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Pop quiz: On average, who do you spend more time thinking about?

A. Your best friend
B. Donald Trump

A. Your mother
B. Donald Trump

A. The person you love the most in the world
B. Donald Trump

If you answered all Bs, you’re in good company: America is obsessed with Donald Trump. With our smartphones as our enablers, we’re reading about, listening to, and discussing Trump from the moment we wake up in the morning until we lay our heads down at night. It’s an unhealthy relationship, and for the sake of ourselves and our country, it’s time for us to take back our lives.


Considering how much time we spend paying attention to him, it can seem hard to believe that not so long ago, Donald Trump really didn’t matter. He was like unenriched uranium: yellow and slightly radioactive but unable to inflict harm on a mass scale.

Fast-forward to today. As president, Trump has been weaponized, able to unleash his destructive power — and control the news cycle — simply by tapping his thumbs.

His favorite tactic is to encourage the nastier sides of human nature, such as tribalism and cruelty. But Trump also has managed to turn one of our positive traits against us: As responsible citizens, many of us feel that it’s our civic duty to follow the news. Under Trump, this has gone from a patriotic pastime to what feels like a full-time job.

As The Apprentice made obvious, Donald Trump is not someone you want as your boss. He exhibits many of the signature traits of an emotional abuser — and just because we don’t know him personally doesn’t mean that we’re not vulnerable to his attacks.

In particular, Trump is an expert at gaslighting — a term described by the National Domestic Violence Hotline as “an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity.” (It’s not a coincidence that gaslighting is also a favorite technique of Vladimir Putin.)

Gaslighting techniques include questioning the victim’s memory even when the victim remembers the events correctly, changing the subject when challenged, blaming others, and denying and/or pretending to forget what actually occurred. They read, in other words, like the instruction manual for Trump’s Twitter account.

Whether it’s being deployed against a person or a population, gaslighting has the same goal as all forms of abuse: to assert power and control. In the mind of Trump, this translates to getting people to pay attention to him. And that’s where we come in. When his 53.4 million Twitter followers obsess over his every word, we’re giving him exactly what he wants.

Trump craves attention in part because he’s a narcissistic bully. But it’s also a strategy: The faster he creates new headlines, the less time we’ll have to process — and protest — what happened the day before. Our shock and outrage leave us paralyzed, and this, in turn, gives him even more control.

To be clear, I’m not equating following Trump on Twitter with actually being trapped in a personal abusive relationship. In fact, that’s the point: They’re not the same. In an abusive personal relationship, it can obviously be difficult and dangerous to leave your abuser. But our relationships with Trump are not personal — which means we can escape.


If you want to break up with Donald Trump, your first step should be a reality check: Are you really checking the news to stay up to date on world events? Or are you checking the news for news about Donald Trump? This is easy to figure out: Go to your favorite news site and try to read an entire article about Brexit. (Or global warming. Or cryptocurrency. Or, really, any article that doesn’t have “Trump” in the title.)

When I tried this myself, I was horrified. Just as intelligence officials have reportedly begun to resort to “models, physical demonstrations, and extensive use of photographs” to keep Trump’s attention during their security briefings, I apparently needed at least one Trump reference per paragraph to retain my interest. The idea that I was constantly checking the news out of a sense of civic responsibility was as plausible as someone claiming to watch General Hospital out of an interest in health policy.

I’m not unique. Nicholas Kristof, the award-winning New York Times columnist who writes frequently about human rights, environmental issues, and other things that Trump doesn’t care about, conducts a yearly analysis to see which of his columns were the most and least read. His 2017 conclusion? “[T]he common thread of my poorly read columns was, disconcertingly, a spotlight on injustice or humanitarian needs.” His Trump-related columns, on the other hand, received “incomparably greater readership.”

This might be sad, but it also makes sense. Even if you hate him, you have to admit that Donald Trump is entertaining, and it’s a lot more fun to read about White House gossip than it is to spend your morning coffee break catching up on Syria. Unfortunately, the more we ignore real news in favor of titillating headlines, the more we live up to the stereotype of ignorant, self-centered Americans — which is to say, the more we become like Trump.


There’s another reason we spend so much time on Trump: We’re addicted to him.

The word “addict” is derived from the Latin word for “slave,” and this is more appropriate than you might think. While substance addictions like heroin tend to get the most attention, it’s also possible to become addicted to behaviors, such as gambling. And as it turns out, financial conflicts of interest aren’t the only connections between casinos and our commander in chief. Every time we see a Trump-related tweet or headline, our brains release the same chemical that’s triggered when we pull the lever of a slot machine.

That chemical is dopamine, a neurotransmitter that tells our brains when something is worth doing again. Dopamine plays a crucial role in helping us establish habits, which means that it’s evolutionarily essential — it’s released, for example, in response to food and sex.

