Since the day the taffy-haired moral infant gilded his first bathroom fixture, the real Trump raison d’etre has been “too much.” As a builder, he piled on debt and ornament in equal amounts. As an entertainer and politician (the same role, he realized, long before the media did), he gloried in spectacle and outsize emotions, making hyperbolic promises and humiliating perceived enemies with brute force. As his administration slips its first toe into the machinery of government this week, Trump and his allies have admitted to weaponizing this habit of excess, deliberately piling confirmation hearings on top of a presidential press conference and a flotilla of retributive legislation because, as one transition team member said, “You can’t kill four people in one day.” (Apparently not all Trump staffers share the family’s enthusiasm for guns.)
And those are just the public, scheduled events! Trump still has Twitter and is still eager to answer reporters’ phone calls in the wee hours, his two favorite forums for downward punches and easily disprovable boasts. He can also convene impromptu meetings with cranks and foreign nationals, creating manic speculation about policy and personnel with each promenade through Trump Tower’s tarnished revolving door.
As Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco observed last fall, Trump’s frenetic media mindfuck is basically a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack on the national psyche. His messaging maelstrom and hammy shows of power create the opportunity for content that sort of resembles news (“Trump Did A Thing!”), repackaged and aggregated without much thought. This news-ish content then spawns analysis-like responses in equally fantastic number (“Trump Did A Bad Thing!”), and the chatter becomes deafening, the meaning is lost. There’s simply too much to process, too much that feels important, and a nagging sense that even the tidal wave of information doesn’t contain what you actually need to know. This isn’t merely a metaphor in some situations: The Office of Government Ethics has protested that Trump’s nominees’ particularly complicated financial and legal histories and their front-loaded hearing schedule “has created undue pressure on OGE’s staff and agency ethics officials to rush through these important reviews.” As it is, Trump’s nominees will be the first ones since 1978 to begin the confirmation process without undergoing a full OGE analysis.
Is Trump’s DDoS attack approach to public relations and governance a clever exploitation of our weaknesses as a culture, or just the dumb luck of “somebody sitting on their bed who weighs 400 pounds”? Perhaps it’s an unthinking compulsion, no more well considered than a skunk’s spray. Debating whether it’s rooted in cunning or good fortune or animal instinct is a luxury we don’t have. I’m even wary of saying, “Responding to every little attack is exactly what Trump wants.” Framing it that way elevates his panicky ego-stroking to the level of strategy, and puts the opposition in the mind-set of trying to plan three or four or five moves ahead, or wasting time with constant vigilance. Oversight means nothing to someone who has no shame. It’s not just that Democrats want to play chess while Trump is playing checkers — Democrats want to play chess while Trump takes a giant information dump on the playing board.
Trump’s media toadies laud his mess-making as yet another example of his genius for “disruption,” and they’re not exactly wrong. High-minded guardians of the establishment, liberal and conservative alike, see Trump’s rude invasion of Washington as primarily a violation of “norms.” Those of us who care about norms are tempted to spend time detailing the wrongness of Trump’s antics … as if the problem was that Trump didn’t realize what he was doing, or that he didn’t realize it was wrong. Reason isn’t working. Arguments fall on ears already filled with Trump’s bloviations. We can’t keep trying to play chess. We have to put the board away entirely.
In the real world, you don’t respond to a massive DDoS attack by tracking down and trying to prevent each individual intrusion. You move quickly to protect your assets. It’s time to apply that thinking to what Trump has done to us. The constructive retaliation to this shitstorm is not against the point of origin, but from the point of vulnerability. You don’t try to stop the rain; you do what you can to stay dry.
What does this mean, practically, for you, person reading a political column? Progressives have rallied to the Indivisible Guide, originally written by former Democratic congressional staffers as an ad hoc Google Doc. The viral sensation advocates creative obstruction by adopting tea-party tactics, such as showing up at town halls and phone-banking congressional offices, with the aim of pressuring individual members of Congress to refuse to go along with any part of the Trump agenda. These actions exist under a broader theme beyond “doing to them what they did to us” — obstruction in the name of civil liberties or health access is taking a stand for a very particular set of ideas and communities. For reporters, resisting Trump means not being too beguiled by the daily sideshow of what’s happening in Washington to those in power, and instead reporting on the real-life consequences of policy, and how small rule changes play out in the wider world. For individuals, it is not enough to observe that Trump empowers racist thugs in a general way or that he has helped to normalize and even glamorize sexual assault. Find out what your community is doing to protect the immigrants who live there now. Ask your local university or college about how they will or won’t comply with any changes to Title IX oversight. Call your local congressman right now and say that you want to keep the Affordable Care Act. The real battle for Trump’s America will not be waged in Washington, but in city council meetings and statehouse legislatures.
If you stay focused on local politics, will some outrages go unnoticed? Will Trump start World War III with an errant tweet while you were gathering signatures about recycling? Perhaps! Here’s the thing: You will not be able to stop WWIII, or stop Trump from starting it. But focusing on what you can’t do just amplifies his abrasive noisemaking. Taking personal action in your town or neighborhood, however small it feels, is the strongest rebuke to the way the incoming administration wants to paralyze us. What’s more, taking action in your community will connect you to that community. It will make that community stronger.
If Trump’s frenzies of peculiarly targeted dominance are an all-out assault on our ability to process wrongdoing at the highest level of government, the slow and careful maintenance of liberty and justice on the ground has the potential to kill by a thousand cuts. We probably can’t stop him from being president for four years, but we can chip away at his power to change our lives. He is only one unstoppable force. We are millions of immovable objects.