This has a historical echo with the later years of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s and ’80s, many Soviet citizens—among them young people, writers, and artists, the sorts of people one would expect to be engaged in political life—pulled away from politics, which seemed to them to be a waste of time. They were not dissidents or activists; they just didn’t care. This lack of interest took different forms. In his study of the late Soviet period, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak describes some young Soviets forming odd, apolitical artist collectives, while others joined clubs whose members passionately debated more or less everything except current events. “Everyone understood everything, so why speak about that? It was uninteresting,” a former university student told Yurchak dismissively of dissident politics. Likewise, in an exchange with an American sociologist during this period, one Soviet rock musician explained, “We’re interested in universal problems which don’t depend on this or that system, or on a particular time.” His bandmate chimed in: “People are interested in politics, and I don’t know why they are.”
These Soviet musicians might have agreed with Atwood’s suggestion that artists should focus on timeless explorations of what it means to be human. Yurchak also quotes a onetime member of an apolitical literary club remembering the group as an “artificially created microclimate”—which recalls Atwood’s vision of an artistic garden separate from politics, or the Instagrammable comfort of domestic cozy. Writing in The New York Review of Books in 2019, the British writer Viv Groskop wondered whether Westerners overwhelmed by the news might wish to adopt the Soviet tradition of “internal exile” and curl into themselves to find peace away from politics. “It is reasonable,” Groskop wrote, “to conclude that apathy must surely be defensible as some kind of political act.”
Those Soviets who withdrew from politics were responding to the boredom of a public life curtailed by official limitations on what could and couldn’t be said. Today, the boredom of the Trump era is the product of a different kind of censorship, what the journalist Peter Pomerantsev calls “censorship through noise.” Instead of the tedium of silence, this is the tedium of endless clatter. But it has the same effect. Whether you choose not to speak about politics and turn your attention elsewhere, or you decide to say the same thing over and over again, the odds are that political leadership will carry on just as it did before. So why bother at all?
The United States is not yet in the extreme circumstances in which Yurchak’s subjects found themselves. When Atwood suggested in 2017 that artists should tend their own gardens, she was not recommending that they turn away from the news entirely—after all, she’s continued to speak publicly about the Trump presidency and explore political themes in her fiction—but rather that they remember that there are ideas outside politics. If Trump retains power for a second term, though, resisting the pull of apathy may prove more difficult. This pervasive disinterest is a dangerous thing for a democracy, which depends on political engagement among its people in order to survive. And Trump would surely welcome such detachment, which would only make it easier for him to hold on to power.