Ever since Donald Trump won the election, every day has seen a new barrage of controversy. From his dubious choices for Cabinet positions to his hostility toward the media to the executive orders he has signed this week, the sorts of micro-scandals he peddled during the campaign have persisted. Of late, my Facebook feed — once a haven for memes and sorority recruitment photos — has been flooded with shocking sound bites from the president’s speeches and Cabinet confirmation hearings.
This phenomenon, which radio host Hugh Hewitt calls a “daily diet of controversy,” has gone on since the day Trump announced his candidacy. Driven primarily by those who oppose him, an obsession with every transgression he commits pervades the imagination of the American public. At times, these factions have co-opted his language to oppose him, as evidenced by the frequent use of the term “nasty woman” by women’s rights activists. While those who aim to resist Trump have grown accustomed to reacting viscerally to his scandalous statements, it is worth evaluating the efficacy of this practice.
During the campaign, widespread attention to Trump’s incendiary comments contributed a great deal to his election victory. Studies find that he had an average of 10 times more coverage in the press during the primary than his Republican opponents, and the media’s obsession with Trump did not falter after he secured the nomination. In fact, CNN President Jeff Zucker publicly acknowledged that his network’s coverage of the campaign contributed to the eventual outcome. Though many recognize the role of the press in bolstering the president’s campaign, the media — and the public in general — still cannot help but hang on his every distasteful word.
The president routinely uses objectionable language and makes false assertions — but obsessing over controversial statement after controversial statement only contributes to the cult of personality he has so deftly constructed around himself. More attention provides him with more political capital and a greater chance of achieving his agenda. Moreover, focusing on his rhetoric distracts from serious policy discussion. Recently, American public discourse has resembled “The Apprentice,” rather than the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Instead of swelling up in outrage, those shocked by Trump’s rhetoric ought to take concrete steps to effect change. Serious debate on public policy is far more effective than posting Facebook statuses about how offensive he is.
More broadly, though, we ought to ask whether politics plays too large a role on this campus. Most of Yale’s largest extracurricular groups pertain to political debate or political action, and it is hard to attend a seminar without discussing some political issue at least tangentially. The largest debates on this campus in the past few years have all pertained to political issues in one form or another.
It seems we have forgotten that politics is a means to an end. We engage in policy debates and participate in elections in order to be free to live our conception of the good life. We should ask ourselves, then, whether it is self-defeating to let political involvement and discussion take over our lives. By prioritizing political discourse over the discussion of subjects like art, religion and philosophy, we start to ignore many of the things that ought to matter most to us.
To be sure, everything is political in some sense, and politics is elemental to our existence. However, it is not the be all and end all of public life: Sometimes, it is best to simply marvel at the beauty of a work of art or a poem, without considering its implications on say, gender norms or class struggle.
The guarantee of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in our Constitution was intended to serve as a barrier against the excessive intrusion of politics in our private lives. At the center of the American credo is the belief that humans ought to face as few obstacles as possible in living their lives freely. To an extent, Trump threatens this value; it is necessary to recognize and resist that. But by letting his words become the focus of our conversations, we only further contribute to the debilitation of civic life and personal fulfillment.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .