Before We Forget

Imperator, Library of Congress

On November 8th, 2016, the citizens of the United States of America elected a fascist to the highest office in the land. Here are some things that have happened since: the sun rose every morning; I woke up and fed my children milk and toast; the President Elect of the United States made a propagandist for white nationalism his Chief Strategist; a Senator previously deemed too racist for a federal judgeship was appointed Attorney General; an unhinged Islamophobe with a Manichean worldview who has re-tweeted anti-Semitic memes and who was previously sacked for managerial incompetence became the head of the National Security Administration; the President Elect of the United States met with foreign real estate developers he has business dealings with, then photos of the meeting the developers posted disappeared from social media; the President Elect disseminated false information via Twitter, claiming he prevented an auto factory from leaving the country; the President Elect castigated the public for expressing Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of assembly and speech; the President Elect denigrated the press, both publicly and in a private meeting with members of its corps; the FBI reported a 67% uptick in hate crimes; the President Elect, on Twitter, demanded the cast of a Broadway show apologize for not demonstrating respect towards the Vice-President Elect of the United States; the President Elect settled a $25 million lawsuit for fraud; the President Elect met with foreign leaders in the presence of his daughter, who he has said will be running the family business, and in the absence of a State Department translator or briefing; the President Elect continued to hold no press conferences; the President Elect’s spokesperson confirmed that the First Lady and First Son will not take up residence in the White House but remain in their New York City penthouse and the President-Elect will split his time between the two, at a cost of millions to the taxpayers of the City of New York; the Klu Klux Klan threw a victory parade; foreign dignitaries seeking to curry favor booked visits to the hotel owned by the President Elect’s company which leases a building from the General Services Administration which the President Elect will soon oversee; CNN interviewed a self-described Nazi while the chyron read “Alt-Right Leader Wonders Are Jews People?”; a woman who has spent years siphoning public education money in Michigan into private, profit-seeking companies was appointed to enact that disaster on a national scale; the President Elect of the United States falsely claimed to have won the popular vote, opposed an audit, then made baseless accusations of voter fraud; the President Elect of the United States tweeted that flag burning ought to be punished, perhaps by stripping away citizenship; I have gone to work, lectured, graded papers, picked up my children from school, made dinner, made lunches, fought with my husband, had sex with my husband, made a donation, checked Facebook, despaired, went to Synagogue, checked Twitter, got stuck in traffic, bought groceries, traveled to my parents’ house for Thanksgiving.

That is to say that life retains the appearance of normalcy even as unreality sets in. We sit at the table, carrying on with our meal as, act by act, utterance by utterance, the boards of the house come down around us. There are 48 days before the inauguration. This is the calm before the storm, terrible though it feels to remember that, and there is no reason to believe anything will get better and a preponderance of evidence to suggest that the dangers and decline will accelerate. It is clear now how hollow and useless predictions are in the face of such a volatile actor, how feebly the rules and patterns of public life constrain a powerful man without regard for law, democratic values, or social norms. We know things will be awful and it is now only a matter of how awful and in what particular ways.

There is nothing to do, really, except go along with our daily lives, renew our passports, maybe, and wait. I don’t mean that we shouldn’t protest, donate, speak out, call our representatives, mobilize, contribute to the upholding of our institutions and moral values wherever we can; of course we should, of course we must. But we have taken a sharp turn away from the knowable. In the middle of our life’s journey, I have found myself in a dark wood.

The journalist Masha Gessen, who has spent years reporting from Putin’s Russia, advises that we take stock of what life is — was­­­­­ — like and write it down before we forget, as changes come rapidly and can untether you from your core beliefs. I had a college professor who had done field work in the Soviet Union and said that the state lied about the things you would imagine it would lie about and then it would lie about things that were totally unnecessary to lie about just to assert its power, to prove that it could; the result was that under totalitarianism you lived with a kind of low-grade madness, a severance between language and reality. Should that madness set in, should fascism cast its shadow over the soul as well as institutions, here is what once seemed true to me:

Neo-Nazis and white supremacists were marginalized in public life and discourse. The Klu Klux Klan was largely the stuff of history books. Leaders, even those I disagreed with or deemed craven or incompetent, at least feigned a passing knowledge of the Constitution, at least gave lip service to the appearance of good government. Racism and misogyny were potent forces that functioned largely through dog-whistling, hidden agendas and disparate impacts because it was the consensus that discrimination based on race or sex or orientation or religion was wrong and bad. (I used to think that racism and sexism continued to exist mostly due to the selfishness and laziness of privilege and the cognitive dissonance of those unwilling to cede status; I can’t tell you how upsetting it has been to learn that in fact all this time there have been Nazis in our midst!) It was widely understood that, while sleazy politicians would trade access for campaign donations and move on to corporate lobbying gigs upon exiting office, to use statecraft to directly build one’s wealth and promote one’s business was abuse of the office.

Now, I fear that, between the dehumanizing propaganda, the bizarre endorsement of Korematsu, we are one terrorist attack — one mass shooting, one homemade pressure bomb, one lone wolf — away from a scenario that ends with a Truth and Reconciliation Committee. I fear Trump’s administration using the apparatus expanded under Obama, including DACA, to begin mass deportations. I fear the erosion to almost nothing, a single grain of sand, of the very idea of public discourse around a shared set of facts. I fear that the result of Trump’s climate stance is a world that is, if not unlivable, then frankly miserable within my children’s lifetime. I fear the opposition will splinter and chase its own tail; already, it is beginning to self-cannibalize, lashing out in pain at all the wrong targets: It was identity politics! It was the flawed candidate! If only the DNC had run Bernie! As though all the people who voted for a race-baiting fascist were secret socialists all along, low-hanging fruit for a Jew that campaigned with endorsements from Black Lives Matter! As if a cataclysm of such epic proportions could have resulted from anything less than a nightmarish swarm of factors raised from the pits by a power-hungry maniac. I used to hope that Trump would be swiftly impeached, but if you doubt Pence’s savagery, read this account by a woman he terrorized as her wife was dying of cancer. I don’t know what to hope for now.

But most of all, what I fear is this: that the sun will keep rising, people will keep getting up, feeding their children, wasting time, eating, shitting, going to work, on and on as the temperature of the water rises, as we forget what a pluralistic democracy was and could be, a fragile dream we once shared, impossible to remember once we are awakened to the nightmare of history.

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