Sarah Kendzior is the author of The View From Flyover Country and the co-host of the podcast Gaslit Nation.
On Sept. 18, California Representative Devin Nunes, a Donald Trump loyalist best known for his attempt to obstruct federal investigations into Russia, bemoaned the activists of his own state. “It’s such a pain now to go to these political events,” he told a private meeting of screened supporters. “It makes it very different to even move around the valley or anywhere else, because everywhere you go, you have this resistance movement.”
From the moment Mr. Trump took office in January, 2017, immediately prompting the largest protest in U.S. history, the resistance has been an object of derision, with the term co-opted by politicians and propagandists soon after it emerged as a popular hashtag. In the past few months, Mr. Trump has slammed the resistance as a creation of Senate Democrats, an anonymous alleged White House official claimed in a New York Times op-ed to be a member of an internal resistance carrying out its own autocratic coup and so-called alt-right imposters have claimed the resistance mantle along with countless bots.
This cynical portrayal of the resistance is unrecognizable to the Americans organizing for change on the ground. Most people are too busy protecting their fellow Americans to engage with smarmy pontification on what the resistance is. This dichotomy between media caricature and lived reality often reflects the gulf between the U.S. pundits (mostly white, wealthy conservative men based on the coasts) and Americans who disapprove of Mr. Trump, which currently comprises 60 per cent of the population and whose broadly dispersed activism is dominated by women.
There is not, and has never been, a unified, hierarchical resistance in the United States – nor should there be. There are simply millions of Americans who know they deserve better. It is less a resistance than an insistence that privileged impunity will no longer stand. If there is a unifying theme, it is against corruption – a rallying cry for white-collar crime to finally be punished, a repudiation of policies that steal from the poor to line the pockets of predators. There are those who rage at senators who wish to promote a man repeatedly accused of sexual assault to the highest court in the country. That is not normal, and the resistance – regular people who ask for simple checks and balances on power – won’t stop fighting against it.
In the Trump era, fundamental American values – a government of, by and for the people; a republic with liberty and justice for all – have been redefined as radical demands. As I wrote in this newspaper in March, 2017, “What is now called resisting is often Americans simply helping others: a concept so alien to the Trump administration that it is labelled as subversive.” Little has changed since then except the scope of the problems. Questions that would have once seemed hyperbolic or absurd – is America becoming an autocracy, a theocracy, a Russian proxy state? – are now reasonable.
But the cavalcade of crises and lack of unilateral leadership has led some to label the resistance – and by extension, the Democrats – as disorganized or failing. This characterization is odd given the scale of political participation since Mr. Trump took power. Both 2017 and 2018 were marked by massive nationwide demonstrations: women’s rights in January, gun control in March, immigrant and refugee rights in June. Protesters numbered in the millions, more than during the Vietnam War, yet their efforts often did not make the front pages of American papers. The year 2018 was also marked by special elections and primaries with record-high turnout, with some districts Mr. Trump won now voting Democrat.
There is a sense that the midterms mark the end of something – maybe Mr. Trump’s unchecked domination over American political life; maybe the American experiment itself. The fact that we don’t know which imbues every day with as much heaviness as hope.
January: Anything is possible
Americans are still contending with the psychic shift brought on by the seemingly rapid decline of their democratic institutions. In 2017, democracy was defenestrated through the Overton window, as an administration run on alternative facts attacked the very concept of truth. The brazen lawlessness and audacious corruption of the Trump administration shocked many, but less so the residents in my state of Missouri, where decades of dark money and dramatic political strife had long prepared citizens for the worst.
“Do you think Greitens will resign?” the woman in St. Louis asked hopefully. She was referring to our governor, Republican Eric Greitens, who was under investigation for allegedly tying a half-naked woman up in his basement and blackmailing her with photos. The allegations against Mr. Greitens, which also included illicit financial activity, were just the latest disaster for Missouri, which since the arrival of an extremist GOP legislature in 2017 had seen the minimum wage lowered, the NAACP give a warning that the state was too racist for black people to visit, and a law passed making it legal for employers to fire women who used birth control.
