The Intellectual Situation
Now Less Than Never
A smooth forehead suggests a hard heart
In the unseasonable heat of winter, we’ve been avoiding the news — or trying to regulate our intake. If we don’t, it’s everything all the time. On Saturday morning, the President thumbs off a string of tweets accusing the former President of tapping his old residence. The internet bursts, the networks roar. Officials and commentators mug for the camera and deny, harangue, shake their heads. “Norms” are said to be “violated,” “democracy” is said to be “at stake.” Everything is “unprecedented.” It has never been like this, it will always be like this. Now and forever, farewell the tranquil mind. On one station, there’s a break in the scrum: terrible images from Mosul, people starving in the streets. If only they could feed on hot takes.
We switch on NPR and — damn, another pledge drive! “Now more than ever, the truth matters,” they say. Our phone pings. It’s an email from Our Revolution: our donation matters “now more than ever.” Ping. Lena Dunham: our power is in our numbers, “now more than ever.” Ping. PEN America: free speech matters “now more than ever.” We scan our inbox and it’s in all the subject lines: from the DCCC, NARAL, the ACLU, the New York Times. And they need our money. So now, more than ever . . . Ping. There’s 37,000 new tweets in our feed. We read them hurriedly, our armpits damp. There’s DeRay Mckesson, truth-teller to power! But wait — he’s promoting Verizon’s new unlimited phone plan, which apparently we need now, more than ever.
Now more than ever. The phrase is everywhere, its most famous use (“Now more than ever seems it rich to die,” from “Ode to a Nightingale”) blithely forgotten. Forgotten, too, is Nixon’s campaign slogan from 1972. He was funneling money from the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) to burglars, who were bugging offices, faking correspondence, wrecking the Democratic primaries, and rigging the election. The Justice Department, FBI, the CIA (the “Deep State”!) — everyone was involved. How much did we need it? “Our environment, our cities, our economy, our dealings with other nations — there is much to be done, to be changed,” warned the smoke-ragged white-man voice in his political ad. “That is why we need President Nixon, now more than ever.”
Sweaty, dirty, grizzled Nixon: now there was another President who got in people’s heads every day. But he saved his best, sickest material for the tapes. With Trump, there’s no smoking gun to subpoena. He gets there first, spraying you in the face with a buckshot shell of tweets.
To perceive “now” as being “more than ever,” one has to be in a period of crisis and disjuncture — or at least feel like one is. And “now more than ever” has always been used to sell things in moments of crisis. Like ASAP, it’s an efficiently grandiose way to convey a false sense of urgency.
Google Ngram shows pervasive use of the phrase in the 19th century—mostly, it seems, in missionary tracts, where it conveyed evangelical fervor. It fell out of favor in the early 20th century, then spiked again during the world wars. “During the war,” the Economist wrote in 1949, “advertisers, in an effort to sell goods totally unrelated to the seriousness of the time, found the value of sentences beginning ‘Now more than ever . . . ,’ which helped them to sell tennis racquets and bathing suits with the argument that keeping fit was now more than ever vital.” “Now more than ever” went through a steady decline over the course of the postwar era, despite the Nixon plug, as the cold war resolved in favor of capitalism.
But during this apparent decline, the production of nowness grew more pervasive and sophisticated. Radio broadcasts and evening editions gave way to twenty-four-hour TV news and the infinite scroll of social media feeds. To keep up, we made ourselves constantly but abstractedly alert, ready for moments of outrage or disappointment, because there would always be a reason, now more than ever, to feel them. It was how the world made money, too. Producing the feeling of “now more than ever” could get you clicks, views, ratings.
Now more than ever, we must endure the claim that everything is now more than ever.Tweet
Adding urgency to it all is the growing recognition — still hardly profound enough — of catastrophic climate change. A millennial eschatology has returned, taking the place of false positivism and pseudo-rational prognoses. We once again imagine the end of days: it is inevitable, and unpredictable. The restrainer — the katechon — has been removed, the redeemer will not be kept from the Earth. It’s only a matter of when. Fear, now more than ever, the heat of the sun.
For eight years we lived in what felt like a stopgap: the Obama era, with its theater of deliberation. His administration was ineffably calm, a Poussin tableau of studied composure; the awestruck media reported its every move in a kind of trance. The President spoke haltingly and sometimes inscrutably because he was, we were told, careful. Even the murder of innocents was not reckless but part of a plan. He would not order a drone strike until he’d repaired to his chambers to consult Augustine and Niebuhr. Only then, like Antony with his list of the proscribed, would he prick the offending name. The economy languished, buffeted by waves of state-level austerity and federal sequestration. But the market was high: quantitative easing kept things liquid, and loose labor markets kept wages down and inflation in check. So spellbindingly mediocre was this time that it seemed like it could go on forever, punctuated by the occasional, distant annihilation of an Afghan or Yemeni wedding party, conspicuously underreported.
But beneath it all was a growing rage. Obama himself had christened the moment when he exclaimed, during the 2008 Democratic primaries, “We are the ones we have been waiting for. ” He was right, only more than he’d hoped. New movements disrupted the calm: squares were occupied, police impunity met with resistance. We watched it all in real time. As “now” became filled with “more,” everything looked like disjuncture, and continuities became harder to see. The war on terror — itself part of a decades-long war for the greater Middle East — receded from view, even as Obama added to its victims in several more countries. The scandal over police killings of unarmed black men and women in the US was — or should have been — a long-standing one, along with mass incarceration, to which it was tied. Still, the “more” became a symbol of unending difference, of moving from one era to another after another.
The feeling of crisis was best exploited by reactionaries. Outlets like Breitbart evoked the vertiginous feeling of a planet unhinged, careening out of orbit, about to smash, like in the final scene of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. In the infamous “Flight 93 Election” article in the Claremont Review of Books, the anonymous author (later outed as former Bush speechwriter Michael Anton) compared the country to a plane hijacked by terrorists. The only way to save it was to hand the cockpit to Donald Trump — who might, Anton conceded, still kill everyone.
On November 8, the growing din became a ceaseless alarm bell. And there is much to be alarmed about: bans on travel and immigration from majority-Muslim countries, increased deportations, swift rollbacks of regulations on the environment and the police. This is only a month or so into the Trump regime, and the midterm elections are still in the bronze distance. Weekend plans are protests; meetings, to plan more protests, take up the evenings. Now more than ever, we wonder if it’s worth thinking or reading anything that doesn’t aid our political imagination. But exhaustion attends alertness, and each day closes with the mind spent. What better time to binge on prestige television? But then — ping — more breaking news.
If Obama understood the value of deliberation, Trump understands only frenzy. He is the President of “now more than ever.” The phrase brings with it an aesthetic of suddenness, of what Carl Schmitt called “decisionism.” It matters little that this or that order fails in the corrupt courts or is denounced by seething mobs; what matters is the spectacle of activity, of things taking place. The bureaucracy is demoralized and bewildered — but after all, who needs bureaucracy? Leaks become a flood; the thirsty are no sooner sated than they are parched. Four thousand new analyses appear at once, trailing a penumbra of several million tweets. Protests assemble in an instant, the biggest ever. Chaos is a sign of consequence.
Now more than ever, we must endure the claim that everything is now more than ever. The past recedes, weak precedent to what is supposedly unprecedented. Equanimity is a crime. A smooth forehead suggests a hard heart.