Art in the Time of Trump: The Silencing Effect of Tyranny (and What to do About it)
More and more these days, I stare at a blank page when I sit down to write. While the dreaded empty page is very familiar terrain for any writer, what’s different now is I feel as replete with story material as ever, perhaps even more than usual. In other words, it’s not the standard issue writer’s block but it’s still a block of a different nature. It’s also something that’s altogether new to me after writing for most of my adult life. For people in the arts with an activist orientation, raising awareness about issues has always been a tough sell but one we are game for; this is what we signed up to do. The new political climate in the US, though, has made being heard above all the tumult and chaos a different and imposing hurdle to vault, something as challenging as our old, familiar adversary, the regular ol’ blank page on to which no words would stick. From my private conversations with everyone from other writers to visual artists and activists, I am hearing a familiar refrain: I don’t know how to work with this new reality.
It’s not just a question of if what we write about matters to the public, which is formidable enough, but something every animal advocate like me has always wondered. It’s also the new complication of not knowing when to jump in. In a way, the current milieu reminds me of playing double Dutch jump rope. Did you play jump rope when you were a kid? The feeling of it never leaves your body. When it was your turn as a jumper, you’d have position yourself between the two twirlers and be ready to jump in at just the right time: too early or too late and you’d be tangled up in rope. It was much more complicated with double Dutch, with two ropes twirling at once. If you misjudged the rhythm, you’d also be stepping on your own feet, ropes around your ankles, butt on the pavement, having lost your turn as a jumper. Waiting for that perfect moment as the ropes whooshed by, you’d get a feeling for the pace and rhythm, kind of bobbing along with it until that magic moment when your knees would bend and you’d jump in.
The trouble is now there is no right time to jump in with something you’ve created to share with the world; the new normal is one where what was the latest outrage or disgrace from Donald Trump’s administration is quickly blotted out by emerging news of the most recent one, plastered over the still fresh ones like so many layers of wet papier-mâché, one glopped over the next. There is no “right” time for what we create now, something I didn’t even know was a factor until a year or so ago. In other words, no matter when one tries to jump in as a creator, we will likely be tangled in rope. It was always challenging, but now it is double Dutch challenging.
In a way, this is yet another example of how the oversized shadow of Donald Trump looms over all of us like a blimp, eclipsing and crowding out nearly everything, refusing to let anything else around get the light and space that it deserves. Why would we expect anything less from someone who brings new, previously unimaginable dimensions to the word narcissist?
I know what it’s like to be crowded out by the ego of another and what it feels like to anxiously anticipate next mood swing. I grew up under the rule of another vindictive, petty tyrant, one whose kingdom was much smaller but over which he still reigned over with all the preening swagger of a dictator who knew the sun rose or set with his caprices. If he was angry that someone was invited over whom he didn’t like, he’d glower, make snide comments and embarrass everyone. If he was pissed about some misconstrued slight, he’d hold the whole family hostage until a symbolic and unmerited apology was extracted. If he was irate about being asked to go to a wedding on his day off, he’d go anyway but make sure his wife paid for it, creating a public scene that would send a million eyeballs to our table as we tried to will ourselves to disappear.
As those who have lived under the rule of an extreme narcissist know, everything screeches to a halt until this individual and his bottomless need for attention, admiration, supplication and subordination is met. As with a momentarily pacified toddler tyrant in a purée-splattered high chair, though, we always know it won’t be long before we should expect the next high-octave, messy tantrum. As a result, those of us living with extreme narcissists are on guard, exhausted, wary, stressed out and eternally waiting for whatever else may be around the bend.
This is terrain I know, worn like grooves into me even years after I broke free of it. In Donald Trump, I recognize the cycles, I recognize the sullen pouts, I recognize the tantrums and I recognize how people contort themselves around him, trying appease him. The stakes are just so much bigger now.
