In this new era, what we mean by “mostly true” does not include how one leads a nation (via “alternative facts”). Here a commentary on what an actual disrespect for truth (versus a literary love for storytelling) could do to a society, and how it will test all of us . . .
A Republic if you can keep it.
— Benjamin Franklin, September 18, 1787
This is a test.
No, this is not a test of the emergency broadcast system (though that might occur more frequently now). This is a test of our nation. Of the U.S. Constitution. Checks and balances. Of how we define ourselves as Americans.
Soon after Election 2016, The New Yorker‘s David Remnick called Donald Trump’s win an American Tragedy, a triumph for “nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism.” Remnick need only cite Trump’s campaign speeches. Yet there’s another view: Not tragedy, but trial. Tweet-gauntlets thrown down to test our post-millennial complacency.
A call to action, almost despite one’s politics.
The Trumpian Test.
Recent weeks, for example, have tested the independence of judges, who have substantially ruled against President Trump’s executive orders banning travel from several Muslim-majority countries. Trump’s actions have prodded the press, as The New York Times calls a lie a lie, and The Washington Post adopts a new slogan: Democracy Dies in Darkness.
Trump and his advisors, including unkempt alt-right Rasputin Steve Bannon, have pressed traditional boundaries with orders tainted by right-wing extremism, fossil-fuel financial interests and a thin-skinned autocracy not seen in these United States.
Or have they? Maybe this administration will prove a pop quiz on our grasp of history: President Richard Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre; the vulgar and gauche Lyndon B. Johnson; and Ronald Reagan’s anti-environment EPA director. Or, further back, to the 1829 election of Andrew Jackson, U.S. Senator, war hero, brawler and bad speller. Jackson’s unprecedented use of veto powers prompted comparisons to a dictator. He rallied the common man against elitism. At his inauguration Open House, a mob was lured from the White House when servants “set up washtubs full of juice and whiskey” outside.
Trump and Jackson represent tall men practiced in jaw-thrusting and sporting poofy hair. Trump admires Jackson, recently laying a wreath at his tomb. Populists-in-arms? Maybe not. Outside Trump’s White House, a placard recently noted: “Let Me Dream or I Won’t Let You Sleep.”
Trump is our Nixon. Our Old Hickory. The rattled strongman resemblance could prove telling. In 1838, Jackson’s racial biases relocated thousands of Cherokees—men, women, and children dying on the Trail of Tears.
In fact, 2017 could prove a yardstick year for democracy itself. We’ve been chugging along, after all—sublimely confidant in a style of governance borrowed from Athenian Greek democracia and the Roman Republic, reimagined via the Enlightenment into a system its founders hoped would never foster an American Caligula. Isn’t that what we fear now?
Trump seemed to rise to a challenge with a toned-down address to Congress on March 1. Then, four days later, he Tweeted accusations—with no evidence—that President Barack Obama had bugged his phones, calling his predecessor a “Bad (or sick) guy!”
How do we respond to this roller-coaster presidency? To the impending threat of military quagmires? Maybe we should cram for this exam of who we are, and who we will become:
This is a call for Americans to vote more and complain less. An audition for a new Resistance. A heads-up for writers, playwrights, and film makers to protect free ideas (even when facing Tourette-style Tweets. Sad!).
Writers at this year’s AWP’s D.C. conference held a candlelight vigil at the White House. A theme among literary speakers in Lafayette Square: “A vigil is a period of staying awake when you normally would be asleep.” Literature, nonfiction in particular, is on deck.
In an AWP panel titled “The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Social Change” writer Eric Sasson, a frequent contributor to The New Republic, hit the mark. “As obfuscation becomes a primary distraction and truth becomes vital more than ever, nonfiction has to be used as an agent of change,” Sasson said. “It’s so much better to think of this as a call to action, a wake-up call, rather than ‘Oh my god, what do we do… this is so awful?'”
Sasson compared the post-inauguration Women’s March on Washington, which drew 2.6 million worldwide, and other recent demonstrations to the historic civil rights, Women’s suffrage, Gay Rights and LGBT movements. We are also looking to our future: Our climate, Our selves. Take the April 22nd Earth Day March for Science in Washington, D.C. Could the worst in Trump bring out the best in us?
Some voices prove the Absolute Power of satirists. Take Melissa McCarthy’s SNL cross-dressed apoplectic rendition of Sean Spicer scolding the media.
On Capitol Hill, the Trump Age will also prove a litmus test for Republican’s claimed high morals. Many were appalled by candidate Trump’s behavior, yet silent or approving afterward. And Democrats? Will a recent failed effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act lead to renewed overconfidence? How vehemently will Dems fight to make a difference?
Government shake-ups are expected, yet this Oval Office CEO’s threatening demeanor will assess the departmental backbones of Justice and State, the CIA, EPA, NOAA, National Park Service and the Arts. Just consider the president’s slash-and-burn federal budget proposal.
We’re all on trial now. Will Americans actually tolerate the Other, whomever that might be? Evaluate our own empathy for opioid-destroyed generations in Rust Belt America or Baltimore’s drug-war zoned streets. What is any one of us going to do?
For many, the shock-and-awe of Trump’s election disrupted a complacency adopted when we elected our first African-American president eight years prior. Some touted a post-racial nation then. We thought we had all passed a major test.
In the end, this is also the test of a man.
Of one man’s self-control and sanity. Of his judgment and penchant for petulant Tweet-blasts at 5 a.m. Of his need for sleep. Or the proper medication. Of his commitment to the Rule of Law he claims to admire, even if something rubs him wrong.
Because, if it’s raining, pretending it is not will not make the rain go away.
J. Cavanaugh Simpson, the founding editor of 3QR: The Three Quarter Review, is a university lecturer, essayist, and author. She is currently working on a book about the future of digital culture and counterculture, delving into how we might survive an age that has, among other surprises, sparked an online-celeb and Twitter-addicted prez.