On November 8th, 2016, I was in Boston for a large marketing and advertising conference. I’d recently begun work as a copywriter, and while I was excited for the opportunity to learn all I could about my new career endeavor, I was even more thrilled about something else.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of my literary idols, was giving the keynote the next morning.
I was out for dinner with my co-workers, and we watched as the election numbers came in, shifting uncomfortably in our seats as it looked as though the unthinkable might occur. I imagined Mr. Coates in his hotel room rewriting his speech, but hoped he wouldn’t have to.
The next morning, I sat rapt as he spoked — only mildly distracted by those audience members who chose to stand and walk out, and who later complained about his “politically charged speech.” What struck me about their actions was that nothing about Coates’s words were inflammatory. He didn’t spout rhetoric or point fingers. In fact, he only cast blame on one individual.
“I took my eye off the ball,” he said.
He went on to explain that though he tried to resist, even he had been somewhat caught up in the supposed “post-racial” moment that some claimed existed during the two-term Obama era.
In doing so, Coates said he’d allowed himself to lose sight of what might come next — the backlash from those who felt they needed to reclaim and “make great again” the country that had been taken from them by our first Black president.
Coates concluded his speech advising himself and all of us to keep our eyes on the ball. It has stuck with me ever since.
Especially in moments like we saw on Tuesday.
Because of course Donald Trump said the impeachment inquiry is a lynching. Of course he did. Bees gonna buzz, ducks gonna waddle, and Trump’s gonna Trump. Is anyone really surprised he compared the worst stain on this country’s history with a political act in which no lives are put in danger, especially his?
Now, I realize that by not being surprised, there is a danger of normalizing his behavior. But let’s be clear — this behavior is normal for him.
Not being surprised, however, allows us to do something different — it lets us keep our eyes on the ball.
For the last three years, this president has made a routine of moving the goalposts as it relates to what it is he is capable of — and what he is capable of getting away with. Every time we allow ourselves to think that this has to be thing, that this absolutely insane and unprecedented action or comment will be that back-breaking final straw, it isn’t.
And so, we are outraged — justifiably — at whatever that thing might be. We take to social media, we write our think pieces, and we call for his ouster.
But then comes the moment when all that unironically righteous anger dies down, and while we watch him from the periphery, our primary gaze seems to turn elsewhere. I suspect it’s because those fits of fury are exhausting — and he knows it.
Not being surprised, however, allows us to do something different -- it lets us keep our eyes on the ball.
As such, when the fervor has died down, it becomes easy for our imaginations to get captured by the next shiny horrible object lobbed our way.
I’m not saying anything new about the strategies this administration has used to wear us down. Still, it is vital that we not allow ourselves to be fatigued by this shock and awe campaign in such a way that we lose our focus.
While it’s difficult — damn near impossible — to rank the reprehensibility of the things this president has said and done, this one is to date, right up there with his greatest hits.
As I’ve said before in this space, I’m angry, I’m disappointed — but I’m not surprised.
That lack of surprise will ensure that, as Mr. Coates so wisely advised, I don’t drop the ball when it comes my way.