The Georgia capital was prepared for chaos, but the MAGA faithful were nowhere to be seen on the day that Fulton County DA Fani Willis filed the RICO case against Trump & Co. The only clash between cops and protesters in downtown Atlanta came from the left, not the right—the result of a handful of police abolitionists showing up to loudly compare Atlanta’s mayor, Andre Dickens, to the 45th president. According to this chippy bunch, Dickens merits such a comparison for his undemocratic efforts to squelch dissent against “Cop City,” a pejorative moniker for the controversial $90 million police-academy project being built outside the city limits. “Donald Trump, Andre Dickens—I Can’t Tell the Fucking Difference,” they chanted from just a stone’s throw of the Fulton County Courthouse.
The New York Times, desperate to depict something other than an empty street, even posted a photo of the Cop City protesters to pair with indictment coverage, which the paper later deleted from an online version of the story. It was an uncomfortable reminder that without the presence of Trump die-hards, the metal barriers surrounding the courthouse like a castle moat actually appeared to hem in what some might say are the real barbarians at the gate—our modern-day town criers.
Attendance barely improved a week later, despite pleas for a rally from far-right media personality Laura Loomer—a post shared by Trump himself on Truth Social—and a cameo by Rep. Majorie Taylor-Greene. The Associated Press dutifully reported that “dozens” of Trump supporters stood outside the Fulton jail to greet the ex-president as he took the Mugshot Seen Around the World. Yet they were outnumbered by journalists who desperately talked up the possibility of a spectacle that never came.
That hardly anyone showed up for a Jan. 6 sequel in Atlanta isn’t surprising if you have been paying attention. Everywhere in 2023, there are signs that the age of “hyperpolitics” in America is drawing to a close—much to the chagrin of the political media-NGO-industrial complex. News consumption is down, political donations are dwindling, and yard signs are being shoved into attics. Likewise, Black Lives Matter (the organization) imploded, and hardly anyone noticed, and the Proud Boys are seemingly too busy not drinking Bud Light to rally.
This state of affairs would be unthinkable as recently as two years ago. To recap, hyperpolitics is the pithy term that academic and leftist writer Anton Jäger coined to describe the tumultuous period between 2016 and the early 2020s when the specter of politics seemed to emerge from some dark cave. Suddenly, politics was Everything Everywhere All At Once. “The mood of contemporary politics is one of incessant yet diffuse excitation,” wrote Jäger.
That excitation blossomed near the end of the Obama administration, a breathless time when the once-fringe left- and right-wing populist campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Trump unexpectedly caught fire, promising an end to the somnambulant neoliberal consensus of governance. The day after Trump was elected, it was as if every cell of every human in America had been infused with the DNA of partisan politics. Vive la #Résistance! Or, if preferred, Viva Trump!
It was thrilling, and no one could get enough of it. Cable-news ratings went through the roof, as did New York Times and Washington Post subscriptions. When we weren’t watching politics, we were expressing new political identities on social media, consuming goods that “shared our values,” and ex-communicating friends and family who didn’t follow suit. Even the home was no haven from virtue-signaling, with “MAGA” or “In This House, We Believe…” signs staked in yards like meatspace versions of pinned tweets.
The stakes were high, because the threat of fascism or communism, we were told, was knocking on our doors. That fever spilled out onto the streets, first with Democrats and leftists. Almost every day, a brand new group was parading in an American city while wielding hand-drawn signs: women’s marches, science marches, racial-justice marches, immigrant marches, oh my! Taco Tuesday got overshadowed by Resist Trump Tuesdays, and crowds kept tearing down statues of dead white men—and on at least one occasion, that of an abolitionist black man. Liberals like to forget it now, but there was even a “March for Truth” that demanded, and later got, an ill-fated Russiagate investigation (a Robert Mueller patron-saint necklace, anyone?).
In all, Americans held nearly 60,000 protests and marches in the four years from early 2017 through Inauguration Day 2021, with an estimated 21 million to 31 million participants, according to a Harvard study. Then Joe Biden won, and it was the MAGA masses’ turn to hit the streets for the Jan. 6 debacle and, later, to object to Covid policies like vaccine mandates.
Yet this final burst was short-lived. As the pandemic faded into the rearview mirror of American life, so, too, did the primacy of politics. On the surface, the hyperpolitical is still with us. Electoral politics is still big business. You can still find marches in the streets—whether it’s for or against abortion, LGBTQ rights, climate change, or the police—with Trump still looming over the whole endeavor like a Sword of Damocles.
