Transitions are not gentle. Even if the passage from one state of being to another is itself smooth, a quietly brutal transformation must take place. Men become beetles, water freezes, new paragraphs shift from one point to another via "furthermore" or "for instance," taco shells acquire a Cool Ranch sheen, the Obama presidency transmogrifies into a Trumpian template.
But for all the remodeling that's about to hit American politics, the current presidential transition is notable for how it can wrongly feel like nothing has changed at all. The context surrounding Donald Trump has been altered, yet he remains stubbornly the same. How are we supposed to remember that this isn't normal if people can't stop looking directly at the giant orange orb that has already blinded everyone who has stared at it for the past year?
He's still up there in his tower, letting down his famous locks so that the power-hungry can climb to the top. He's planning a "victory tour" that would let him continue to undergo the necessary photosynthesis required to turn adulation into nutrients for his ego — or at least never stop doing the things that fans thought made his campaign so fun. He's beefing up the cast now that his pilot has been picked up for series, choosing his ensemble from a list with "made-for-TV looks" right out of central casting. This mainly limits his choices to white men who look like they could be the jilted dude in a screwball comedy, except when he is tapping Ben Carson to head the only agency with "urban" in its title.
Look at Trump's tweets from the last two weeks, and you'll notice that his biggest pet peeves are the performances that dare to challenge his dominance in the field. A Trump impersonator on Saturday Night Live says "nothing funny," while a cast of fictional politicians is "highly overrated." He gathered a group of television reporters to Trump Tower so he could complain about how they were making him look bad by using photos in which he appeared to have a double-chin. He then went to the New York Times office to make it clear that his mind is a chintzy hall of mirrors designed to make the viewer think they're seeing a reflection of what they believe, even if the proportions are a bit off. Trump has now said he won't prosecute Hillary Clinton — not that that's even under the president's purview — and that there might be something to this "climate change" business, and that he's not sure torture is a great idea anymore since he talked to a general who told him so. When he's not just telling people what he thinks they want to hear, Trump acts like a human Talkboy — a relic from Home Alone 2, one of his pre-campaign credits — playing back the last conversation he had when asked to profess a view on anything.
It feels like the election never ended, as long as you only focus on Trump. But his words, although they have occupied so much of our collective brain space lately, are far from the only troubling thing about his rise. To understand what's happening with the transition, it's necessary to look outside the frame and see what his existence has been inspiring his followers to do. White nationalists at a conference in D.C. shouted “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory!” while doing Nazi salutes. The Southern Poverty Law Center has collected hundreds of hate crime reports filed since the election ended, including one from a teacher in Georgia, who reported that someone left a note on her desk saying her Muslim headscarf "isn't allowed anymore. ... Why don’t you tie it around your neck & hang yourself with it?" When asked about white nationalists and the alt-rights, Trump said, "It’s not a group I want to energize, and if they are energized, I want to look into it and find out why." Such a search wouldn't take too long under most other circumstances, but as the President-elect told a biographer in 2014, "I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see."
You have to pay close attention to who Trump chooses to help fill his Talkboy with opinions to regurgitate. Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions called the Voting Rights Act a "piece of intrusive legislation" and said groups like the NAACP and ACLU were "un-American" and trying to “force civil rights down the throats of people who were trying to put problems behind them." National Security Advisor pick Michael Flynn took a break from sharing fake news to tweet, "Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL." Trump's choice for CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, supports torture and thinks the government should be able to spy on Americans more freely and also execute Edward Snowden. Trump's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, was once positively described as "the Leni Riefenstahl of the Tea Party movement" and runs Breitbart, a conservative news outlet he once said is "the platform for the alt-right." Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach recently met with Trump to talk Homeland Security — and left his memo in full view when photographers snapped pictures of the two men. It featured plans to conduct "extreme vetting questions for high-risk aliens" and completely bar Syrian refugees from entering the country, as well as a hope to change federal voting rights policy. Kobach has long been worried that voting is a Homeland Security concern because undocumented immigrants might do it — and he has tried to force voters in his state to bring a birth certificate when registering. That measure didn't survive long, but who knows what he might do at the federal level? Trump's Chief of Staff Reince Priebus proved how easy it is to get him to say whatever you want when he reportedly lied to his boss about the terms of the New York Times interview in the hopes that he would cancel it.
The ploy only worked for a few hours, but it doesn't inspire faith — even from a guy who once told America, "No puppet, no puppet!"
Trump has chosen to dot his team with a few people who once opposed him. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman and Indian-American to ever be considered for the Cabinet, is his UN ambassador pick (and happens to have no foreign policy experience). She once said of Trump, “I will not stop until we fight a man that chooses not to disavow the K.K.K. That is not a part of our party. That is not who we are." (An early Trump supporter will now take her place as governor.) Mitt Romney — who once said of Trump, "When it comes to foreign policy, he is very, very not smart" — is in the running for Secretary of State. But will Trump even listen to him, except in the moments immediately after they've finished speaking? This is a man who once told Morning Joe, “My primary consultant is myself, and I have a good instinct for this stuff."
And then there's his ongoing legal troubles and questionable conversations with world leaders, all of which he deems irrelevant in interviews. The Trump Foundation just admitted to "self-dealing," or using charity money for gain. His children are taking over his business and sitting in on meetings with foreign leaders. His son-in-law will likely have a role in the administration, either officially or unofficially. Trump, who owns a golf course in Scotland, reportedly told Brexit pusher Nigel Farage that he should campaign against wind turbines there because they make the countryside less pretty. His campaign denies that he spoke to Argentina's president about his hotel project there — but it seems that the proposal process may have magically started moving again after the phone call ended. The FEC says that Trump's campaign made more than 1,000 errors in its latest campaign finance report. Trump — who once said the words, "I don't settle, unlike a lot of other people” — just agreed to pay $25 million to settle the Trump University case, in which students sued the businessmen after his promises of success proved to be an expensive lie.
And on top of that, there are all the officials and judges across the country already implementing policy — there will be 33 Republican governors and 33 Republican-controlled legislatures next year — who might prove to be foreshadowing for what awaits us. On Tuesday, a federal judge struck down Obama's overtime expansion rule. In North Carolina, Governor Pat McCrory just filed for a recount. His opponent, Attorney General Roy Cooper, has an increasing lead in the polls, currently at around 6,200 votes. McCrory blames fraud for his loss, and his supporters say that all votes cast by same-day registration should be thrown out. (Same-day registration was reinstated in North Carolina after a federal judge said the state's voter restrictions were a "surgical" attempt to keep minorities from the polls.) So basically, McCrory is trying to sow doubt in the electoral process with no valid reason. In North Dakota, Standing Rock protesters were sprayed with fire hoses in freezing weather.
The news is constant, a deluge of data and investigations that's hard to parse, especially when most people only consume it in a conglomerate of headlines and chyrons, or from a carefully curated series of posts that only tells them what they already believe — even if that belief is false. Trump's mushy words are on the cusp of being transposed into action, but that's sometimes hard to see when people are so exhausted by the election that they've tuned out the transition to think instead of tryptophan, comforted or monotonously repulsed by the fact that Trump is just as empty and worrying as he's been for ages — or impatient for the day when we're no longer waiting for him to be in charge. Maybe we’re just aware that we're all in a period of transition, about to transform our treatment of politics into something else or learn what it means to be left behind in the wake of another metamorphosis. Because transitions are not gentle, even when everything feels similar to what we've been watching for months.