“Anything is possible here,” I said – the standard answer to all questions Missouri, where the unfathomable happens every day. The hardship of Missouri life, now worsened by the arrival of Mr. Greitens and Mr. Trump, was why this activist and her friends – all middle-aged and older women – had written more than 100,000 postcards to prospective Missouri voters, informing them of election dates, polling places, and relevant candidates and issues. They do this while gathering in suburban homes, eating homemade pie. They hand-write the postcards so that voters know someone cared enough about them to take the time. They do this because they love their state and they want the people in it to have better, fairer lives.
They do it because anything is possible in Missouri – and as the year went on, and Mr. Greitens resigned, and Missouri voter turnout in August soared, and officials such as prosecutor Bob McCulloch of the Ferguson events got voted out, and a terrible anti-labour law was rejected, they texted me their excitement, and I texted back my gratitude.
February: No rights taken for granted
My friend, a professor in the anthropology department where I was set to give a lecture, told me I was coming right before the neo-Nazis were scheduled to arrive. The University of Tennessee in Knoxville had become, like other American universities, a recruiting ground for white supremacists who market their hate speech as bold “free speech” to the student body.
As one of few black professors on campus – and as an American with a conscience – my friend was disgusted with both their arrival and the tepid response of university administrators, who had disregarded pleas to prioritize the needs of black students over those of violent white supremacists, such as the Traditionalist Worker Party. Instead, their arrival was treated as an abstract debate over free speech. Later, in his class on the North Atlantic slave trade, my friend drew a link between the passive voyeurism of whites toward black suffering in prior centuries and their enablers today.
He introduced me to an older black professor, an expert in German history, who remarked that she could not believe the twin focuses of her studies – foreign fascism and American racism – had so aggressively converged in the city she called home. Nothing could be taken for granted now, including and especially white support for the black students and professors targeted by violent white supremacists. This was a theme I heard over and over throughout 2018 from veterans of the 1960s civil-rights movement, from Holocaust survivors, from refugees from authoritarian states. There is a drumbeat they can hear, one that seems inaudible to some ears rendered deaf through denial and a deficit of empathy.
Months later, as Steve Bannon began to appear in prestigious media outlets again, I would think of these black professors in Tennessee and their attempts to highlight the unhealed scars of history, and the callousness of elites who treat white supremacists as intellectual contrarians. I thought about my final day in Knoxville, when I went with my friend and his family to services in a black church, a refuge for the targeted, and prayed with and for them.
April: The view from the coasts
Every time I leave St. Louis for a wealthy coastal city, I feel like Katniss in The Hunger Games leaving District 12 for the Capitol. It’s not a feeling I had much before 2008, but the recession had created such an enormously unequal recovery that it was noticeable in ways beyond sticker shock. “Your billboards sell things,” I said in wonder to an L.A. friend driving me down the busy Sunset Strip, where products and TV shows were advertised instead of drug rehabs or Jesus or simply blank space. I was on a tour for my book, about the collapse of institutions after the recession; I wondered if anyone would relate to what I was saying.
As it turned out, they did: The audiences in Los Angeles and New York were as concerned about the decline of democracy and erosion of rights as people back in St Louis. They had their own economic plight, better hidden; gentrification instead of abandonment; debt instead of deprivation. They had their own sleazy politicians. Their perception of progressivism was skewed by living in solidly blue states, where the question was not whether politics would move to the left but how far to the left it could go, but they organized in much the same way activists in Missouri did, and their efforts received similarly little attention from the national media. Once again, the bulk of activists I met were women.
In the entertainment capitals of the United States, they knew Mr. Trump well – he was a familiar con, particularly to older New Yorkers who could not understand why their local newspapers, which had exposed his financial misdeeds with such ferocity in the 1980s and 1990s, now covered up for him instead of covering him. The Midwest may have bottomed out disproportionately after the recession, but media was New York’s own gutted economy, with Mr. Trump its prime beneficiary. On both coasts, people encouraged me to keep calling him out from St Louis. “Maybe you’re immune,” a woman I met at a New York reading surmised. “Trump owns the media here, but he can’t find Missouri on a map. You’re free!”
