In July, Pew Research Center reported that “most Americans already feel election coverage fatigue.” July! More than three months ago. And in those three months, it’s safe to say that no one has gotten any respite. The news cycle has churned forward, the conversations have devolved, and the fissures revealed by the primary elections have turned into gaping crevasses.
This week, Pew published a new report, positing that people are so tired of talking about the election that they won’t even argue about it on social media (and people will argue about anything on social media). According to the research, twice as many social media users report being “worn out” than those who actually like seeing political discourse online.
Translation: This exhaustion is both a cause and a result of the nature of the discourse, as this line reveals:
Meanwhile, roughly half of users feel the political conversations they see on social media are angrier (49%), less respectful (53%) and less civil (49%) than those in other areas of life.
The situation is so dire that USA Today is recommending we all look at cute animal gifs, while CNN is offering up tranquil nature shots. In our own attempts to deal with election fatigue, Uproxx News editor Kimberly Ricci and Uproxx Life editor Steve Bramucci traded emails on the topic in hopes that it might spark useful conversation (or at least allow the two of them a chance to vent).
KIMBERLY: I don’t feel weird claiming election fatigue on a personal level, but I have problems expressing as much. That’s probably because my job as a news editor and writer includes discussing Donald Trump several times per day, seven days a week. So, I have to — for better or worse — turn off my own personal feelings, despite what anyone may read into our content, including my own posts.
Election times are always stressful for the people who cover them, but this is an extraordinary election. One candidate claims roughly 90% of the headlines for a reason. He’s out there, as visible as humanly possible, while performing multiple times daily. I used that word for a reason. The world is truly a stage for Donald Trump, and despite his insistence to the contrary, his actions are those of someone who wants us to watch and report on everything he does. He incessantly rage-tweets at 3am, he’s literally operating at all hours, every day. He’s an exhausting candidate.
Beyond politics, Trump has also exposed my own personal lack of “stamina.” He loves that word, but honestly, there’s never a moment when Trump news stops. News is always 24/7, but never has it so consistently revolved around one person for a solid 15 months. Trump has desensitized the nation in that way, but he’s also crafted the media response around him in ways that he doesn’t enjoy. He doesn’t appear to understand why refusing to provide his tax returns resulted in a Saturday night document release. It’s constant. The media and nation needs a Trump vacation, but will we receive one?
And you know how I am, Steve. I can be a little grumpy at times. So, there are moments when I do wonder why those who don’t work in media can complain so much about Trump fatigue. They’re not fighting a war, although Trump’s grown an army of extremely vocal army of defenders. Most people I know don’t have to monitor Trump 24/7, yet they still do so and claim as much fatigue as I feel. So, I need you to explain this to me. Why does he drastically exhaust Americans who possess the luxury of turning off the television?
STEVE: I feel very weird claiming election fatigue. I’m a white, heterosexual male, so to say that I’m worn down by political talk (or Trump talk) feels like a very privileged viewpoint. If I did claim that, the counterpoint could be made, “Fuck you and your election fatigue, I’m fighting for my human rights — I don’t have the luxury of being fatigued!” My own girlfriend, an Iranian immigrant, could (and has) made that case with much success.
I long to be an ally to anyone fighting for equality, and therefore reject the idea of fatigue as in, “I need to step away from these discussions for awhile.” To disengage would make me complicit in the racist, sexist, transphobic, Islamaphobic, nationalistic rhetoric that has dominated this cycle. To extricate myself from conversations about politics, even for a few days, during this strange era in American history feels like a shitty thing to do. It’s selfish and not in line with who I want to be.
That said, there’s a different type of fatigue which I think is more legit. It’s not about the content but how these conversations take place. I’m fatigued with our methods. I worry that liberals often self soothe by sharing the same articles on Facebook and Twitter — essentially creating a closed loop system that allows us to rant, get applauded for our rants, share one another’s rants, comment on these shared rants, and then share slightly different variants of the earlier rants, over and over with emphatic staccato phrases like “THIS. JUST THIS.”
Does that benefit the overarching state of discourse in America? Does it make us more aware or does it actually create blindspots?
When Joy Behar, in a segment on The View (which was generally anti-Trump), called the women who have accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct “tramps,” it didn’t make a blip. Would, say, Geraldo, or…I don’t know who’s on Fox News or which pundits still support Trump… but is that a situation that could have been reversed? Would the internet have let a conservative Joy Behar on a mainstream, nationally televised morning show get away with that? I doubt it. It’s too bad, too, because I think the whole case-study might have led to interesting conversation.
