Donald J. Trump induces fatigue. I am the type of person who awakes and immediately boots up Twitter to see what the journalists I know are talking about; day after day, I want to turn my face back into my pillow and forget the shadow play of horrors projected against my eyelids. The lies and the subsequent fact checks that get no traction — the shamelessness of it all — feels like a many-handed beast always ready to punch me in the gut. Trump, about whom we all think too much, spews provocative words so easily. The men and women he surrounds himself with all seem to have sought out office with the goal of inflicting harm. The steady stream of news about Scott Pruitt, a shameful fog of corrupt little details dripping slickly into the public consciousness, could have filled up a news cycle for a month once. And yet there is so much more: the separation of immigrant families, brutal ICE raids and unchecked police violence, the rapid erosion of LGBT rights.
A recent Pew study revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans feel there is “too much news” — a phenomenon known as “news fatigue.” There are news stories purposefully designed to gin up rage in the veins and drive clicks, and those that genuinely chill the blood. You start to believe the gang in charge is a maniac and a bunch of corrupt kooks, and there’s nothing you can do about it. You get tired. You want to turn away. You start to think there is nothing you can do for stolen kids, nothing to do but march, and maybe you’re afraid to march, or you don’t know how, or you can’t.
Since Trump was elected, there has been an extraordinary outpouring of public protest. A recent poll conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that, since the beginning of 2016, one in five Americans have joined a street protest or attended a rally. Nineteen percent of that group said they had never before joined a protest march or political gathering. The day after Trump’s inauguration, the Women’s March turned out millions onto the streets of America’s towns and cities, a sea of pink, a bristling phalanx of signs.
When Trump initially imposed his cruel and unnecessary Muslim ban, just after the Women’s March, thousands thronged to the nation’s airports to voice their opposition. During the height of the congressional push for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act last year, there were fierce and sustained protests around the country — including by disabled individuals who put their bodies on the line to defend their rights. In March of this year, a teeming crowd of students and allies turned out for the March for Our Lives. Striking teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky followed, demanding better conditions for themselves and their students.
What’s even more extraordinary — and perhaps even more necessary — is what happens after the marchers go home. All over America, there are those who have cut through the miasma of fatigue and let their ire and grief propel them to their feet. All over this country, there are conversations happening that have been built by people’s desire to connect with one another, and to make change. It’s too easy to throw barbs and even expressions of sorrow from behind a screen. Even the smallest act of tangible benefit is a valve from which some of the steam can escape.
I am neither a sage nor a scholar. But it helps to talk to someone, face-to-face, about how you’re feeling, and the change you want to see. It can jolt us from the isolation and worthlessness that can overwhelm even the best of us, as suicides — both of prominent figures, like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, and of ordinary Americans — continue to rise. If there is any change sweeping across America, it is the ability among new organizers and candidates to transform their fatigue, sorrow, and fear into action. It’s women in the suburbs, women in the PTA and women who’ve attended school board meetings, or set up events. In a recent article in Democracy, Harvard professor Theda Skocpol and University of Pittsburgh professor Lara Putnam laid out a case for what they saw in America’s towns and cities — a steady uprising of “retired librarians rolling their eyes at the present state of affairs, and then taking charge.” After work they are organizing meetings and then campaigns and then winning elections. School board by school board, state senate district by state senate district, House seat by House seat.
There is something tremendously cathartic about the feeling of organizing, even in a small way. A plurality of the staff at my workplace announced, this week, that they have formed a union — after a painstaking, clandestine campaign that lasted most of a year, in which I took a small part. The silent work of changing hearts and minds, the hush, the tangible thrill of signing a union card in secret, was electric. I got to know co-workers I had never met, and learned more about those I had. Over many nights, and pizza and beer at the union hall, we worked out a strategy, inspired by the desire to secure one another’s livelihoods.
After this experience, I feel inspired to get out and talk to people, although it is often an activity I dread. In my state senate district, District 18, there’s a candidate fielded by the Democratic Socialists of America — Julia Salazar. She is committed to absolute opposition to punitive immigration policies, and to fighting for criminal justice reform and housing reform in this brutally expensive city. Every night, as the heat begins to gather in humid drifts along the sidewalks, the DSA sends out canvassers to change minds. I am foot-dragging and lazy and flighty and obstinate and anxious, but I am finally ready to lever myself up from bed and go.
In this season of chaos and exhaustion, in which our minds whir with an excess of emotion and information, sometimes exercising one’s hands and feet can be the best way to relieve the steady throb of despair. It feels paradoxical. It feels impossible. The influx of injustice seems so vast, one’s hands feel inadequate to stanch that flow. But there are many hands, working. There are many mouths, speaking. There are many doors that house those who desire change, and many minds to wake.
If I have a day where I’m too anxious to go outside, I can always utilize another set of tactics I gleaned from the DSA — and create a tenant’s organization in my building. Just to cross my hall and talk a little, softly, about the rent is worthwhile. Piece by piece we fight for justice, doorstep by doorstep. If you are engaged in any way with a struggle to better things for your peers and for those who come after you, it thrums through your life. It can cut through the fog of despair like the beam of a headlight, boring a path, however faint, to a better future.