June: The lines have been crossed
I am used to talking about horrifying subject matter in public. Before I covered American decline, I covered authoritarian states and served as an expert witness for asylum seekers from Uzbekistan in court. I am used to discussing torture and oppression without crying. That ended the day the Trump administration snatched migrant children from their parents and put them in camps.
I was on stage in Portland when the first photos of the camps emerged, along with new and horrifying details. I stared out into an audience of, once again, mostly women, who had gathered to hear me and another speaker talk about autocracy and resistance. “When a government targets children, when it targets infants, when it will take a baby that’s breastfeeding away from its mother as she screams, there is nothing that this government will not do,” I started to say, and my voice broke, because something inside me had broken. The Trump administration had crossed a threshold in its blatant, publicized cruelty to children. I explained that usually when an authoritarian government does something this cruel, they want to cover it up, but not here. I explained that this indicated even worse horrors to come.
There are lines the Trump administration crossed – in Charlottesville, in Helsinki and at the Texas border – that I sometimes feel I must have imagined, because the vile predilections of the administration were so deliberately paraded – the embrace of violent white supremacy, the allegiance to the Kremlin, the dehumanization of migrants that feels like a prelude to genocide – yet the reaction was so limited. Many people in politics and media continued to discuss the administration as if it were like any other, with palace intrigue tales and horse-race election coverage. The audience in Portland was different. They cared and wanted to know what to do, and the usual answers came: support lawyers helping the families, publicize the atrocities, vote for representatives who will take on the administration. All of those things are still important.
But there’s a kind of horror that shakes you to your core, when you start believing in the devil because of what you witness, and in hell because you want comfort. Sometimes all you are left with is grief, and you hope that within that grief people find resolve. It didn’t matter where I was that day, because my mind was locked in the horrors of history, on how few people it takes to do irreparable harm to so many.
“How do you maintain hope?” an audience member asked me at the end of the talk. This is another question I get asked everywhere I go. I told her that I don’t believe in hope and I don’t believe in hopelessness; I believe in compassion and pragmatism. Hope can be lethal when you are fighting an autocracy. Hope is inextricable from time, and as anyone who has studied the entrenchment of dictators knows, the longer they stay in, the harder it is to get them out. Every day passed is damage done.
And there is probably no one who knows that more than the migrant parents who lost their children to the Trump administration, who spend every day wondering how their child is growing and changing without them – if their child is even alive. Time has always been the enemy, and hope its cruel accomplice. Learn from the past, fight for the future, but live the present not with hope, but with rage. Rage, unlike hope, knows no timeline.
Late June: This is not a way of life at all
Throughout 2018, I visited nearly half the states in the United States, in part because of my book, in part to give talks at colleges, and in part because I’m a Missouri mom who likes to travel, which means driving with the kids to wherever I can use a national parks pass.
“I’m on a ‘Farewell to America’ tour,” I’d tell people, as if it was a joke, but everything felt too fragile for this to be funny.
At the end of the month, my family drove out west to see national parks, the status of which has been threatened since Mr. Trump took office. Since the inauguration, national parks and historic sites seem newly vulnerable to destruction or desecration, making it seem important for my kids to see them with their own eyes, and not mine. I want my children to have their own memories of the United States, so that if they’re confronted with a false version decades from now, they can say, “No, I saw it. We had that. This was real. That America was real.”
We drove from Missouri to Utah’s Canyonland and Arches, and headed back through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, smoke from wildfires fading in the rear-view mirror, and onto the Kansas highway. On June 30, mass protests were held across the United States as Americans demanded that the migrant families be reunited. They were everywhere, in every region, in cities and small towns. We listened to them on the radio as we drove through western Kansas, in one of the few regions with no demonstrations, due more to its low population than its political predilections.
When we got to Abilene in eastern Kansas, we stopped at the childhood home and museum of president Dwight Eisenhower. Presidential libraries are another thing I’ve been taking my children to see, for fear of their eventual destruction. As George Orwell famously said, those who control the past control the future, and I want my children to see the past before it is gone.
