With a vigilant eye on the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, Jay Rosen warns of the nauseating reactions likely to follow even a minimally competent State of the Union address:
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) January 28, 2018
Beneath this unfortunate headline followed an article which participated in the same process on which it was ostensibly reporting—the careful crafting of media narratives around a SOTU address. It was light on substance but heavy on optics, with a White House staffer promising “a speech that resonates with our American values and unites us with patriotism” (a sentence that would be piffle even with a President who didn’t make a mockery of words like “values” and “patriotism”). It includes details on the traditional camera-ready guests, including “someone who has been affected by the opioid crisis,” omitting mention of the same newspaper’s report that one of the White House’s top drug policy officials is a 24 year-old former Trump campaign volunteer with no experience.
Some media critics might see this as an omen of “Strange New Respect”—a term which was coined, as Jack Shafer explains, by an American Spectator writer frustrated by the journalistic plaudits which predictably awaited conservatives whose politics drifted leftward. In recent years, Shafter writes, “the trope’s meaning has warped and expanded to include any shift by an establishment from disdain to approval.”
There’s no doubt that the arrival of a Strange New Respect phase could present a serious problem (although that day is delayed every time the President crankily live-tweets an episode of Fox and Friends). But there’s something else at work in this emergent language of a “reset”—suggesting a state of affairs that shifts instantaneously, not gradually. The term conjures a reboot and a fresh start, rather than a reevaluation in light of meaningful change. Perhaps this is related to the palpable desire of some journalists to believe that American politics simply can’t deteriorate beyond a certain point. As a former GOP contender might put it, “the fundamentals of our democracy are strong.”
Enter reset. “Reset” is not a new word (the OED records this 1628 couplet by the English poet Robert Hayman: “If this Pope, Millions drawes with him to Hell, The next wise Pope may reset all things well.”) Even references to “reset switches” and “reset buttons” have been around for over a century. Even so, there’s a distinctly contemporary sensibility—a tech-inflected utopianism and impatience—marking the word’s recent migration into everyday political discourse. If Microsoft Word freezes, you reset your computer. If your commander-in-chief is Donald Trump, you reset the presidency.
This is a good example of how metaphorization, which often aids our thinking, can sometimes obscure it—or, in this case, replace it outright. We all know what it means to reset a smartphone or a circuit breaker, and our familiarity with these everyday actions superficially informs a similar understanding of what the Post is gesturing at. But on reflection, the concept is far from straightforward. What would it mean for Trump to “reset” his presidency? Will he apologize (and work to undo) his attacks on democratic norms, the rule of law, and the separation of powers? Will he allow the Mueller investigation to proceed without obstruction and work to prevent future election interference? Will he have a change of heart, abandoning the most dangerous, plutocratic, and racist parts of his agenda? Will he fire the white nationalists, paranoiacs, and cranks who populate the White House?
Of course he won’t. At best, Trump will give a competent speech before eventually reverting to his normal behavior. He might, for a time, behave more politely while he pursues his usual agenda, guided by his usual authoritarian instincts. Talk of a “reset” asks citizens to believe that a shift in tone, if delivered and marketed effectively, wipes away a whole host of past actions and begins this presidency over again. Implying that the presidency must, in the end, be functional and healthy, the term demands more of us than we can possibly give: The past must be forgotten, and the stubborn present bent into shape.