I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes I feel like the current state of political discussion is all about stimulating the righteous indignation that accompanies confirmation bias. I say that as someone who openly despises Trump and literally everything he stands for, but also as some who doesn’t like it when anti-Trump folks slut shame or victim shame, as Behar did. So I’m fatigued by that: The idea that we have all gotten into the narrative-crafting business, instead of being intellectually brave enough to take everything case-by-case.
There aren’t any more of these, right?
KIMBERLY: I think you are more in tune with the guilt associated with “turning off” a candidate than the average American. Many people simply can’t resist paying attention to the dumpster fire. And it’s not entirely their fault with a candidate whose main strength is charisma and an ability to attract followers despite a lack of consistent (or serious) positions on issues. Trump’s the perfect storm of an Internet candidate. He speaks in soundbites and may be a loose cannon, but he’s a reality star. He knows how to reel people in, possibly forever.
Yet there is a lot to be said about the type of fatigue you mention. Does the act of lamenting Trump’s offensiveness on Facebook actually do anything? At this point, I worry that we’re all so aware of his actions, which disseminate immediately, that repeating them on Facebook seems counterproductive without doing anything to stop them. But can we do anything, at least from behind our laptops? We have to let democracy play out, and the soothing that occurs on social media is a necessary part of that. I’d also be interested in finding out if therapists are hearing these complaints too.
Of course what Joy Behar said was dreadful, and she apologized (though only after the backlash). Any conservative talking head would absolutely be raked over the grills more than Behar, but perhaps an apt comparison would be a female talking head like Megyn Kelly (who’d never say that) or perhaps Ann Coulter (who definitely would). But there’s a lot of ugliness going on with with all sorts of talking heads on both sides of the spectrum. Remember, Sean Hannity recently defended Trump for bragging about sexual assault with a King David “concubine” comparison? Both liberals and conservatives are showing their asses in the worst ways.
But moving back to privilege, I also sit — as a white, middle-class woman — in a category that cannot claim every valid grievance against Trump. His xenophobic rhetoric threatens to harm many, should he take office. He’s inspiring supporters to both hurl words and actions against minorities. Where I can legitimately claim fatigue is in wondering whether Americans will elect someone who has called women “disgusting” for decades. Only just recently did we hear Trump brag about actions that constitute sexual assault, but everyone already knew he was a scumbag. Now, a wave of women have lodged sexual assault allegations against him, and America will soon make an official judgment call on a man who treats women lower than garbage. And that’s terrifying prospect.
STEVE: It’s interesting, I think you’re swapping in “Trump” where I’m using “election.” I find that fascinating — because he’s drawn so much of the focus that “Trump” and “election” do feel synonymous. I feel like a dick disengaging from the political cycle or backing off on issues of equality, but I feel fine disengaging from Trump’s lesser theatrics. The yelling and haranguing people… I don’t feel compelled to click those stories anymore.
I was on the phone with the heads of TurboVote — the voter registration drive that you’ve been so good about adding to our stories — and I’ll tell you: They are terrified about election fatigue. They worry that after all this, people won’t go to the polls. Maybe that’s something they trouble over every year, but still… it interested me. Even looking at traffic numbers online, it seems that election mania has peaked and moved on. Look at the comments on our stories: People are just kind of done talking about it. They resent us for writing about it. That’s why I think Ken Bone was such a big deal, he was a new narrative amidst all the drudgery.
So Trump fatigue, fine, I get that. But what about these big issues and the overall political engagement that has marked the past few months? Will it carry on? Will conversations about social justice continue to dominate the headlines? Assuming Clinton wins, as polling numbers suggest, do you think people will drop politics for a little while? Will it be all cat videos all the time until inauguration day?
I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts, because I’m not sure. I think — I hope — that one thing Trump may have done is spark a new era of civic involvement. I know a lot of people who’ve never been as invested in the political process as they have been these past few months. My impression is that Trumpism (or you could say, Trump-inspired Neo-Nationalism) was the pimple that bubbled up from our nation’s clogged pores. The good thing about a pimple coming to a head is that you can pop it, disinfect it, and buy face wash. You can deal with it.
