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Trump’s Tax on the National Psyche

The corruption and incompetence of this administration has led to a grotesque theft of Americans’ precious time and energy.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The most incredible thing about last week’s decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on detained migrant children is that the case existed at all. The court ruled that the Trump administration had to provide basic health and hygiene supplies, including soap and toothbrushes, to the children in its custody. Justice Department lawyers had argued that such items weren’t necessary to meet the required “safe and sanitary conditions” to hold kids at immigration facilities. The three-judge panel disagreed.

“Assuring that children eat enough edible food, drink clean water, are housed in hygienic facilities with sanitary bathrooms, have soap and toothpaste, and are not sleep-deprived are without doubt essential to the children’s safety,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the court. One of the panel’s members, Judge A. Wallace Tashima, was himself held at a Japanese-American internment camp as a boy during World War II.

The episode amounted to an act of astonishing cruelty toward the children themselves. It was also an enormous waste of everyone’s time and energy.

Litigation, unlike Greek gods, does not spring from the earth fully formed. Lawyers for both sides wrote briefs and memoranda on the legal issues involved, pored through mountains of past cases, and probably even worked long into nights and weekends to meet deadlines. Judges, too, read all of these filings and likely wrote multiple draft opinions on their conclusions. The American legal system spent countless man-hours to decide whether children in federal custody should get soap and toothbrushes.

Wasting time is a defining feature of Trump’s presidency. He is fairly adept at frittering away his own days, spending an indeterminate number of hours languishing in front of the television, simply to watch cable news coverage of himself so he can then offer comments about it on Twitter. But when it comes to wasting the time of everyone around him, the president is without peer. Trump’s haphazard style of governance forces journalists, lawyers, and government officials to expend innumerable hours on doomed initiatives and errant tweets. His corrosive effect on American politics forces Americans to devote far more hours of their life to thinking about him than they should. All of this amounts to a tax of sorts on the national psyche—one that can never be repaid.

Human lives are bounded by time and attention. Every moment that’s spent focused on one thing can’t be spent another way. At a certain level, it’s not healthy to tabulate all of these expenses. In other circumstances, however, it’s unhealthy not to do so. I first started thinking about how Trump wastes Americans’ time two months after he took office. In the early morning of March 4, 2017, he sent a series of tweets alleging that former president Barack Obama “had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower” before the election. “Nothing found,” Trump added. “This is McCarthyism!”

The claim was ridiculous on its face. Trump’s habitual lying also gave no reason to believe the assertion. And yet journalists and lawmakers spent weeks trying to discern whether he was telling the truth. Multiple congressional committees investigated it. Newspapers assigned reporters to cover the allegations; cable news channels spent hours debating them. After U.S. spy agencies resolutely denied any such wiretaps existed, a Fox News analyst sparked a minor diplomatic row by suggesting that Obama may have asked the British to do it instead. (He did not, Britain’s version of the National Security Agency said in an extraordinarily rare statement.)

Two months later, Trump offered some insight into the tweets’ origins. “I don’t know if you remember, a long time ago, very early on I used the word wiretap, and I put in quotes, meaning surveillance, spying you can sort of say whatever you want,” he told Sean Hannity. He said he based the tweets “just on a little bit of a hunch and a little bit of wisdom maybe,” rather than hard evidence. “It was pretty insignificant, I thought when I said it, and it’s pretty amazing.” This process still repeats itself on a regular basis, though Americans have grown more accomplished at distinguishing which of Trump’s tweets matter and which ones don’t.

It would be almost comical if Trump’s tweets created the largest of his presidency’s opportunity costs. Unfortunately, they pale in comparison to his reckless approach to policy-making. His hastily written executive order to enact a ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries in 2017 led to hours of chaos at U.S. airports before federal courts finally intervened. After multiple rewrites and more than a year of litigation, the Supreme Court upheld a narrower version of the measure last summer. It would become a recurring theme: Trump regularly announces bombastic moves on immigration, then leaves it to federal agencies, lawyers, and the courts to try to fashion some sort of order from the wreckage.

The constant exposure to Trump’s rhetoric and governance carries its own measurable toll. Surveys by the American Psychiatric Society (APS), Politico reported last fall, have found a marked increase in stress and anxiety among respondents with regard to the future in recent years. One poll taken shortly after Trump became president found that nearly six in ten Americans thought 2017 was the lowest point in living American memory, surpassing the Vietnam War and the September 11, 2001 attacks. Nearly three-quarters of Democrats said they were stressed about the nation’s future, a view shared by clear majorities of Republicans and independents as well.

This effect does not fall evenly on all Americans. A Gallup poll from April found that younger and less affluent Americans felt more daily stress in general. Women reported higher rates than men in the APS survey; black and Hispanic Americans also registered higher levels of anxiety about the future than their white counterparts. In some communities, that stress may have serious consequences for health. A study published last month in Obstetrics and Gynecology found a correlation in Centers for Disease Control data between the 2016 presidential election and premature births among Latina women in the seven months that followed. Other studies reported similar results after large-scale immigration raids.

Trump’s gnawing hunger to be at the center of the daily news cycle is a poor fit for our system of government. Higher levels of political awareness and news literacy are always welcome, of course, but they have their limits. “If you elect me president, I promise you won’t have to think about me for 2 weeks at a time,” Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, one of the two dozen Democrats running for the party’s nomination, recently quipped. “I’ll do my job watching out for North Korea and ending this trade war. So you can go raise your kids and live your lives.”

Bennet’s overall campaign hasn’t caught on among prospective Democratic voters. But the underlying theme of a return to normalcy is propelling former Vice President Joe Biden to the front of the crowded field. Biden’s message, a gauzy nostalgia for a pre-Trump world that didn’t really exist, could carry him all the way to the White House next November. But a return to this hallowed Before-Time will not be quickly achieved. Should someone be so lucky as to supplant Trump, they will likely spend the bulk of their first term cleaning up after Trump’s last: restaffing a depleted State Department, reversing the Sessions-Barr policies at the Justice Department, reorienting the EPA back toward fighting climate change, and much more.

Trump knows what he’s doing. Last month, Representative John Ratcliffe, his nominee to replace Dan Coats as director of national intelligence, withdrew from consideration only a few days after Trump announced his nomination. Ratcliffe received intense scrutiny for apparently inflating his record of prosecuting terrorism offenses as a federal prosecutor. Trump probably knew none of this when he chose him; he later admitted to reporters that he let the news outlets do the vetting for him.

“A lot of times, you do a very good job, not always,” he told reporters after Ratcliffe’s withdrawal. “If you take a look at it, the vetting process for the White House is very good. But you’re part of the vetting process, you know? I give out a name to the press and they vet for me. We save a lot of money that way. But in the case of John, I really believe that he was being treated very harshly and very unfairly.” Thanks for providing your free labor, journalists. You’re still fake news.

Trump, of course, pays his own tax freely. He largely spends his days as president in unstructured “executive time” where he fields calls from outside advisers and ingests massive quantities of raw Fox News coverage. The work of solving the nation’s problems, except insofar as it rallies his supporters and keeps him in office, is a largely secondary concern. Soon after Trump took office, White House aides tried to persuade him that the national debt would become unsustainable in the future. “Yeah, but I won’t be here,” he reportedly replied. Trump’s time may be limited, but so is ours.