Ever since the inauguration of Donald Trump, events of jarring magnitude have come tumbling one after another at breakneck pace: 20 executive orders in ten days, the border wall, the “Muslim ban”, rows over voter fraud and crowd sizes, “alternative facts”, intrigue over conflicts of interest, a controversial invitation to the UK, a gag order on government agencies, a contentious Supreme Court nominee, and more.
It feels almost like political life has sped up beyond people’s ability to keep pace. In the US and all over the world, democratic citizens are exhausted. As Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, told MSNBC: “It’s as if history is being collapsed into a black hole and everything is happening faster than the speed of light.”
This feeling of draining temporal acceleration isn’t confined to politics. In fact, it’s the tempo of our age. We know the life-shortening effects of jet lag, stress, and occupational burnout in societies increasingly replete with technologies to monitor our time use and performance. We know the trials of conditioning our children to sleep through the night and stay awake during the day so that they experience time in discrete blocks. Making sense of time, in short, can be exhausting.
Anthropologically speaking, we also know that people can perceive time in different ways. For some, time is epochal, a series of discrete states unconnected with one another; others see it as millennial, on the verge of catastrophic collapse or renewal. Still others see it as cyclical, bound to forever repeat itself. Some people’s belief in eternal paradise is so powerful that it dominates their relationship with the present, meaning they understand climate change or even nuclear war as relatively minor episodes in a larger story. But for others, the same phenomena portend that we are living on the edge of decline and potential catastrophe.
At destabilising political moments, these perceptions can change. The fall of the Soviet Union was one such moment. Living in a state of fear and desperation, many on the eastern side of the iron curtain had kept up an absolute pretence that the Soviet Union was forever striving forward while their world crumbled slowly. But as the moment broke, time seemed to speed up, marked by daily leaps in inflation. A few canny men took control of those resources and emerged as oligarchs. (Trump’s refusal to divest his business empire opens the door to similar opportunities.)
A remarkable version of this is happening today. Trump and his aides propagate their venomous nonsense at such speed that they accelerate the news cycle to dizzying pace, too fast for the toxicity to be countered. The force of executive power means the consequences of Trump’s actions are spread so widely and chaotically that one can barely grasp the implications before the next monstrosity hits.
But this is not just a side-effect; it’s a brutally effective political strategy.
Historians and anthropologists have both argued that the crisis is the defining political concept of our time. Framing a problem as a crisis compresses all its complexity and contingency into a single moment of truth, one that calls out for quick, decisive action that often oversteps usually-respected boundaries.
Perhaps only an age of perpetual crisis could within eight years produce first the US’s first African-American president, with his sparkling oratory of audacious hope, and then a pathological narcissist running on a platform of “you will be tired of winning”. Even Trump’s evangelical Christian supporters consider our times so pressing that all the president’s moral failings, however utterly incompatible with their beliefs, must be forgotten.
Trump’s winning move was to pitch crisis against historical complacency. One of the reasons he was able to defeat Hillary Clinton was that she failed to shake off her association with the bad old days of business as usual – a stagnant era that saw the already wealthy steadily enrich themselves further. Only by engaging with accelerating disaster on its own terms, he argued, can we survive.
This is a rocky road to fascism, and there needs to be an effective political counter-strategy. Those protesting or resisting Trump must refuse the crisis-peddlers’ diktat to live at a frighteningly fast pace, and instead get back to thinking in terms of the middle distance. Crisis is being used to force people into a do-or-die mentality; if they refuse to think that way, they can retain the distance they need to identify shared goals and the ways to achieve them. They need to make their own time.
Those rallying against Trump need to undercut his projected strength by gumming up the works of the economy and the state, thereby proving that his power to solve problems has its limits and refusing to let him outrun our attention spans.
The best metaphor, and the best activity, is marching, with its steady rhythm and undeniable presence. This must be combined with more and more of the sort of innovative and news-capturing protests that have already begun. They must be packed with people ready to capture and control the political narrative that emerges, and to break the exhausting cycle of perpetual near-disaster.
The politics of crisis and excessive speed are winning, and they are harmful. Slowing things down to a healthy, manageable pace is the way to fight back.
Anthony J. Pickles, British Academy Research Fellow, University of Cambridge and Joel Robbins, Sigrid Rausing Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge