Trump, Covid, the climate crisis – we’ve had a hard few years. The wounds linger – The Guardian

Our catastrophes have wrought psychic devastation. It’s worth acknowledging that and trying to be kind to one another
Everything is weird and everyone is wrecked. This is maybe the biggest and least acknowledged truth of life in the United States and a lot of places beyond right now. It’s the pandemic; the eight years of Trumpism; the distortions, disruptions and corruptions Silicon Valley has promulgated and other looming menaces, including climate chaos. We all know this, because we’re living it, but maybe we should talk more about the fact that our political catastrophes are inseparable from widespread psychic devastation, that the public and private, political and personal, are entangled – or rather that the former has wrought havoc on the latter.
The wisest people I know are aware that the stresses, atrocities, divisions and divergences from norms of recent years have made them (and everyone else) exhausted and brittle. The less wise but no less brittle either lash out with the sense that what’s wrong is definitely someone else or take refuge in cults and oversimplified versions in which they are at least in control of what it all means.
Public life has private impact; some of it breaks our brains, and some of it breaks our hearts. Not to leave our consciences out of this – to watch so much malice and willful destruction, to witness so much injustice, from genocides around the world to gross injustices at home, has an impact. That impact is probably best described as moral injury, which a veterans’ organization defines as “the psychological, social and spiritual impact of events involving betrayal or transgression of one’s own deeply held moral beliefs and values occurring in high stakes situations”.
Most of us have a sense of what’s reasonable or possible based on what’s happened before; but we are now lost in a sea of unprecedenteds. We have not had authoritarian threats like this arise in all three branches of the federal government (if you count a former president aspiring to be a dictator as well as the supreme court and Congress). We have not previously had the wild corrosion of information and our ability to pay attention to it the way we do now, thanks to an internet dominated by corporations eager to offer us addictive social media and distorted search results and algorithms.
For those paying attention, climate change is also an immense moral injury, a reminder that we are part of a system shredding the beautiful tapestry of life on earth and devastating beloved species. Although Covid was a scourge across the globe, far more people – about 8 million – die every year from breathing air polluted by burning fossil fuel, and that’s only one aspect of the devastation, and only to our species.
Nevertheless the pandemic was devastating. I was surprised when the fourth anniversary of the global coronavirus pandemic was met largely with silence. Apparently almost no one wants to remember it, and of course it’s not exactly over, since people are still getting sick and dying of this new disease. Trauma, a term resorted to constantly these days, is an experience so devastating you cannot forget it; it dominates you. The opposite of trauma, in which you refuse to remember and process an experience, is also devastating, if not in the same way; you suppress an experience at the cost of operating with a reduced sense of self and reality.
One of the positive aspects of many kinds of disaster is the sense of shared experience. But we had wildly different experiences of the pandemic: it killed some of us, bereaved some of us, bankrupted some of us, made some of us frontline workers facing danger and death, or unemployed, or suddenly isolated from the sociability of school or work and everyday life outside the home. The impact was profoundly different depending on your age, financial circumstances and domestic situation, among other factors. I hear a lot from teachers and professors about how their students have not recovered well from two years of isolation and online learning that often involved too little learning and too much being online.
It is hard to imagine how different the Covid pandemic might have been had the country not been headed by someone who himself became a major source of divisive misinformation about Covid. In the US, a huge factor in the crisis in our psyches is four years of Trump in power, followed by nearly four more years of Trumpism. When the most powerful people in the country say and do whatever they want mostly without consequences, we are launched into incoherence and meaninglessness.
A US flag flies upside-down in front of the supreme court justice Samuel Alito’s home for several days in early 2021, in seeming support of the January 6 insurrection, but he declines to recuse himself from matters concerning Trump. Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife was an active part of that insurrection, also declines to recuse himself or account for the outrageous gifts he’s accepted from billionaires. The evangelical Christian who became the speaker of the House shows up to support Trump in his criminal election fraud trial due to hush money paid to a porn star and decries his guilty verdict and with it the justice system. The corruption is open and the loyalty to the ex-president rather than the rule of law is obvious.
In any previous era, these outrages and dozens of others would have been treated as shocking scandals; now each outrage seems to crowd out the next so that, for example, Trump’s dinner with fossil fuel executives, in which he asked for a $1bn campaign contribution in return for slashing climate legislation, has been reported on almost with complacency. That a man who was found liable in civil court for rape is a leading candidate for the presidency has been likewise normalized.
The examples are well-known – but perhaps more should be said about the impact. Trumpism has inspired Trump’s followers with the transgressive boldness he demonstrated first and best: that actually you can say anything you want, truth be damned, deny you said it, or contradict it. And with enough accrued power, you can break the law with impunity.
Authoritarians want control not only over the economy, military, courts and media, but also fact, science, history – over meaning itself. To violate the independence of truth and fact, to insist they are whatever you want them to be, is to enter the realms of meaninglessness. Authoritarianism is nihilism. As Hannah Arendt said, “The result of a consistent and total substitution of lies for factual truth is not that the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but that the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world – and the category of truth vs falsehood is among the mental means to this end – is being destroyed.”
Another crisis of our times is that the internet has isolated us, shattered our capacity to concentrate, undermined existing news media and created fertile ground for the spread of hate, misinformation and propaganda. The internet has isolated us from more face-to-face forms of contact and put us in spaces where combative shouting is normal and emotional honesty risky and rare, where in-group performativity is everywhere and dissent is dangerous. The loneliness epidemic Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, has talked about has everything to do with the internet and how it’s sucked us in in ways that have made other forms of contact wither away.
That’s my diagnosis. My prescription might be simple: be kind to each other, remembering the distress we’ve all lived through; defend the facts with ardor; fight fascism and climate chaos in the ways you’re best equipped to (and if you’re lucky, that will connect you to other good people doing that crucial work). And if you’re lonely know that even in that you’re not alone; millions are, in large part because of how our world got rearranged. But diagnosis is the first step of treatment or cure, and just talking about how personal the impact is of this chaotic new era matters.
Rebecca Solnit is a Guardian US columnist. She is the author of Orwell’s Roses and co-editor with Thelma Young Lutunatabua of the climate anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility