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Column: How do I detox from a four-year Twitter-fed outrage addiction? One Trump-free day at a time

President Trump
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

“The day will come when I don’t have to read you Donald Trump’s tweet.”

With the possible exception of the “All I Want for Christmas” video, which captured a group of young people celebrating Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’ win at a Los Feliz gas station, this comment — made by MSNBC’s Ali Velshi on Saturday morning — was the most joyful thing I had heard in days. Make that weeks. Or months. Or years.

As a person old enough to remember the Watergate hearings (though young enough to have experienced them almost exclusively as an outrageous interruption of my avid “Match Game” viewing), I can say, without hesitation or bias, that I have never seen a president dominate the daily news cycle for four solid years the way Donald Trump has done.

Think about it: During the past four years, how many days have passed without an incendiary, provocative or downright media- and/or Democrat-baiting tweet from our 45th president? So few that when he recently went radio silent for like five minutes while being treated for COVID-19, many reasonable people wondered if his social media shutdown meant he had been put on a ventilator or even passed away. But soon the all-caps were flying from inside Walter Reed.

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Never before in the history of this nation has a president provided a running commentary of his feelings of triumph, rage and petty irritations, of self-aggrandizement and grievance.

Never before have we been treated to a daily dose of such sweeping generalizations, casual calumny, thin-skinned criticism or praise — and always, always a steady drumbeat of attempts to erode the public’s trust in math, science, Congress, our own collective eyesight, the press and more than occasionally his own administration.

Robert Lloyd follows his election-night media blackout with a weekend of “joyscrolling” once Joe Biden became president-elect.

And even though we all know, after four long years, that this is just what he does, virtually every tweet whips up some sort of days-long, oxygen-sucking maelstrom. On social media, obviously, where people have built entire accounts dedicated to condemning or supporting Trump’s personal Twitterverse, and have spent hours battling or blocking — and then announcing those blocks — anyone who took a different view. And also in the mainstream media, where every presidential tweet has to be taken seriously because it is a public statement by the president of the United States. Careers were built on fact-checking him; his tweets were regularly counted, compiled and presented as evidence of how ridiculous and dangerous Trump’s game of hide ‘n’ go tweet had become.

But still many of us continued to play along.

For his supporters, this commotion was just one more thing to love about Trump — he shook off the traditional gatekeepers and spoke his unvarnished thoughts directly to the people in a way designed to make those who opposed him and his policies absolutely insane.

For his opponents, well, it has been four years of literally spluttering with outrage and fury pretty much each and every day. And, it must be said, often using that fury to gain followers, get clicks and generally participate in the arms race of outrage. High-voltage reactions to Trump are pretty much guaranteed a big audience on one side of the political spectrum or the other.

So what will we all do when Trump continues to tweet but those tweets are no longer from the president?

Woodward’s journalism helped bring down Richard Nixon. But “Rage” it too ploddingly neutral and enamored of access to make a dent in this fallen age.

I’d like to believe that President-elect Joe Biden will be able to fulfill his pledge to lower the temperature in this country, to help return our political discourse to a less frantic, less with-me-or-against-me level. Yes, we are a nation divided, but we have always been a nation with many divisions. Which isn’t to say I believe it is the role of the president to enforce serenity. “Calm” is often not the appropriate response. “Calm” is also too often a synonym for “complacent,” and there are too many problems facing this country for anyone to feel serene.

But maybe we can stop boiling things down to red versus blue. Maybe we can stop using social media to silently scream at each other every day.

I’m Irish, so I am a big fan of anger. Anger, like fear, exists to alert us that something is going wrong, that we need to prepare a response. But as our heart rate speeds up and our breathing becomes shallower, a well-functioning frontal cortex will then take a minute to decide what that response should be — fight or flight, escalate or de-escalate. If the choice is escalate, the brain, surrendering to the physical responses, produces the chemicals necessary to prolong and exhibit the anger — through shouting or, in this case, hate-tweeting — which in turn increases the feelings of agitation.

In other words, if you think venting your feelings by screaming, either vocally or in all caps, will make you feel better, you are wrong. Chemically speaking, it will only increase your anger, pushing it toward rage. Which is absolutely necessary if, say, you are going to war or some sort of physical protest — less helpful if you are sitting at home scrolling through Twitter.

In that instance, de-escalation may be the better choice. For one thing, so many people are screaming these days, staying cool and collected may be far more effective. That old deep breath or nice walk outside will not change your basic and no doubt quite valid response to something you find horrifying or maddening or unjust, but it will alert your brain that the chemical bath designed to push you toward physical violence is no longer necessary — that you are less in need of intense aggravation than a plan of action.

That constant teetering between escalation and de-escalation — “Oh, my God, look at what he’s saying now but I do have to get some work done today” — may explain why so many of us have been so exhausted for the past four years.

America’s separate information universes will make it hard to end the “grim era of demonization.”

Including and especially right now. Whatever relief we might have expected after Biden won the election has been trampled by Trump’s constant demand that attention must be paid. Continuing to communicate almost exclusively through Twitter, he repeatedly insists that he won an election he lost, while undermining the fundamental definition of a representative democracy. (And if you read the fine print in his recent calls for contributions, attempting to raise money to pay off his own campaign debt.)

So am I looking forward to the day when Trump’s tweets do not have to be discussed on national television? Yes, ma’am. Frankly, I don’t want to hear from any president on a daily basis. I want to believe that there are many, many days when the president is far too busy doing his job — just as most of us are — to tend to social media.

Already there has been a shift. Trump did indeed lose the election, Joe Biden will become our 46th president in a matter of weeks, and while whoever controls Biden’s social media has been very clever during the campaign, I haven’t seen an all-caps message from his account once.

But as we have been told repeatedly, Trump does not intend to go quietly, so the choice to sustain or diminish our daily habit will come down to us — and I’m worried that, like many co-dependents, we will have trouble letting go. The brain-chemical high of self-righteous indignation is a powerful drug and the Trump presidency has left all of us, left and right, outrage addicts.

It will be near impossible to go cold turkey. How can we begin to step away from the sweet, stinging blaze of outrage when Trump appears to be marshaling forces in the federal government to undermine a legitimate election, even though he really cannot do that?

But what if he can? And what is wrong with GOP leadership that they would choose Trump over democracy? Will no one speak out or just take Trump’s freaking phone away? Dear God, what is wrong with this country???

See how hard it is?

Still, we have to begin sometime and we might as well start today. Watch the actions, always, but, as Marge Piercy wrote, let the words go flying. We have to allow other strong emotions to fuel our central nervous systems: exhilaration, determination, pride. We need to save our outrage for things that matter — racial injustice, economic disparity, global warming. Already stories about Biden’s COVID-19 task force and transition team and continued celebration of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ multiple historic breakthroughs are leading the news.

Are people of every political leaning still angry and outraged about many things? You bet. But increasingly, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed is not one of them.

And that’s a pretty great start.


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