Signs of the outbreak were easy to miss at first as members of Congress cast their eyes downward and altered their routes when they spotted waiting reporters. But this was no one-day flu, as was evident when the evasive actions became more pronounced and Republican officeholders suddenly were too ill-disposed to accept television invitations Tuesday evening.
By Wednesday, there was no doubt: Trump Fatigue had struck Washington, attacking both staffers and members of Congress.
Sen. Susan Collins was an early victim, giving first voice to it Monday when she lamented, “Can we have a crisis-free day? That’s all I’m asking.” On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—who spent eight years bedeviling a president whose nickname was “No Drama Obama”—pleaded for a cure, stating, “I think it would be helpful to have less drama emanating from the White House.”
Neither senator needed a report from the World Health Organization to know that there is no inoculation for this affliction, though. Instead of the crisis-free day Collins craved, she suffered through another day of fresh reports of Trumpian missteps and demands from reporters for her defense of the fellow Republican in the White House.
One reason for the Republican malaise is that Trump Fatigue is a new disease. Veteran politicians easily lived through outbreaks of Reagan Fatigue, Clinton Fatigue, Bush Fatigue, and Obama Fatigue. But those did not strike the body politic until the final year of two-term presidencies. Never has fatigue with an incumbent broken out in the first year of a term, much less in the first quarter of the first year.
“People normally get tired of a second-term president because we are all waiting for him to go,” said Thomas Nichols, a former Republican Senate aide who is professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College and author of a new book, The Death of Expertise. “This is different. People are opening their morning newspaper or their Twitter accounts with one eye squinting and asking ‘What now?’”
He blames the fatigue on the fact that Trump’s woes are not the norm for a new president. “People can take a lot of early-presidential-term bad news within normal parameters,” he told National Journal. “You expect certain things. Political junkies like me always take bets on which Cabinet nominee will flame out first. That is normal. But from Day One, right from the Flynn fiasco and the implosion of the executive orders. this has been different.”
For Nichols, the telltale sign of political fatigue “is that even Democrats aren’t happy—and they are mostly winning. That’s a classic sign of fatigue, that even people getting what they want aren’t happy about it.”
Veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz argues that the disease afflicts officeholders in Washington more than average Americans. Politicians “want predictability. They want no surprises,” he said. “They’ve now come to accept that every day is going to bring a new set of issues that they hadn’t anticipated before.”
Their unhappiness is deepened by the realization that the daily surprises from the White House undermine their ability to address the issues on their agenda. “They have become observers. They are not participating in this chaos. They are observing it and then they are expected to comment on it,” he said. “They are accustomed to leading. You become a participant when you have a strong White House. You become an observer when you have chaos. And we are in chaos right now.”
Luntz doubts that the country shares the Washington fatigue, citing soaring ratings for the daily White House briefing, for cable news channels, and network newscasts. “It doesn’t matter what part of the country. It doesn’t matter your income or education. You are still addicted to what’s happening in Washington,” he said, calling it “unlike any environment” he has seen in his decades in Republican politics.
“It shows no signs of dissipating,” he said. “People used to binge-watch their favorite drama. Now, they binge-watch cable news or they are checking the web five or six times a day.”
Nichols acknowledges the big audiences but sees them as another sign of fatigue. “The ratings for wars and natural disasters are high, too. But we don’t want to schedule more of them,” he said. “Saying that the ratings are high simply means that people are freaking out and they can’t help themselves from watching even if it is upsetting them and wearing them down.”
A big contrast with earlier administrations that stumbled out of the gate is that so many of the controversies have centered on the president himself. “Everything is happening right at the very top. It is instantly national news. It is instantly in the public eye. And then the president amplifies it on Twitter,” said Nichols.
“The whole political class is waiting for the first tweet of the day from the president of the United States and it’s off we go. It is exhausting.” He added, “Most of us didn’t have to live on the same daily schedule as the president. But we do now.”
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