WASHINGTON – This city and this country, are, in a word, exhausted.
The velocity of news in the Trump era has been unprecedented. The passions expressed in this period have few peers in history. The election left the country weary – and left just under half the voting public embittered. The United States is, quite simply, worn out.
There have been multiple explanations for the failure of President Donald J. Trump to win a plurality of the popular vote: Some analysts believe it was young people, some say minorities. Others argue it was urban residents, or maybe it was AOC-style progressives, or Americans with college degrees, or perhaps it was suburban women. Maybe it was the virus, and the constant drumbeat of infection rates and death tolls.
Maybe it was a smattering of those things, or maybe all those things conspired to boost former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to an apparent Electoral College victory to match his popular vote triumph.
But here is a separate explanation: Trump simply sapped a country that teetered on exhaustion before he began his presidential campaign.
Indeed, it is not simply Trump fatigue that plagues the country, and though the election is the indicator that historians will note, it is not the only one.
Americans are, of course, tired of hearing about politics. But they are also tired of their mobility being restrained, they are tired of their options being limited, tired of putting off, or constricting, even the sort of simple family gatherings that were unremarkable only 12 months ago. And a lonely Thanksgiving beckons, and eating alone is now joining “Bowling Alone.”
For this is a national Fannie Lou Hamer moment.
It was Hamer – a civil-rights activist beaten in a Mississippi jailhouse and, later, a leading figure in the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party that struggled for representation at the Democratic National Convention in 1964 – who offered up, in a speech before the convention’s Credentials Committee, a phrase that made her famous and that captures this moment as well:
“I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
So are we all. “Local and world events have brought out strong emotions and stressors this year, often one right after another,” Jennifer Wickham, a Mayo Clinic Health System behavioral health counselor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, wrote in September. “They include COVID-19, social distancing, quarantines, stay-at-home orders, furloughs, job loss, masking, racial injustice, protests and demonstrations. There’s no question 2020 has been a year full of change and trauma.”
The marketing specialist Christine Alemany wrote that “Americans live in a constant cycle of crisis,” adding: “As the coronavirus pandemic continues to sweep across the globe, each day brings new developments that fill people with feelings of fear, sadness, anger and anxiety.”
It’s not only an American condition, and it is not only election-oriented. Hans Kluge, a regional director of the World Health Organization, warned in October that what he called “COVID-19 fatigue” was rampant in Europe.
Political fatigue itself is difficult to measure, but the Pew Research Center has been trying – starting long before the campaign moved into fourth gear. Its October findings showed that about three-fifths of Americans felt worn out by the news, a rate that had not moved much since 2018. And the study included a surprise: Journalists, too, were exhausted with the news cycle.
“All of us, no matter what network or news outlet, have been working around the clock to get it right,” said Gloria Borger, the chief political analyst for CNN.
This exhaustion is both cause and consequence of contemporary political polarization. James E. Campbell, a conservative-leaning political scientist at the University at Buffalo, devoted the last chapter of his book, “Polarized: Making Sense of a Divided America,” to political exhaustion. It was published four years ago, but the phenomenon hasn’t faded. In fact, it has intensified.
“We are exhausted,” he said as the votes still were being counted in a handful of states. “We are also inflamed. We need a breather from all this, and we may take that breather. But we may find that all this fighting is reignited in the not too distant future.”
“We all talk about polarization and divisiveness – it’s a mantra,” said Peter Stockland, a former editor of The Montreal Gazette who now produces a web magazine on the arts and culture called convivium.ca. “It’s like you in the United States are on a 17-hour car trip. You get snappish. You say things you ordinarily would not. The constant bombardment of politics that comes at us just wears us down. We get to the point where we just aren’t capable of making ordinary discernments.
“We have reached a level where this is a long journey through the night.”
Trump did not originate this sentiment. He only intensified it, sowing rage among his opponents, passion among his supporters.
“We’ve had politics up to our ears, are gorged with it,” the presidential chronicler Theodore H. White wrote of the campaign between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter 40 years ago. As Reagan used to say: You ain’t seen nothing yet.
There is no imminent antidote to this exhaustion.
Campbell believes if the notion the 2020 election was “stolen” takes hold, Trump supporters “may be exhausted, but will also be very angry.” The Pew survey showed that substantially more Republicans than Democrats described themselves as “worn out by the news.”
That could change if Trump makes headway in suits to overturn apparent Democratic advantages in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.
What to do? Wickham, the Mayo behavioral specialist, suggests Americans eat healthy diets, exercise and get enough sleep. Then she adds one more: “Practice mindfulness to engage in the present moment.” All good advice – for the present moment.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.