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Commentary: Confessions of an MSNBC junkie: How I’m withdrawing from the Trump news cycle

Rachel Maddow
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow during 2020 election coverage.
(Virginia Sherwood / MSNBC)

Monday was supposed to be the start of a new era for me. Monday came and went and I was my same old politically preoccupied, Twitter-loitering, MSNBC-glued self.

After Joe Biden was declared president-elect by the networks on Saturday, I gave myself the weekend to celebrate and recover. But already, I was drawing up plans. One hour of news would be my nightly allotment. It was time to say goodbye to the all-you-can eat buffet of liberal angst hosted by Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell and Brian Williams and return to Judy Woodruff and the more sober meal of the “PBS NewsHour.”

Some progress has been made. I did turn to the “NewsHour” on Monday evening, but I watched with my laptop open and my finger on the retweet trigger. And then I followed up the program with an MSNBC chaser. Eventually, I muted the television so I could do a little reading, but my eyes kept flitting back to the chyron in case Donald Trump declared martial law.

For reasons having to do with personal safety, I’ve taken Twitter off my phone. As the election season heated up, I seemed to develop a dangerous habit of jogging into moving cars while doom-scrolling.

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Unfortunately, I needed further restraint. Last week, while going for my morning run on beautiful Loma Vista Drive (which I’ve just learned is in the heart of Beverly Hills Trump country), I stepped on a giant acorn while getting an update on the races in Pennsylvania and Arizona from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website. The next thing I knew I was on my butt in front of the security cameras of a sprawling estate, whose Republican owners were no doubt enjoying a good belly laugh at their breakfast table.

Will it take till Inauguration Day for me to completely unplug? Must I become intimately acquainted with every obstinate move of General Services Administration administrator Emily Murphy, a Trump appointee who has so far refused to sign the needed paperwork for the presidential transition to officially begin?

I didn’t become a drama critic to track the maneuvers of petty bureaucrats. I became a drama critic to try to capture in prose the fleeting sublimity of the stage. I want my mind back. I’m tired of every waking moment being dominated by media reports on a president who has used the prodigious powers of his office not to make the nation safer or more harmonious but to conquer the news cycle and boost his ubiquity.

In a splendid interview with Sam Sanders on “Fresh Air,” filmmaker Aaron Sorkin comfortingly suggested that Trump is not likely to have a major final act as a dramatic character. Apart from the power he’s erratically wielded, he’s just not that interesting.

“It’s very hard to not make him like Alec Baldwin on [‘Saturday Night Live’] because, as I say, he is implausible,” Sorkin said. “Also, you can write about heroes, villains or anti-heroes like Mark Zuckerberg, but there’s no such thing as an interesting character who doesn’t have a conscience. If you take Richard III’s conscience away from him, we’re not interested in that play.”

For more than four years, we’ve been analyzing a figure who is closer to Alfred Jarry’s buffoonish King Ubu than Shakespeare’s monumental King Lear. Never in the history of criticism has such a shallow level of psychological complexity engendered so much interpretive scrutiny. How did even those of us who never watched a single episode of “The Apprentice” get hooked on this cultural project?

If political muscle were the simple answer, we’d be talking nonstop about Mitch McConnell, who has had the power all along to curtail Trump’s presidency. Yet when the spotlight descends on the Senate majority leader, the nation looks away in rare bipartisan accord.

The Trump presidency has been an addictive blend of reality TV and emergency broadcast. Conflict, the soul of drama, has been the source of the gonzo ratings. But it’s only after his impressive showing in last week’s election that I realized he has been more of a prop than a protagonist.

For the more than 72 million Americans who voted for him, the second highest tally in U.S. history after Biden, Trump — the slayer of Hillary Clinton and other progressive potentates — was the perfect battering ram. He didn’t create the rifts between Republicans and Democrats, but he’s been a formidable weapon in shifting the balance of power between them.

He’s also been the perfect scapegoat for a party that wants to exploit every political opportunity without having to own the character of a leader whose violation of institutional norms has yielded so many windfalls. Trump, the impeached vulgarian-in-chief, has allowed Republicans to pretend that the racism, cruelty and corruption are separate from the legislative and judicial wins.

The coroner’s report has not yet been written, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Trump came up short in part because the country, exhausted by his antics, wouldn’t mind four restful years of a Washington edition of “Antiques Roadshow.” Still, stuck indoors with our devices during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are casting about for something to take the place of the brute political entertainment that has filled the gaps between the World Series and “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Audiences need a transition period as much as a president-elect, but consider Trump’s electoral downfall a creative opening, a chance to reclaim lost interior space. Instead of monitoring the possible nightmare scenarios that Twitter delights in promulgating, I finally shut my screens and picked up Janet Malcolm’s “Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey.” I had to stop myself from devouring the book too quickly. I wanted to savor the experience of one superlative writer meeting another.

More to the point, I was desperate to move beyond the brain-clogging partisan rancor to those values that Chekhov called “the holy of holies,” of which he included “intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable — freedom from violence and lies no matter what form the latter two take.”

If our country is to heal, as Biden has declared it must, it won’t be through winning ideological arguments. We can’t talk our way across the bitter divides. But we can sit together in reflective silence and perhaps rediscover our shared humanity in the luxury of boredom.


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