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3 February 2017

In the first fortnight of Trump’s presidency, the world is transforming while we sleep

Over the last two weeks, I've found myself consuming breaking news for breakfast.

By Amelia Tait

There are nights in your life when you know, sometimes before the sun has even set, that you will not sleep. Perhaps you have an essay on the failures of the Treaty of Versailles due in the morning, or someone you love has unexpectedly been taken to the hospital, or there is a tiny tickle in the back of your throat that won’t – no matter how much syrup you drink – go away.

Perhaps the leader of the free world is being elected. Perhaps you decide to stay up and watch history happen, surrounded by caffeinated fizzy drinks and every available flavour of Doritos. The thing about these nights is that they’re rare. They take on a magical, ethereal quality – even when they are horrible – and it doesn’t matter that you’re tired, or you’re sweaty, or you’re not wearing any pants. It doesn’t matter because when things are capital-I Important enough, it is worth staying awake.

A strange thing has happened over the last two weeks. In place of my regular alarm clock sound (Silk), I am being awoken by either a BBC breaking news alert, a text from a friend, or a feeling of dread. On multiple mornings of the last fortnight, I have awoken to find the world has changed – dramatically, often uncomprehendingly – while I was asleep.

On Tuesday morning, those of us in the UK awoke to the news that President Trump had fired his attorney general Sally Yates after she publicly condemned his “Muslim-ban”. The day before, I had woken up to discover there had been a terrorist attack at a Quebec City mosque. Just before bed a few nights before that, we discovered Trump had signed an executive order banning citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days. While immigration lawyers worked tirelessly to help those with incoming flights, we slept.

Monumental world events have, of course, often occurred while we in the UK sleep – and it’s at this point where you might want to say: “Yes, Amelia, well done, you have grasped the concept of time zones.” But in the past, such events don’t seem to have occurred in such quick succession, and haven’t seemed to be this world-alteringly important, so that every morning breaking news becomes my breakfast.

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Which raises the question: should we stay awake? My colleague India struggled to sleep after she found out about Sally Yates in the middle of the night.

“I’m not sure if it was the energy from Monday night’s protest march in particular, or just the general, ongoing, apprehension about what shocking thing Trump will tweet next, but when I found myself awake at 2am on Tuesday morning I quickly turned to Twitter,” she says. “Perhaps I had expected to find a sense of comradeship in reading how others had digested the weekend’s disturbing events. But instead I found more breaking news.

“This time about Trump’s firing of Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General. Somehow this seemed more shocking than if I’d heard about it through the familiar tones of the Today programme’s 8am bulletin. Maybe it was the sense of the vast distance between me and these events – both in space and time. Or maybe it was just the dark.”

There doesn’t seem much value, then, in staying awake, though often it can be tempting. Over the last year the slang term “woke” has risen to prominence, so that if you are “woke” you are aware of current events and on top of the right and wrong things to say. It is somewhere between ironic, and troubling, and a little funny, then, that we can no longer be woke as we sleep through current events. 

As India points out, social media only exacerbates this. The temptation to be the first to know, and the first to spread the word, might keep some of us awake (and woke) in the coming months. We should, I think, avoid this temptation. Not because it is important to sleep – though it is – but because it is important to stay awake during the bright British morning.

Why? Well, because those are the precious hours of our day when President Donald Trump is asleep.