Eisenhower’s tomb is in Abilene. Engraved on its wall is a quote from his 1953 speech “The Chance for Peace.” It says: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed…This is not a way of life at all…Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
I don’t get sentimental about presidents; it is healthier, in a democracy, to see and judge them as public servants with a mix of virtues and flaws. But the gulf between the present and the era of Eisenhower’s speech seems vast, not because our problems are so different – racism, poverty and the threat of Russia defined that era, too – but because our leaders have so profoundly failed us. We live in Eisenhower’s nightmare realized. “This is not a way of life at all” could be the slogan of our time.
September: Better, but not okay
On Sept. 7, 2018, Barack Obama emerged from political hibernation to give a speech to students at the University of Illinois, urging them to vote. The speech attracted great interest, due in part to the novelty of a U.S. president speaking coherently, but also due to its sombre tone. Ten years before, Mr. Obama had dazzled Americans with his optimism (“Now is not the time for small plans!” he proclaimed in his August, 2008, acceptance speech). His faith did not waver even in January, 2017, when he assured anxious Americans in his final speech as president: “We are going to be OK.”
We were, of course, never going to be okay. And I’m still gutted by that departing line, as I was about the lies we were fed by others throughout 2017: “Trump’s going to pivot"; “He’ll grow into the role”; “Checks and balances will constrain him”; and so on. These baseless bromides signalled not only a lack of preparedness for the future, but delusions about the past.
We were never going to be okay because America had never been okay. In January, 2017, America emerged from an election that not only brought an unworthy leader, but exploited every pre-existing crisis in U.S. history: racism, income inequality, geographic inequality, misogyny, xenophobia, battles over surveillance and privacy, and so on. Mr. Obama, true to form, went high when we felt low, likely trying to lift people’s spirits, but at the time, I just wished he’d talk straight.
In September, he finally did: “Better is good,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s the history of progress in this country. Not perfect. Better.” He warned us we would not get everything we wanted.
“Better is good” as a slogan, is depressing – the sound of tempered expectations and abandoned plans. It’s also a factually accurate recollection of history, as well as a reminder that it can get much worse – a lesson that only the most privileged and cold-hearted had not already absorbed. It’s a sentiment rooted in reality, when reality is grim. This does not mean that our political solution lies in incrementalism; as I’ve noted, time is the enemy now, and it’s hard to bank on playing by the book when the book is burning.
But when you look at the landscape of 2018, what you are left with is a seemingly consolidating autocracy, steadily eroding checks on its power – having captured the executive and legislative branches, it now threatens to devour the judiciary – while facing off against millions of opponents waging small, local battles against corruption and cruelty. There is no unifying figure; nor is it wise to seek one. There is no easy solution; nor is it wise to feign one. There are only people who deserve better, and people fighting on their behalf.
Over and over, I have heard from people whose lives were turned upside down by the Trump administration in horrific ways, as well as those who have turned their own lives upside down to help them. That is the chaos of a country forced to surrender its delusions, but refusing to surrender its soul. We will never be the same America; none of us are the same people we were before November, 2016. All we can do is choose to be better. Unlike in so many other things, at least in that we have a choice.
There is no question that most Americans disapprove of Mr. Trump and the GOP. The question for November is whether dissent matters in the face of an increasingly autocratic regime, one whose disregard for rule of law is unparalleled in U.S. history, and one that may have engaged in voter suppression and one whose associates are being investigated for whether they collaborated with operatives of hostile states to win the previous election. The midterms have become an existential matter: Will we salvage our damaged democracy, or lose what rights remain? For non-white Americans, immigrants, women, LGBTQ Americans and other groups targeted by the administration, there is nothing abstract about this inquiry.
I spent most of the year on the road in America, and I don’t think we, as a people, are as cruel or mercenary as those who represent us. Political activists and Democrats are not as disorganized as pundits claim. Everything sounds confusing when you listen for a coherent message, and what you hear instead is an anguished cry. But at least that cry is honest. That cry means people still care. The worst sound, these days, is silence.