Sleep (Or Lack Thereof) in the Age of Trump
And this is, as our President might say, a huuuuge issue.
So the first month of the Trump administration is under our belts. And if it feels like it’s actually been much longer, it should. As The New York Times noted this week in a piece about how the media is dealing with the pace of covering Trump, “The news cycle begins at sunrise…and ends sometime in the overnight hours.”
And that’s because, among the many feuds Donald Trump has started in his short time in office–China, Mexico, Australia, the National Park Service Twitter feed, Judge James Robart, the intelligence community, Nordstroms–one of his oldest and most sustained is with sleep. As far back as 1990, he claimed in an interview with Playboy that he didn’t sleep “more than four hours a night.” At a rally in 2015, he not only revisited the topic, but he tied it to his success. “I have a great temperament for success,” he told the crowd. “You know, I’m not a big sleeper, I like three hours, four hours, I toss, I turn, I beep-de-beep, I want to find out what’s going on.” And just weeks after his inauguration, he told Bill O’Reilly that he stays up working until around 1 or 2 a.m. and gets up around 5 a.m. to watch TV. Current White House aides put the margins even closer, with one telling Politico, “I’ve gotten calls from him as late as 1:30 a.m. and as early as 4:30.”
But many more–perhaps millions–are being kept awake by President Trump not because he’s calling them, but because of the frenzy and chaos he creates. Stories abound of people being unable to fall asleep, of being exhausted by the pace of the daily barrage, and stressed out by the unpredictability of the news cycle. Along with our relationship with trade, China, Russia, and NATO, Trump is remaking our relationship with sleep–and that’s not good for him, for the media, or for us.
As for the President himself, we know that lack of sleep is definitely not a precursor for a “temperament for success.” At least if success in your job involves problem-solving, decision-making, learning, creativity, intuition, and reacting calmly instead of emotionally. A 2014 study by researchers from the University of California, Irvine and Michigan State University found that sleep deprivation can actually create false memories. And among the effects of sleep deprivation found by a study from Walter Reed hospital were: “decreased global emotional intelligence,” “reduced empathy toward others and quality of interpersonal relationships,” “reduced impulse control and difficulty with delay of gratification,” and “greater reliance on formal superstitions and magical thinking.”
That reads like a description of his press conference on Friday.
But one of the most clarifying studies that should inform how we think about the connection between leadership and sleep came from researchers from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Staying up 17 to 19 hours, the researchers found, gave subjects a level of cognitive impairment equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent–just under the legal limit in most states. A few hours more and performance levels are equal to a BAC of .1 percent. Now no president, even the most unconventional one, would brag about making all decisions while effectively drunk, but that’s what Trump is doing with his macho braggadocio about his lack of sleep.
This is, in many ways, the golden age of sleep science, but Trump’s retro attitude amounts to a sleep superstition that needs to be countered by the scientific community. Whether one supports President Trump or not, it’s in everybody’s interest — it’s in our national security’s interest — that he begins to get more sleep.
Sleep is also an issue for those covering this White House. Of course, the White House beat is never easy. And having run a 24/7 global newsroom, I know the challenges of covering the news in our always-connected digital world–the news never takes a break, yet humans have to. But how do you cover a president when a front-page story might break out in a series of late night or early morning tweets?
The Times piece on the media noted an exchange between the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray and NBC’s Hallie Jackson. “Only 9 hours or so till the next massive newsbreak that will prevent us from having lives again,” tweeted Gray. “wuts a life,” responded Jackson. “I remember vaguely there was a time when i had one,” tweeted Gray. The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin told the Times it reminded him of the relentless media storm during the O.J. trial. “The way both journalists and consumers feel kind of overwhelmed by the pace of developments,” Toobin said. “This feeling of, ‘Well, can’t it just stop for a while?’”
Even if it doesn’t–and it doesn’t seem likely to–the members of the media have to build in stops for themselves. To be able to rise to the occasion that this moment calls for, they have to be able to pull off the highway and recharge. Having to sleep with your phone next to your pillow–just in case world-shattering Twitter-hostilities break out overnight–is a sure path to burnout. I’ve heard from many covering the President that, like Gray and Jackson, they’re already exhausted just four weeks in. This isn’t a pace they can keep up for four years–or even four months.
And this is, as our President might say, a huuuuge issue. The press is in a unique–and uniquely important–position. They represent us, and they play a fundamental role in our democracy. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the only security of all is in a free press.” Even if the President keeps up his dangerous–one might say, sad! low energy!–sleep habits, it’s vitally important for all of us that those covering him take care of themselves and don’t try to match him.
At the end of the Times piece, New Yorker editor Remnick said that “exhaustion is not an option” and that, “if you are already exhausted after three and a half weeks, you better buck up.” It’s unclear what he means by buck up, but I hope it’s something along the lines of bunk up, as in get some sleep. Because the press is part of our immune system, and if their effectiveness is compromised, the effectiveness of our democracy is compromised. We need not just a free press, but a clear-thinking, resilient, and focused press–one that can counter false memories, magical thinking, and “alternative facts.” As Remnick said, exhaustion is not an option, at least if we want to come out of these four years with something resembling a healthy democracy.
Sleep in the age of Trump is clearly going to be a challenge, but it’s one ally we shouldn’t allow Trump to alienate. Whatever the next four years bring, we’re going to need all the calm, clear-headedness and resilience we can muster. And that begins with sleep.