Point being: Trump’s histrionics brought bigots out in the open, but he didn’t give birth to them. If we want to make continual social progress, we’ll need to stay plugged in. We won’t be able to stay fatigued for long. With all that said, I wish that after the election — assuming that the more human rights-minded candidate comes out victorious — I wish the nation could all just take a group vacation to Key West, where everyone gets along and drinks frozen margaritas. Just for a week. Maybe two.
KIMBERLY: Well, you appear amused at how I’m zeroing in on Trump as defining this election, but I did point out that this is an extraordinary cycle. One candidate dominates all the headlines while the other is (wisely) allowing him to dig his hole. The sad thing is that the hole seems to be a never-ending one. And this extends to all of the Congressional races too, for they all fade in comparison to the overwhelming circus attraction. Trump may protest about the “biased media,” but this is what he wanted. Yet, to ignore him does a disservice to those he wounds with the prejudices he awakens.
Also, I think we’ve — oddly — come full circle in this conversation. There’s definite privilege associated with how you feel comfortable in clicking away from the “lesser theatrics” of Trump. He’s running for president and therefore cannot be compartmentalized if we’re going to hold him to the same standards that the rest of the media requires of Hillary Clinton. He’s almost purposely offended minorities while declaring his candidacy, he’s threatening to deport children of illegal immigrants, and that doesn’t even touch his contempt for women. Trump has ridiculously claimed to hold more support than anyone else for females, yet his words and alleged actions have proven themselves for decades. It took footage of his lewd commentary for some people to take the matter seriously, but there are still others who kind of shrug and hope he’ll disappear.
The thing is, no matter whether Clinton wins, Trump won’t go away. It won’t be daisies and cat videos. He’ll either win (and god knows what), or he will lose and do one of two things: (1) Go ballistic and continue to hold twice-daily rallies while shouting that he’s been robbed; or (2) Immediately launch Trump TV and claim this was the plan all along. His effects will be lasting. Trump sparked an uprising of alt-righters who now feel comfy expressing their views in the mainstream, but he’s also fed these conspiracy theorists for years prior to this election. Birtherism and his attempt to quickly erase his involvement stands as one easily accessible example. For those who have been affected or even terrified by Trump’s rhetoric — minorities and women — he’s much less of a pimple than an invasive cancer that may not be treatable.
But as far as the “big issues” go … of course, they will continue. I look forward to a time when news returns to “normal,” when we can concentrate on social justice without a one-man filter muddying everything. I’m somewhat optimistic about the fatigue, too, as a sign that people are ready to shake off this national depression and vote.
STEVE: I hope you’re right. And thank you for calling me out. You hit the nail on the head: To compartmentalize Trump is to reveal privilege. It’s a privilege to be able to avoid even his “lesser theatrics” when so many people see those behaviors as the outgrowths of a maniac. Fair enough.
For what it’s worth, and I feel like it may be worth something to many of our commenters, Hillary has contributed to my fatigue too (though not to the same degree). I think, with her, there are times when I’ve had to ignore certain things about her candidacy, because it’s hard for me to be reasonable about Hillary and concede her shortcomings, in light of her opposition. In March, when people said, “Hillary is just as bad as Trump!” we had a discussion. Now, I feel totally alienated by someone who might compare the two.
In hopes of fully explaining to readers why the media has piled on Trump, I’ve come up with a metaphor I really like. Let’s say politicians are wolves. You can think of Hillary as a bad wolf. Or a deceptive wolf. But she’s a wolf, mingling around other wolves. You don’t have to like any of the wolves. That’s fine. Or you can like some and not others. But I think it’s fair to say that most of our politicians are in that conversation of wolves. In fact, I think that politics makes you into a wolf. I’m sure I would be a wolf too.
But Trump doesn’t live in the world of wolves. He’s a monster. He doesn’t play by the logic or the reason that governs even the most ferocious wolves. That’s really, really scary.
Now imagine being a shepherd with lives to protect. You are wary of the wolves. You have to be. But when a monster calls, you no longer compare the various personalities of the wolves in the pack. You are too terrified. They seem like a known entity and your mental space is totally monopolized by the monster.
Is it fatiguing? Absolutely. But perhaps it will make us stronger. Perhaps, somewhere, there will be a silver lining. Perhaps when the fog lifts we will find a way to make progress. Or to somehow band together… After our two-week national vacation, that is.