We're Past the “Distraction” Stage.
A mere week into the Trump presidency, too many things have changed radically to enumerate here. All of those large and small insanities add up to one big change that can be helpful in adjusting our minds to the new realities. Until recently it felt helpful to say, “X is a distraction from [Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, Golden Showers kompromat, Bannon in the White House, discrediting the intelligence community, attacking the press, gutting the State Department, etc., etc.]. Here’s the real story!” That no longer works. As an example: Was attacking John Lewis on Twitter bad? Yes. Was it a distraction from the confirmation hearings and Jared Kushner’s entrance to the White House? Yes. Is it still good and important that almost everyone in America rushed to John Lewis’s defense, including high-level government officials? Also yes. Should we have been silent on Lewis and focused only on policy? Absolutely not.
It’s time for a new paradigm: it is all a distraction, and none of it is a distraction. We are facing what my brilliant friend and former colleague, Anh-Thu Nguyen, termed a “hierarchy of emergencies.”
What does this mean, practically? It means we must acclimate our minds to a political and social climate of absolute chaos, and that that chaos is driven by both intention (Steve Bannon just wants to see the world burn) and incompetence (Sean Spicer is a terrible press secretary — it’s not totally his fault, he’s answerable to a lunatic.)
There’s another level, since this is basically an Escher drawing of dystopian bullshit. The chaos reflects the Administration’s strength as much as its weakness. It is in this Administration’s interest to sow chaos in some targeted ways:
Decimating State’s career staff and senior leadership means Tillerson can do his business deals with Putin, or that Trump can ram through his appalling/absurd/illegal/unconstitutional ban without facing even a whimper of resistance.
Undermining the intelligence community discredits the very credible findings of Russian tampering in the election.
Having us all look at the Golden Showers brief for giggles, and then saying it was all made up — including the much more important revelationthat Trump and his camp have been accepting intelligence from Russia for at least five years, and that Michael Flynn has been involved in collusion—creates an atmosphere of doubt and darkness. (Never mind that the former MI6 agent who compiled the brief has fled for his life; never mind all its mentions of sources “unavailable” or “silenced;” never mind that people associated with it are still dying.)
Attacking the press doubles down on a long, long effort, largely driven by the GOP since the Nixon years but perfected by the Trump team, of attacking and discrediting the media. Trump has said the Times ought to be purchased by someone competent — i.e. a Trump shill — or be allowed to “fold with dignity.” This is a basic authoritarian move — create your own press — that reinforces the central authoritarian premise: you can’t believe the people you are supposed to believe. You believe only the Leader.
The chaos is also a sign of genuine, uncontrolled incompetence, though: it’s a bloody knife-fight in there. (Just like every garbage-fire business fake-tycoon Trump has ever touched.) Conway is supposedly gunning for Spicer and supposedly punched someone at the inaugural ball; Trump himself is rumored to have problems with Flynn. The swamp-drainers have turned the White House into a swamp of infighting, disinformation, and chaos. They still share one goal: to climb to the top of this trash heap of illegitimate power and cling to it for dear life. But they’re in over their heads too, and this ship is rudderless.
Nonetheless, the distractions serve their purpose. The fact that many of them are staggeringly inept at the jobs they are nominally supposed to be doing doesn’t mean that they’re not enabling a broader set of goals that most individual members (including Trump) don’t fully understand. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have to look everywhere at once.
It means we have to learn to categorize our emergencies. Steve Bannon on the National Security Council is a Tier 1 emergency. Sweaty Sean Spicer in his bad suit ranting at the press like a drunken groomsman is a Tier 2 emergency (he may be a clown, but he’s still a clown threatening the First Amendment from a White House podium). A Chinese official saying war with the United States is becoming a practical reality is a Tier 1 emergency. Kellyanne Conway lying so hard you can hear her makeup peeling as Anderson Cooper rolls his eyes at her just means its Tuesday. The Department of Homeland Security attempting to overrule the judiciary is a Tier 1 Emergency.
It’s time to start listening to all the hawkish friends, the weary lifetime intel officers, the wary vets that you might have thought sounded paranoid or crazy. People didn’t think this could happen here. It has. It is.
The “good” news is that authoritarians are not original. Soon after the election, I wrote a piece called “Smart or Not,” attempting to identify signals of how this would go. I no longer consider that piece terribly relevant (it had the fatal flaw of presuming some small pretense of an intention to govern normally). What does remain relevant, and is playing out faster than most Americans are keeping up, are the predictable steps of the authoritarian playbook: 1) Target the press 2) Identify a convenient minority to marginalize and attack 3) Dismantle the judiciary. Goal: *Consolidate power in the hands of an unaccountable oligarchy*
In the hierarchy of emergencies, nothing is a distraction. A “minor incident of harassment” of a hijabi might distract from the bigger geopolitical picture; it’s also a sign of a rupturing social fabric; without that social fabric resistance stands no chance.
Authoritarianism, fascism in particular, feeds on spectacle. See that too. And cultivate the hierarchy of emergencies because the next thing it will feed on is our own fatigue, our own sense of impotence, our own desire to avert our eyes. The hierarchy is more than a conceptual model: it’s a practice for controlling your own emotional and intellectual state. Every day, you can choose what to respond to. It’s definitely all too much but there is no choice, because it is happening whether we want to see it or not.
Some days your biggest patriotic action will be holding the door for your neighbor. Some days it will be reading a book (like this or this or this.) Some days, you’ll raise money, go to a demonstration, show up at an elected official’s office and speak truth to power. There will be the macro hierarchy of geopolitical emergencies, which will be complex and emerge only through patience, long study, and breaks for evaluation, and the micro list you make of what you can honestly take on every day.
It’s all a distraction, and none of it is: that is the rotten core of this brave new world. They lie to show they can; they distract to create blinding, devastating, exhausting chaos; they screw up because a lot of them are incompetent thugs. It will take deep reserves of strength and steadiness to resist it. Fascism thrives on instinct and manipulation. Creating your own hierarchy grounds you in reality every day; that’s an important start.