My fiancé and I have a rule: no talking about politics after 9 p.m.
“It’s too late for politics,” I’ll say as he describes some article he’s read about some ostentatious happening.
When it became clear Joe Biden would indeed be sworn in as president on Jan. 20, I ventured another rule: After Jan. 20, can we stop talking about Donald Trump?
Trump took up a lot of space in our collective consciousness over the last four-plus years. An exhausting amount. I’ve tried putting the kibosh on Trump-talk in the past. It felt wrong to allow him to be a constant topic of conversation in our household, like giving him more power. After all, he had never thought about me in his entire life. Not once.
But then Trump would tweet or fire someone or do something so categorically beyond what is expected from a president that it was impossible not to talk about.
Like a video game that knows just how to use variable-ratio schedules to trigger the dopamine centers of your brain, Trump’s unpredictable and often shocking antics meant I was hooked. Not in the sense that I couldn’t get enough, but more in the sense that I couldn’t look away.
Now that we are a few days into the Biden presidency, I feel a weight lifted. My fiancé happily reported (before 9 p.m.) that White House press briefings had once again become boring. But without Trump’s antics, I wonder if some of us will go through a period of withdrawal?
I was speaking with a colleague who admitted that while she was watching the inauguration, she found herself wondering what Trump had done when he touched down in Florida, what he had said. Then she chided herself. Why did she care?
Why did she care? Because we are conditioned to care. A 2016 study published in journal Nature Communications found that uncertainty is even more stressful than knowing something bad is definitely going to happen, pushing us to be on high alert. Furthermore, survival instincts compel us to acquire more information during times of crisis or uncertainty in order to learn about a danger and how to avoid it.
And then there is social science. Trump repeatedly transgressed social norms and certainly presidential ones. Like a man in a business suit skipping down the street (an experiment conducted by sociologist Harold Garfinkel), when someone breaks a norm in a small way we stare. When someone breaks a norm that we perceive to be part of the rules of the game, we react with anger and confusion.
For those of us who felt that Trump’s behaviors and statements were outlandish and often harmful, it has seemed like we needed to be aware. What we thought we could do with this information, I don’t know. But we kept staring. We remained vigilant.
But now, the villain in the poorly scripted soap opera has been written out of the show. What will the show be about? Do we keep watching? Trump, if anything, is a marketer and entertainer. He knew how to keep the spotlight on himself. He knew how to keep us intrigued, even if that intrigue made some of us ill.
Of course, without Trump in office there will continue to be political antics and uncertainty. There will be plenty of people and events that inspire satire or moral outrage, regardless of what color state or county you live in. Impeachment will keep Trump in the headlines for a while.
But, for a period of time, there will be a readjustment. For me, I will have to move past a kind of Trump PTSD; I will have to let go of waiting for the next crazy thing to happen. I will have to stop checking and rechecking for the next political headline that feels unreal but is real.
My hope, though, is that after a period of withdrawal, I will be able to think a bit more clearly again. A fog will be lifted from my brain. The business of politics will once again feel normal, if not boring.
And that will mean I have additional space in my life and mind to notice things like a headline about astronomers searching for a lost black hole, my fiancé talking about his new wok and what he’s going to cook in it, or really just the snow on the trees in our backyard.
Okay, that’s it. No more talking about Trump, starting … now!
Paula Carter teaches creative nonfiction at Northwestern University.
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