But dopamine is also a key player in addictions. Our brain’s dopamine systems don’t distinguish between habits that are good for us and those that are harmful. Anything that stimulates the release of dopamine is something we’ll want to repeat — and the more dopamine that’s released, the more powerful the urge will be.

This lack of selectivity means that, much like the DNC’s servers, our dopamine systems are vulnerable to being hacked. Doing so is easy: You simply identify things that cause dopamine to be released, and then incorporate as many of them as possible into your product’s design.

Packed with dopamine triggers, slot machines are a perfect example of how effective this manipulation can be. They’re also widely considered to be one of the most addictive devices ever invented. This makes it worth noting the many traits they share with Donald Trump, including bright colors, loud noises, and, most important, unpredictability.

You’d think humans would be drawn to activities with predictably good outcomes. But instead, the less predictable something is, the more attractive it becomes. Or, to put it a different way, the possibility of a reward is often more satisfying than the reward itself. (Definitions of “reward” can vary: For one person, it might be Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation; for another, it could be an indictment. Our addiction to Trump is surprisingly apolitical.)

As a reality television star and natural showman, Trump exhibits an incredible ability to keep people guessing (and to get the media itself to act as his enabler). Did his campaign collude with Russia? Are we going to have a nuclear war with North Korea? Is he related to this bird? No one knows!

And even if a question seems like it’s been answered, there’s no guarantee that Trump won’t contradict himself five minutes later. His unpredictability is itself unpredictable, which leaves us in a constant state of anticipation over what he might do next.


Addiction is often defined as being unable to stop yourself from engaging in a behavior even when you are aware that it is harmful. So, what are the consequences of being stuck on Trump?

To start, if you’re paying attention to Trump because you hate him, then you’re allowing yourself to be controlled by anger and fear — which are the very same forces that gave rise to his presidency. It’s also probably making you miserable. (Seriously, when’s the last time you closed a news app and thought, “Well, that made me feel better”?) For many of us, every day of this presidency brings a nauseating sense that nothing matters anymore.

Instead of protecting ourselves, however, we respond by giving him even more of our time. And that’s an even bigger problem, because time is a zero-sum game. Whenever we spend more time on one thing, we must, by necessity, spend less time on something else. Every minute we spend on Donald Trump is therefore time we are not spending on our friends, our family, our communities, our colleagues, or ourselves. We are not working, or creating, or relaxing. We are not thinking, or helping, or learning, or doing things that brings us meaning or joy. And we’re not doing anything to fight back.


The argument against limiting one’s exposure to Trump usually goes like this: Donald Trump is the important news story right now, which means that if you don’t keep your eyes on him at all times, you’re being complacent. It’s like the bumper sticker maxim: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” And it’s true. We need to keep reminding ourselves, over and over again, that from his sympathy toward white supremacists to his reluctance to call out Russia for its attacks on our democracy, this is not normal.

But I’m not suggesting we pretend the president doesn’t exist. I’m simply suggesting that we cut back on the time we spend on him — for example, by refreshing our news feed five times a day instead of 50, or reading articles for 10 minutes instead of two hours. This need not be an all-or-nothing affair.

Also, trust me: If you stop deliberately seeking out news about Donald Trump, it will still find you. The man is impossible to fully escape. And this, in turn, means that if you cut back on your exposure, you won’t stop being outraged. You’ll just have some energy left over to actually do something about it.


How do we strike a balance between performing our civic duties and maintaining our sanity? Trump himself has provided some useful suggestions.

Build a wall. Not between the United States and Mexico, but between yourself and the media. Decide how much time you want to spend per day on the news. Then, ask yourself: When and where do you want to consume it, and for how long? (For example, I feel less bad about Trump through the filter of Stephen Colbert.) Just as important, identify places he is not allowed to enter, such as the dinner table or your bedroom.

Lock [him] up. I don’t mean that literally (yet). I mean preventing Trump from disturbing you without your consent. Disable news-related notifications on your phone. Better yet, delete your news apps entirely and only check from a web browser, which is less user-friendly and thus less likely to suck you in. If you want to go further, buy a newspaper (remember those?). And, for God’s sake, stop following Trump on Twitter.

Make America great again. Every hour we spend ruminating on Donald Trump is an hour not spent making anything great. But if we want to break the habit, we have to give ourselves something constructive to do instead.

Give yourself a minute to write a short list of things that you think make America great. Like our national park system, for example, or the fact that I won’t be arrested for writing this article. Then, when you notice that you’re about to dive into a Trump spiral (or that you’re already in one), do something to support one of the items on your list. Invite your friends and family to volunteer with you at a local charity. Do something nice for a stranger. Donate to an organization you believe in. Call your congressional representatives — and be polite to the person who picks up the phone.

And in your darkest moments, the times when the fallout from Trump’s election causes you the most fear, remember the thing about America that has always — and will always — make us great: the fact that we can vote.