A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece entitled, “I Miss the Thrill of Trump.”
It was a headline begging to be quote-tweeted with droll captions like, “I miss the thrill of polio” or “Ant misses the thrill of troubled boy with magnifying glass.”
What struck me most about this thesis, though, was not how much I personally didn’t miss Trump, which was entirely expected, but rather how much time I’d spent recently not thinking about him at all.
No one should ever have to think about anyone as much as President Trump wanted everyone to think about him all the time. He was the galactic ambassador of the expression, “Living in your head rent-free”—his every move and utterance designed to leave as massive a neural footprint as possible. And then one day, after the Capitol insurrection and Trump’s subsequent social media ban, it was as though he no longer existed.
“Isn’t it satisfying, just to not hear his voice for a single goddamn second?” Jim Carrey-as-Joe Biden prophetically asked on Saturday Night Live last fall, after ‘pausing’ Alec Baldwin’s Trump, mid-sketch. “Let’s wallow in it. Let’s bask in the Trumplessness.”
And bask we did, when the time finally came.
In the absence of constant wild card tweets, antagonistic policy-making, and ominous hate rallies—all of it refracted through the dual lenses of media and social media, there arose a subtle placidity. The world did not stop spinning so much as it seemed to stabilize. But since stability is much more difficult to detect and celebrate than its absence, most of us didn’t wake up each day and actively do so.
It wasn’t until Trump resurfaced over this past weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to deliver his first major speech since losing the presidency that I understood what we’ve been missing.
From the moment an obscenely tacky golden statue of Trump appeared at CPAC on Friday, wearing Betsy Ross board shorts and holding a magic wand, it was clear that we’d either entered a reverie in our Trumplessness, or—much worse—that the Trumplessness itself was merely a reverie.
The former president took the main stage and lied about his accomplishments, lied some more about winning the 2020 election, inflamed transphobia for culture war clout, and teased a third presidential run in 2024. Although there were encouraging signs of progress, like MSNBC and CNN not airing the speech, the address was accompanied on Twitter by a typical long tail of memes, impersonations, and dunks, dragging me back, kicking and screaming, to a pre-January 6 state of mind.
Once firmly entrenched in Trump country again, I realized the full breadth of how different the last five weeks have been.
The absence of Trump has not manifested as a void that needed filling but rather an amorphous negative space into which suddenly anything might enter and remain for a while. It started on the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, when the anodyne meme of Bernie Sanders’ mittens enjoyed a shelf life far longer than it otherwise might have. It was cute at first, and then it was very much no longer cute, but still, there Bernie was, clogging up your Slack feed, clumsily photoshopped into another mildly unlikely place. It was the first hint of our newfound capacity for frivolousness, politics-adjacent and otherwise.
Conversations could suddenly flourish where there had once been no oxygen available. Every Friday morning, people now spend hours online talking about WandaVision, the newly minted most popular TV show in the world. When Phoebe Bridgers smashed her guitar to cap off a spellbinding performance on SNL—a show that has only thrived, post-Trump, by the way—people argued about it over an entire Sunday afternoon for some reason. Stonksgate soaked up several days’ worth of attention, and the discourse around the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, has gone on for weeks, splintering further into mini-discourses about Justin Timberlake overall, Justin Timberlake’s shoddy behavior toward Janet Jackson, and much more.
Several recent political stories, whether they be Ted Cruz’s crisis-ditching Cancun jaunt or Marjorie QAnon’s omnidirectional instability, have hung around in the popular imagination much longer than they might have five weeks ago, suggesting that many folks do, in fact, miss the thrill of Trump. However, without Trump overshadowing everything all the time, reporters finally seemed to discover that this Governor Cuomo guy is maybe not the savior he portrayed himself to be in his book about saving New York from the novel coronavirus.
Trump’s exit from the presidency may have nothing to do with Cuomo finally coming under the journalistic microscope, but the timing is, shall we say, interesting.
Apart from a newfound lack of stories and conversations about Trump, we’ve also been almost entirely spared from his commentary. Although he’s lately started going on Newsmax to comment on topics of the day such as Rush Limbaugh’s death and Tiger Woods’ traffic accident, Trump has traded his Twitter firehose bursts for occasional messages like his angry letter to Mitch McConnell, which proved blissfully easy to ignore. Such dispatches may cross the transom now, but not in the way they did before when Trump was president and it felt like an artillery unit was assigned to deliver them with extreme prejudice.
Imagine all that we haven’t been hearing from Trump lately! We’ve missed out on his thoughts about everything related to the impeachment trial, the Neera Tanden confirmation fight, the implosion of The Lincoln Project, and the firings of Lou Dobbs and Gina Carano. Each of these instances inspired annoying conversations, sure, but nowhere near as annoying or prolonged as anything becomes once Trump puts his imprimatur upon it.
Up until his cursed CPAC speech, we hadn’t even heard him trash Joe Biden’s first month as president. It is an unspoken rule in American politics that former presidents are not to criticize their successors. What a fitting footnote to Trump’s turn. at the helm that it took a social media ban to hold him to that standard, albeit only temporarily.
Perhaps Trump’s triumphant return to the heads he formerly occupied rent-free was only temporary, too, though.
After a brief flurry of hubbub around his speech on Sunday, the conversation quickly drifted elsewhere online. Tweets about the former president sat alongside jokes about a polarizing line of dialogue from the latest episode of WandaVision, and then they were dwarfed entirely by Golden Globes chatter.
Maybe the thrill of Trump is something that’s easily replaced by the thrill of literally anything else grabbing and holding our collective attention for days at a time, something that seemed impossible for long four years.