I used to get angry before breakfast. You could even say I made a living at it. But Thursday morning, I blinked awake to the blue light of my iPhone, saw the president of the United States tweeting (again) disgusting things (again) about a woman who criticized him (again), and I felt … absolutely nothing.
Summary outrage followed, declarations that this time he had gone too far. I felt a listless deja vu. Why should anything be different now? This was at least the second time Trump had insulted a female broadcaster with dual accusations of inadequacy and bloodletting. And even though Trump’s target is someone my colleagues in the press find easy to defend, one of our own and a white woman, the circus will move on to the next stop. Just like it did the first time, with Megyn Kelly.
Some of my fellow feminist journalists saw a paradoxical benefit in Trump’s untrammeled misogyny. The flimsy mask of presidential civility Trump could muster has now slipped; we are back to a woman bleeding from her whatever. “Trump’s persistent attacks on women affirm what feminists have been saying all along: that sexism is still pervasive at all levels of American society,” wrote The Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg.
I used to make these arguments myself. Now, all I can think is that anyone who didn’t learn that lesson during the election or on the day after, they never will. It’s not that I think Trump’s crass feuds are deliberate distraction, a grand master plan. (With him, what you see has always been what you get, and it didn’t start yesterday.) It’s that by now the politics of offense is an exhausting feedback loop that whips us up and then takes us right back where we started.
In the 2012 election, a more innocent time, outrageous remarks had a propulsive force. Just ask Todd “legitimate rape” Akin, or Mitt “47 percent” Romney, or better yet, ask still-Sen. Claire McCaskill or two-term President Barack Obama. At the time, I was a staff writer, first at Jezebel and then at Salon, during what feels like the too-brief years when the feminist Internet came into its own. It had neither fully fractured nor yet bubbled into something Ivanka Trump could glibly co-opt.
Cathartic rage was our bread and butter; indeed, we were accused of cynically ginning up fury for the sake of clicks. Being on a reaction loop could be tiring — the apparent imperative for bloggers to have unambiguous feelings about everything could leave me, well, ambivalent — but the anger was real. It drew on collective pent-up feelings, the excitement of untold stories now suddenly getting a platform, new words to describe old behavior, words like mansplaining and manspreading and slut-shaming that are now hackneyed vernacular.
Offensive comments, especially when made on video, were (and are) ideally suited to both Internet publishing and cable news. (In 2013, I went to work at MSNBC on both those platforms.) When something did blow up, I was often surprised: Hadn’t we all been writing about this stuff for ages? Why did people only care now? But I rationalized our industry’s breathless focus on gaffes as a synecdoche of policy: the distortion of science and heartlessness of the antiabortion movement, the fundamental callousness of a “makers and takers” worldview. I wondered aloud whether outrage might draw new people into a bigger, broader fight. At the very least, it seemed to mobilize voters, including the unmarried women, people of color and young people who turned out and helped reelect Barack Obama and a record number of women in the Senate in 2012.
All this is why I can’t fault Hillary Clinton’s campaign for its failed strategy of trying to hang Trump by his own words, with commercials juxtaposing his nastiness with children and young women. After all, in 2000, Clinton herself benefited when her Senate opponent, Rick Lazio, crossed the stage and wagged his finger in her face. By 2016, though, we all knew Trump did far worse, and it wasn’t enough to keep him out of the White House.
But Trump’s sexist recidivism — our nation’s collective, surreal Groundhog Day — shows the diminishing returns of outrage culture as an end in itself. That there would be no consequences, that he never really needed to apologize, has been Trump’s clearest insight, one he learned and perfected long before he got into politics. Learned helplessness, a term psychologists use to describe mute acquiescence in the face of repeated trauma, is what abusers thrive on.
That doesn’t mean we should all roll over when someone shows their true face, on sexism or anything else. But after progressives showed them the way to do it, hinging political mobilization on someone being offensive has now been perfected by conservative media, which decries political correctness even as it dines on bad Kathy Griffin stunts. Even when the condemnation is near-universal, the feminist consciousness-raising won’t necessarily come with it. It’s easy to neutralize the misogyny of Trump’s remarks by archly noting that they are bad politics, or condemning them as mere crimes against good manners or chivalry, which is not the same as treating women as human beings.
A bystander might adopt a shrugging, both-sides-do-it stance, even if one side is now the president of the United States.
Offensiveness only matters if serious repercussions follow. Months after enough voters — including 53 percent of white women — bought what Trump was serving, everything we’re getting now is just an extra scoop.
The real lesson from those early days of online outrage, and from the zombie version of it that lurches across Twitter so often these days, is that we should condemn and then move on. Spend more time on what can’t be captured on a quick video or a tweet: Trump’s so-called voter fraud commission, the enforcement of the entry ban from predominantly Muslim countries and for refugees, the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act, the ongoing investigation into Russia’s interference into the U.S. election. What really matters in politics generally doesn’t come in the form of a tempting sound bite. Policy fights don’t have an easy beginning or end. But their effects will be with us long after Trump has moved on to his next target.