Here is part of an email alert that The New York Times sent to its readers over the weekend: “Breaking News: President Trump wore a mask publicly for the first time.”
The announcement would not seem, at first glance, to merit the urgency. Breaking news is typically the stuff of shock, its revelations suggesting a rupture in the assumed order of things—and this was, after all, an update about face fabric. But the sad truth was that the bit of news, for all its absurdity, also deserved the designation. After months of resistance—the seeming result of vanity and spite and stubbornness—Donald Trump, on Saturday, had finally deigned to model the simple public-health protocol proven to halt the spread of a virus that has killed more than 129,000 Americans. Changing Trump’s mind—the result, reportedly, of negotiation and “pleading” on the part of his aides—wasn’t just an exercise in optics; it would save lives. The belated development could not qualify as good news. But it was news.
And it was a type of news that is, more than three years into the Trump era, all too familiar. Americans’ awareness of their president exists, now, at almost the cellular level: Never has the public been so intimately acquainted with the body of the executive, its impulses and its fickle humors. The 5 a.m. tweets tell us when he has awakened. Their tone tells us when he is angry, or indignant. Their ellipses invite us to fill in the blanks: What did he mean? What will he do next? Presidents, traditionally, have operated at a public remove; Trump, by contrast, is inescapable. News stories regularly report on his funks and his furies, turning what was once merely the subtext of national news events—the president’s feelings—into the text. The reporting is rational: Trump’s wayward whims are matters of national security. His rage can threaten. His pride can harm. That grim knowledge has turned Americans, over time, into a nation of armchair psychologists, struggling to understand the workings of one particular psyche. The efforts are fruitless, but they continue all the same. The public—both in spite of Donald Trump’s ubiquity, and because of it—remains ever tuned to his frequency.