White Noise

by Elise Hempel

ScreenHunter_2602 Feb. 20 09.42I admit that Obama sometimes bored me. Not when he was fired up, almost singing, gospel-style, at a rally. Not when he was broadly smiling, affectionately joking with Joe Biden or being teased by Michelle. Not even when he was doing a serious interview with Steve Kroft, leaning forward with his hands together, deep-voiced. But during a press conference, fielding a random question – the long pauses for thought, the even longer, deliberate responses…. That's when I'd change the channel or walk out of the room for a snack. But no matter. I always knew that behind his ability to bore was a solid president, a decent man.

One afternoon last year, standing at the kitchen sink, I heard a low, almost-monotone, almost-mumbling voice that kept drifting here and there as it spoke, a voice that seemed to have no direction. I thought the radio was on in my partner's office, tuned to some daytime talk show, a soft-voiced FM deejay meandering, filling the air-space. But when I walked out of the kitchen I saw that what I'd been hearing was really the TV, a Trump rally my partner, Ray, had paused on in his channel-surfing. What I'd been hearing was really Donald Trump going on and on about something, changing from one thing to the next without transition, filling time and somehow having filled the venue with a crowd. How could anyone possibly stay awake at his rallies? (And, standing now in the living-room with the dish towel in my hand, staring at the television screen, is it possible that I noticed the possibly-paid spectators directly behind Trump turning their heads in distraction, shifting in boredom, laughing with each other about something, anything, besides what Trump was rambling on about?)

Steve Bannon has called Donald Trump "probably the greatest orator since William Jennings Bryan." (Huh?) And I've read a handful of articles that say that people like me just don't get it: Trump speaks in a language, with a style understood by only his fervent supporters. Might it really be that, as Donald Trump rambles, his supporters are hearing, through the static and "white noise," only the bits that catch their ear, that serve their needs and wants, as I do when I'm "wool-gathering" while my partner talks, my head finally turning when he says he'll watch tonight's real-life murder show with me, or as my dog does when, somewhere in the endless jumble of my baby-talk, I speak the word "bone" or "kitty" or "walkies"?

Somehow during the campaign, with his relentless and predictable anti-Hillary and pro-wall chants, he was supposed to be the more interesting candidate, and, indeed, as Alex Ross writes in a December article in The New Yorker, "Of the clouds and shadows that hung over Clinton in the press, the darkest, perhaps, was the prospect of boredom." But how long can we watch as Trump continues to sign an assembly-line of executive orders, handing back the pen to Mike Pence, displaying each order with his signature like a parent holding up a picture-book at bedtime? Can we stand the prospect of even one more rambling, mumbling press conference (even if it's spiced with seething sarcasm and sheer strangeness)? How many more lies can possibly shock us? How many more hyberbolic adjectives before our brains go numb?

Trump's boringness would all be forgiveable if, like Obama, he had knowledge, experience, self-awareness and grace. But the voice that rambles and mumbles, that repeats (oh god, does it repeat), that has no direction, just filling space like my freshmen composition students used to do when they had no idea what to write, is the voice of arrogance and utter incompetence. Trump's having been "first in his class" at Pennsylvania University's Wharton School of Business has been proven false, and I see him now as a student, stretching his essays to the required three pages – increasing his type size, widening his margins, padding his sentences with … great words.

Because it's the last thing he wants to be, I'll revise a line from John Berryman: Donald Trump, friends, is boring. Let's say so. (And if only such an offense were impeachable.)