But the numbers are way down across the board. Small-dollar giving at the federal level is down $30 million compared to this point four years ago. NGOs are hurting. Membership in the Democratic Socialists of America is in decline. The first Republican debate drew roughly half of the viewers that tuned in to watch Trump’s debut eight years ago. Cable ratings, especially CNN, are tanking. Americans aren’t as obsessed with consuming and sharing news over Facebook and Twitter, thanks or no thanks in no small part to Elon Musk’s endless and obnoxious meddling with the “X” app. The proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news is at an all-time high: 36 percent. Why not watch a funny TikTok instead?
The streets are also noticeably emptier. Compared to the fury of the George Floyd protests three years ago, the turnout for the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis in January was scarce. Ditto for the January abortion-rights rally on the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade compared to the Women’s Marches of the Trump years. This week, the crowds at the AOC-led March to End Fossil Fuels in New York are roughly a quarter of what they were four years ago.
In retrospect, the last gasp of the era of hyperpolitics may have been in the weeks following Russia’s dramatic invasion of Ukraine last year. The blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag became ubiquitous almost immediately after Putin’s forces crossed the border, while anything Russia-related—the Moscow Mule, Russian ballets—got canceled. The antiwar movement? It’s barely made a peep even as the prospect of new nuclear crises menaces the planet.
There is still plenty of crucial political action happening in America, but it is concentrated at the state and local level at a time when the attention economy is skewed toward the national. If Atlanta’s mayor is indeed like Trump, how would anyone know?
We should have seen this coming. The white-hot nature of hyperpolitics probably doomed it to a short boom-and-bust shelf life. As Jäger himself has noted, political movements driven by charismatic influencers and digital demagogues—not established institutions—are like “furiously stepping on the gas with an empty tank.” While the invasion may have injected gas into Europe’s political tank, America’s is running on fumes.
What comes next is an open question. The resurgent labor movement is a welcome development, but there are ominous signs elsewhere that we are drifting toward a cyberpunk-themed reboot of the 1970s. The Covid safety net has withered, and urban downtowns are choked with the ramshackle dwellings of poor, dying drug addicts as driverless taxis whiz by. Cities are beginning to build sanctioned shantytowns for the homeless and migrants. Violence and conflict are up, but it is essentially the interpersonal, not political, kind. Office workers can barely be bothered to leave the house.
Just as the revolutionary fervor of 1968 exhausted itself and begat the American withdrawal into the navel-gazing Me Decade, we may be knee-deep in the Me Too Decade, but rebranded with the veneer of the political: self-care touted as a radical act. The elites binge-ate the social-justice movement, as observed by Freddie DeBoer, and then they settled in for a long nap, content with nuzzling up with the identity part of identity politics.
The patron saint for this vibe shift is Lauren Duca, the enfant terrible of woke Millennial journalist-influencers. In 2019, Duca somehow parlayed a Trump diss and an infamous appearance on Tucker Carlson’s show into a Simon & Schuster contract to write How to Start a Revolution: Young People and the Future of Politics. She vanished a year later, divorced, came out as queer, and is currently penning a memoir about her psychedelics-fueled spiritual journey titled Ego In Retreat: An Asshole’s Journey to God. Heaven help us.
If hyperpolitics really is dead, we will know as we draw closer to the 2024 election. Just as pumpkin-spice season starts earlier each year to prime the pump of Starbucks drinkers, so the media are already squeezing into Paul Revere garb to warn us that This Is The Most Important Election of Our Lifetimes—just as they do every two years.
Fox News is busy painting Biden as somehow both an omnipotent commie dictator and a senile fool. Canadian writer Stephen Marche just published, with Andrew Yang, The Last Election, a novel of speculative fiction about the frightening things that could happen if a charismatic moderate doesn’t save American democracy from itself. Rachel Maddow is gearing up for an American scare tour about the second coming of fascism. The Atlantic’s Tom Nichols just dusted off an “Americans-are-sleepwalking-through-national-emergency” take. Be ready for more talk about a coming civil war between people waving Blue Lives Matter flags and those rallying to the Pride Progress emblem, a self-immolation of the United States.
If that doesn’t grab eyeballs like it did a few years ago, well, maybe someone will rouse Jimmy Carter out of hospice care, Weekend at Bernie’s style, for one last “American malaise” speech.