours of their life to thinking about him than they should. All of this amounts to a tax of sorts on the national psyche—one that can never be repaid.”
Now, at long last, that tax is no longer being levied—or at least it’s not being applied in such a draconian fashion anymore. That is not to say that we’re in the clear—the Republican Party is as radical as ever; Trump himself may very well reemerge as an even more dangerous and destabilizing force. But we’ve had a remarkably clean break from all of Donald Trump’s hourly, news cycle–breaking bullshit, and it turns out there’s actually a whole big world of other bullshit to deal with.
It’s worth noting that the GameStop saga might have been slightly different had Trump not lost access to his Twitter account three weeks ago; the same can be said for the inauguration. We were spared Trump’s running commentary of Biden’s swearing-in. It’s easy to imagine the bullet we dodged when the president wasn’t able to cynically adopt the flag of r/WallStreetBets in the same way he called himself “Mr. Brexit” back in 2016. (Don Jr. is giving that his best shot, though he’s jumping into a crowded field and is not quite the draw his father has been.) Even with the fundamentals exactly the same as they are now, a cascade of supportive tweets from the president would completely change the tenor of this news story.
Nevertheless, this still feels like the first truly post-Trump story. Even though he was evicted from social media soon after the Capitol riot, Trump still managed to exact his emotional tax in the aftermath of that violent incident. America was left to white-knuckle it through the days leading up to Biden’s inauguration, during which the fears of further insurrection attempts were one of the big open questions of what Trump’s final days might bring. Trump’s pathetic final rally, his impeachment, the loss of his Twitter account itself—all of these things kept Donald Trump in our psyche through the middle of January.
Now we find ourselves in the first real news cycle that Trump hasn’t had the firmest hand in influencing. Many in the press seem a bit rusty—the news media has forgotten how to cover a big story that doesn’t involve Donald Trump and is relearning it in real time. Still, it’s a little bit exhilarating to remember there’s something else under the sun, other matters to tend to, more work to be done.