What are the consequences of living under this kind of self-centered, despotic rule as a writer, artist or activist? Of course, one’s mileage will vary but from my conversations with people, it seems like it’s very hard to promote anything when the public is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Dad threw over the coffee table. What’s he going to do next?” becomes “Trump disgraced himself in front of the U.N. What’s he going to do next?” I can say for myself, the environment developed in the space of that tense vacuum is silencing, hence the creative block, the blank page.
Some of the silencing is external — there are real concerns about timing and being drowned out by the next tantrum — and some of it, admittedly, is internal. What do our stories ultimately matter when a showdown with another world tyrant seems imminent? How much are ourwords worth when we might all soon be melted to plasma no matter what I say or do? How can we be heard above the steady drip-drip-drip of this new normal, one where seemingly endless acts of reckless behavior can be expected but never predicted and where the next broadcasted, blaring moment of petty, everyday tyranny is right around the corner?
Yes, revisiting this kind of space again has made me a wellspring of good cheer.
As we can see from looking at the Weimar Republic, a brief pocket of time when the arts and culture flourished in a post- and pre-war Germany and Austria, it took the ascendency of another tyrant to send artists and cultural creators out of the country if they were lucky, underground if they were less lucky and to the camps if they were the least fortunate. Artists can work in inhospitable environments — in fact, we can thrive in it — but when lives are in jeopardy and rights are eroding, when chaos settles in as the norm, the value of creative work is seriously devalued and, to be honest, this only makes sense. Creative work enhances life but isn’t a requirement of it in the way that food, water, warmth and security are. With the move toward an authoritarian state, especially one with an impulsive, vindictive narcissist at the helm, our creative work grows stale and pointless as we wait for the right time to share it, if ever.
This is to say that the rise of despotism may signal a time of stasis for creators and with Donald Trump — as erratic, petty and vengeful as any dime store novel dictator — we have an altogether different kind of environment to try to navigate, one where we’re forever reeling, reacting to and recovering from his latest whims and vagaries.
It’s not hopeless, though. We just need to face the truth of this so we can work around it. I’ve come up with some random thoughts on what creators and activists can do to minimize the Trump effect.
* We should rely on social media less. In fact, we need to develop dynamic online platforms that don’t depend on social media at all, ideally ones that also encourage meeting in person. The vicissitudes of Facebook can be as erratic, unreliable and unpredictable as our putative leadership.
* Revive mailing lists to communicate directly with your supporters. Maybe even get a newsletter going.
* Support others and their work — in the arts, activism, and so on — and try to foster a culture of reciprocity. Patreon is a great way to do throw even a small amount of money behind someone who’s creating work you value. Also showing support by going to art openings, concerts, sharing articles and books, going to protests and other activist events and so on — and helping to get the word out about them — is really helpful.
* Pay attention to what matters. I don’t actually think we should ignore the occupant of the Oval Office because with things like mass deportations on the docket and federal agencies being gutted, we must know what is happening. Discern the difference between paying attention to what matters (threatening other nations) and what doesn’t (he’s pissed that he’s not getting enough acknowledgement) and try to just pay attention to the former. I admit, I am not great at this myself.
* Be a little flexible with your schedule. Let’s say you have a new something to share with the world. Let’s also say that the day you were planning on sharing it, Donald Trump has decided to gut the EPA. (What? It could happen.) If you are able, maybe wait a day or two so your new cool thing doesn’t get buried under his latest shit storm.
* Take breaks from the news. Go out. Be seen. See others. Read books. Work at creating a new world. Remember what’s important and focus on that.
* Above all, keep creating and stay active. This is what’s really necessary to puncture the lifeless vacuum tyranny thrives in.
Tyranny doesn’t always manifest as loud, dramatic events. Sometimes, tyranny reveals itself in a chilling, slowly-choking-the-air-out sort of way. Today, we are contending with both effects. If you are struggling to create something to share with the world in this current atmosphere, I hear you. Or if I didn’t hear you, I will try to find you amid the flotsam, listen for you over the howling and bellowing, and I will do my best to help your work get the air and light it deserves to flourish.