There was a moment, last March, when I woke in the middle of the night and suddenly understood the feeling of emotional vertigo I’d been grappling with, my sense that the ground beneath me was no longer solid. I had known for a long time, in an intellectual way, that my country was no longer what I had thought, for all of my life, it was. But I had told myself that the foundation of our lives was steady. Yes, terrible things were happening, but nothing was permanent, and in the meantime life would go on as it essentially always had. That’s how it had been during both Bush administrations, right? I had told myself that what was happening was extreme, and our institutions were damaged and would need repair, but we were fundamentally sound. Right?
Then the pandemic hit, and it became starkly clear that our institutions were broken and we were all on our own in a way I had never seen. As hospitals scrambled for PPE, and the country shut down with no relief for those who suddenly had no livelihood, and our president held press briefings every day in which he brazenly lied to us, I saw that things I’d believed (hoped) could never happen here already had. I felt dread and anxiety settle over me like a cloak, and as 2020 progressed through police violence and protests and fights over masks and school openings while people died and fires blazed and we choked on toxic air, its weight grew heavier and heavier.
When Trump lost the presidential election, it lightened. I knew that victory wasn’t a silver bullet. I knew things weren’t going to go back to some Before and that the forces that had brought us Trump weren’t going to magically disappear, but–at the very least, I thought–we’d have a reprieve from the onslaught and an administration that would restore functionality to our government agencies.
The reprieve ended before the new presidency even began. It didn’t happen all at once on January 6, but has unfolded slowly (and then quickly) over the days since then, as layers of information have peeled back what happened to a core that is (for me, at any rate) as ground-shaking as the one that emerged in March. Like then, I knew how things were, but I didn’t know know. Now I do.
Sometime in the last week I returned to Sarah Kendzior’s November 2016 essay “We’re heading into dark times. This is how to be your own light in the Age of Trump.” I remember reading it the first time that November, in my car, on my phone, after participating in a protest march. I remember these words–
“I have been studying authoritarian states for over a decade, and I would never exaggerate the severity of this threat. Others who study or have lived in authoritarian states have come to the same conclusion as me.”—
and feeling both the weight of their truth and a simultaneous disbelief because…well, there are so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. It’s bad, but not that bad, I told myself, shivering in the dark. It can’t be. I remembered the Sinclair Lewis novel that had chilled me when I read it at the height of the Reagan era–It Can’t Happen Here–and repeated to myself the lie in the title of that book. Don’t over-react, I told myself. It might not be that bad, I thought. (The gaslighting we do to ourselves might be the very worst kind.)
I returned to her essay because, as I absorbed the truth of what recent events mean about so many things, I felt myself shift to new acceptance of things I once found unimaginable. OK, I thought. This kind of violence is no longer impossible here. I felt myself accepting this in the same way I’ve come to accept that children will die in school shootings and black men calling for help will die under the boots of police officers and our elderly and disabled will die alone, trapped in nursing homes where Covid has run rampant because our government is broken and we have forsaken them. Acceptance doesn’t mean that I condone these things but that I feel myself shifting into seeing them as inevitable. Over four years I have watched myself lose my ability to feel shock; instead, when the news fills with words and images of another injustice, I am often numb. If I feel anything, it is most often weariness. “Why are you surprised?” is often my response to someone sharing news of another breach of what was once a norm.
Kendzior wrote about how all of us might find ourselves doing things we once thought we’d never do, and four years ago I thought that meant the kind of things I’d read about in Nazi Germany–stifling speech, turning neighbors into the police, looting the homes of those who’d disappeared in the middle of the night. It didn’t occur to me until re-reading her words that the actions we thought we’d never take could be passive and internal.
In her essay, Kendzior urged us to write down who we were and what we believed and what our lives had been so far, so that we wouldn’t forget it. She cautioned:
“Authoritarianism is not merely a matter of state control, it is something that eats away at who you are. It makes you afraid, and fear can make you cruel. It compels you to conform and to comply and accept things that you would never accept, to do things you never thought you would do.
You do it because everyone else is doing it, because the institutions you trust are doing it and telling you to do it, because you are afraid of what will happen if you do not do it, and because the voice in your head crying out that something is wrong grows fainter and fainter until it dies.”
Apathy is a kind of cruelness, and denial is a tricky thing. More and more, I look back at the pre-2016 me and feel shame and disgust at all I didn’t see and know that I now do. The information about who and what we are was there all along. I saw much of it a long time ago and turned away from it and then forgot it. I told myself that things were not really as bad as some said. I cautioned myself against over-reacting. I know that denial is a protective mechanism we employ without awareness to protect ourselves from truth we aren’t yet equipped to manage, and in my good moments I can feel empathy for my pre-2016 self. I suppose she was doing the best she could with what she had. In my bad moments, I want to shake her and yell at her to wake the fuck up. I want to hide her in a closet and pretend she was never me.
This is where I read Kendzior and find myself wondering. In important ways, I don’t want to remain the person I was then (much as I miss feeling the security I once felt). I want, now, to be clear-eyed and awake, and I don’t want to be cruel. I think–especially when we are swimming in cultural waters filled with lies and distortions–that it can be difficult to parse out what acceptance and resistance really mean. That I no longer feel shocked at things that were once shocking might be less about acceptance and more about stepping out of denial. Periodic numbing might, at least in the short term, be a necessary response so that we do not drown. We need to figure out how to accept reality without accepting that reality is OK. I read Kendzior now and wonder how we determine when authoritarianism actually starts. If it is about making us forget who we are and what we believe in, then for me it did not start with Donald Trump. It probably started during the first Iraq war. Reagan, like Trump, was a masterful communicator who lied. We called him the Teflon president because no matter what he was caught in, it seemed to roll off him without consequence. Like Trump, his agenda was about strengthening white supremacy by gutting social supports and shifting wealth to already wealthy and powerful white Americans while scapegoating and incarcerating those who were not white. That agenda was continued by Bush, and something about that war broke something in me. I turned inward and away from forces and a fight I felt powerless to affect. I became apathetic.
Kendzior cautioned us that our power comes from hanging on to who we truly are, and that “to protect and wield this power, you need to know yourself – right now, before their methods permeate, before you accept the obscene and unthinkable as normal.”
But the obscene and unthinkable are normal. It’s all I’ve ever known, really. It’s us. It’s who we’ve almost always been. “This is not normal,” has been a drumbeat of the white, liberal resistance since Trump took office, to which people have color have consistently answered, “Yes, it is. This has always been normal for us.”
As I’ve been letting my thoughts spool out in this ramble of a post (all I can manage this week), on a weekend in which we honor the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, I think maybe the best thing I can land on is this: I don’t want to hang onto 2016 me. To be any kind of light to anyone, I need to go back much further.
Been while since I’ve offered dots, but here are some that have informed this week’s thinking: