The coronavirus pandemic has scrambled our usual sense of temporality, from the day-to-day expectations of being busy, keeping appointments and enjoying weekends, to the larger sense of the year having an orderly progress to it, spring, summer and fall. President Trump’s improvisatory politics, his incessant generation of crises and his unwillingness or incapacity to focus and follow through on an agenda have led to 3½ years of dizzying urgency, shifting narratives and a perpetual sense of emergency.
But time has never seemed so strange as it did during the Republican National Convention. Both major political parties have traditionally used the quadrennial party gathering to create a narrative, and narratives come with an inherent sense of time. Whether you agreed with and were susceptible to these story line themes — to Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” and Bill Clinton’s “bridge to the 21st century” — they came with implied ideas about how time flows. The sun had finally come up and a new day was beginning; we would move resolutely forward into a new millennium, and perhaps a new age.
It was impossible to discern the temporal narrative from the Republican National Convention, a confusion aptly captured by the idea that Trump would make American great, again, again. A nation beset by catastrophes — a pandemic, racial tension, ongoing police violence against people of color, massive unemployment, a collapsing economy, two hurricanes, raging wildfires — was threatened by: a catastrophe, if it elected Joe Biden. And Biden was proclaimed the once and future master of catastrophes, blamed as both the cause of our current crises (given his previous service as vice president) and the progenitor of yet worse catastrophes if he is elected in November.
At times, parsing the temporal logic felt a bit like reading an E.E. Cummings poem: The president will redo what he never has done, which was done unto him by he who will undo it.
The past 3½ years were strangely absent, in part because many of the things proclaimed as Trump’s accomplishments don’t have much presence or impact in most people’s daily lives and in part because 3½ years is a long time, and to dwell on this period of chaos and confusion wouldn’t be flattering to the president’s record.
Even if you oppose everything the Democrats stand for, the Democratic convention offered a far more consistent sense of how time would operate if the party retakes the presidency. The dominant metaphor was of healing, which implies a slow and steady return to a previous condition. It encapsulates an apparent contradiction, that we move forward to get back to something we once enjoyed.
The difference in how time was offered to the public was perhaps best seen in two of the most memorable moments of the conventions: the short speech given by a young man who was inspired by Biden to work on overcoming his stutter, and the curious shouting into an empty room by former Fox News personality Kimberly Guilfoyle. Brayden Harrington’s two-minute speech unfolded as gripping drama, a study in courage, in which the audience followed every moment, rooting for him. Guilfoyle’s speech felt a bit like a modernist drama from the last century, an absurdist romp, both mesmerizing and endless. One speech had a beginning, a middle and an end; the other felt like sustained madness, a fortissimo blast of pure dissonance with no room for a crescendo or diminuendo or nuance of any sort.
The temporal confusion at the Republican convention was largely caused by the confusion of catastrophe narratives that dominated the news. A hurricane was intensifying by the hour; nightly protests were plagued by violence, including a deadly encounter allegedly instigated by a teenager who left a disturbing social media trail of White grievance. And then there were those longer-arc catastrophes, including the monthly death march of the pandemic that began and spiraled out of control on the president’s watch, and the economic collapse that may be entering a new period of intensifying severity.
Leadership is, in part, a matter of changing people’s sense of time. When everything seems to be falling apart, the public is encouraged to stay calm and see the larger picture. Yet a good leader must also build a sense of urgency to deal with challenges that unfold over longer arcs.
The phrase “managing expectations” carries a sense of political cynicism — that the public is manipulated by scaling up and down, as needed, the hope and promises of a particular administration. But in a larger sense, managing expectations is the essential business of all politicians, the good ones and the frauds.
The current president doesn’t do that, because he lives only in the now. Detractors who are exasperated by his lying and inconsistency often suggest that it has something to do with logic, that even the indisputable fact of his having said something on videotape is not registered as evidence when he claims never to have said it. It is difficult to know what is inside his head, but from the outside it often seems as if the mendacity is better attributed to a fundamental temporal flaw in his relationship to the world. The past is simply disconnected from the present or only exists to bolster the immediate needs and exigencies of this moment. When the past is inconvenient, the past vanishes. He doesn’t ignore it; rather, it simply ceases to exist.
It is impossible to know why he behaves this way, whether it is a psychological or physiological condition or simply an idiosyncratic adaptation that he has learned to use to his benefit. But his influence, as president and as one of the master manipulators of the public sphere, is such that we are all now living some of our lives in that same, strange world of temporal distortion. Yes, it is maddening when people discount facts, evidence and science; but it is even more maddening when they fracture and warp our sense of time itself.
Time is an abstraction. We feel it but can’t really comprehend it. Waiting gives us one sense of time; immersion in a rollicking narrative another sense of it. The current political season, the next 8½ weeks, will probably be felt by most people as a looming period of insanity and stasis. No crisis, no new outrage, no new catastrophe will unsettle the president’s core support; few are likely to alter their vote because of something that happens in the debates or on the campaign trail.
For those deeply disturbed by the real crises, including the potential destruction of our democracy, that are directly attributable to the president, the next months are like that period between a worrying diagnosis and a necessary operation. It’s best not to think of the malignancy and its growth. Just stay calm and wait until the scheduled procedure is done. For those who believe in the president, despite the ever-larger chorus of insiders and intimates (including his own sister) who have raised alarms, documented the abuses and filled out the narrative of his incompetence and cruelty, the coming weeks will be felt with a similar sense of grim, determined impatience.
So, we are all waiting, which is a terrible way to spend time. Waiting is loss, the theft of time, the dissolution of possibilities. But we are waiting for different things.
More than half the population is waiting for time to get back to normal, for one thing to follow another with predictable causality, for Americans to start the long, hard work of rebuilding, repairing and healing their desperately sick country.
And the rest of the country, that portion of the electorate that believes nothing that is happening today has anything to do with what happened four years ago, is also waiting. But waiting for what? For something worse than what has already happened to not happen, again, again.