At 2:18 p.m. on Wednesday, the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System sent a test alert to nearly every cell phone in the United States. The only difference between the Amber Alerts and the flood-watch notifications that you already get on your phone was the capitalized “PRESIDENTIAL ALERT” splashed across the top. When it arrived at my office, right on time, it was accompanied by a background roar of alert noises, vibrating phones, and soft exclamations from my co-workers. And then everyone got back to work.
In the weeks leading up to the message, the test alert was proclaimed a “text from Trump,” inspiring some click-friendly hand-wringing about the president now having the ability to contact every citizen with a cell phone in their pocket at his whim — a terrifying example of our looming dystopia. But what’s “looming,” exactly? The thing is, that’s already how the world worked at 2:17 p.m. on Wednesday. It’s how the world worked at 2:16 p.m. on Wednesday. It’s how the world has worked for the entirety of the Trump presidency.
If the man wants to reach you, he can. In the notification center on my iPhone, today’s alert slotted in right above a push notification from the New York Times informing me of the forthcoming alert and instructing me not to panic upon receipt. Six minutes after the alert, I got a push notification from CNN informing me the test had occurred and offering answers to “the FAQs” about the alert. “No, Trump didn’t write it,” the notification teases. Those are the same kinds of notifications news outlets — left, right, and center — send out anytime President Trump does, well, almost anything. I didn’t need the actual alert from Trump, via FEMA, to be alerted to Trump’s actions. I follow Trump on Twitter with 54 million other people following @RealDonaldTrump. Twenty-four million people follow him over on the @POTUS account. Chances are good, if you’re a person who is the least bit inclined to use your phone as a news-delivery device, Donald Trump’s reach already extended into your pocket even before the chorus of “beep beep” on Wednesday afternoon.
Today’s alert, if it was any kind of disconcerting, was disconcerting in its normalcy. Of course, in 2018, the president can contact every citizen via the devices where they are most readily accessible. Of course. And as for the people in the United States for whom today’s alert truly was the first time the president has accessed them, in some way, through their phones … those aren’t the people making bad jokes till next Tuesday about it on Twitter. (There was only one good joke.)