Two years into his administration, Mr. Trump’s ability to evade responsibility for his behavior, his rhetoric, and his authoritarian gestures has left many of us in a state of exhaustion. Even the Democratic Party — itself deeply polarized and divided between progressive and centrist blocs, between those leaning towards impeachment and those who fear it — seem unable to determine a way forward. Other authoritarian projects, such as those recently attempting to undermine abortion rights, curtail efforts to confront a near-future environmental catastrophe, and engage in isolationist economic strategies fatally incompatible with the geoeconomics of a globalized world, create new headlines each day, as the 24-hour news and social media cycle churns out material designed to stoke fear, resentment, and a sense of fatalism. So we’ve all turned fearful, resentful, and fatalist, which is precisely where authoritarians — especially those in Russia, which is strongest when its enemies are most divided — want us to be. We are rendered, if not impotent, then pessimistic about the actions we can take to alleviate our situation.
During a recent Reddit AMA, historian Timothy Snyder, whose books Bloodlands, On Tyranny, and The Road to Unfreedom may be among the most useful for understanding today’s situation, wrote in regard to how we may respond to those defending Mr. Trump, his behaviors, and his policies (if they may be so generously described):
I think one has to be passionate without being shrill, and insistent without exaggerating. It’s hard because not everyone believes those rules mean anything. I say that I am a partisan for my country, that I am a partisan for my children having a future with everyone else’s children, etc. The “partisan” idea is a way that people tempt themselves into thinking that all that’s going on is an argument between two sides about a reality that is basically fine. Part of what one has to do is talk in ways that make it clear that we’re all in the future together, regardless of the buzzwords right now. I know it’s hard.
Mr. Snyder and his wife, Marci Shore (also an exemplary historian), likely have little in common with me except that we both have two young children growing up in a particularly frightening political and social landscape. Mr. Snyder seems to be suggesting that labelling oneself a “partisan” is to contribute to a rhetorical standoff certain to lead to paralysis, but what strikes me most is his sentiment that he is speaking for his “children having a future with everyone else’s children,” a future that, importantly, is not yet determined — and a future that we, as historical actors, can influence. The obvious corollary is that we abandon our responsibility for this future when we permit ourselves to be drowned in a sea of lies, however exhausting the effort to stay afloat and however narcotic the waves may be.
So it’s our children that I have in mind when I consider that we need to continually renew our dedication to confronting Mr. Trump’s attempts to cordon himself off from responsibility for his actions. Mr. Snyder’s On Tyranny offers twenty practical suggestions as to how we can do so, perhaps the most important of which is the last:
20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. [Written in 2016.] Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it.
And the generations to come include, most immediately, my and my wife’s children as well as those of Mr. Snyder and Ms. Shore.
Mr. Snyder’s list seems to be fairly comprehensive, and of course one needn’t limit oneself to choosing just one of his suggestions. But with apologies to Mr. Snyder I take the liberty here to offer one more, which may be labelled 20a:
20a. Learn about America’s history and the principles and ideals under which it was founded. Bear in mind that the compromises that politics makes necessary does not render these principles and ideals any less valid; those compromises say more about politicians than about ideals. The better we can live up to those principles and ideals and put them into practice in our personal and social lives, the better for us and our children, however short we may fall.
In just a few weeks, we will celebrate the 243rd anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence — another document of protest against an authoritarian, tyrannical ruler. My family and I will be in Philadelphia then, And I hope to revisit the fine Museum of the American Revolution, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center (perhaps to follow up with a meal at City Tavern, surprisingly excellent for what might be construed as a “theme” restaurant and which I highly recommend). I was born in Philadelphia and spent a great deal of my youth there; it was hard to walk the streets of that city without being reminded of its history. The past was ever-present in the architecture of the neighborhood, a past which also contained the ideals of liberty, freedom, and communal responsibility for each other in its history. I’m hoping that some of my enthusiasm for this history rubs off on my daughters. (I’m unaware that Mr. Trump has ever visited any of these places.)
Our generation is fortunate in that there is a wealth of great historical writers about the early years of the republic, all of whom remain active: Gordon S. Wood, Pauline Maier, Joseph Ellis, and many others have in recent years contributed to a fuller understanding of the philosophical and historical basis of American liberal democracy, as well as the hypocrisies that accompanied the foundation of the republic — again, hypocrisies which say more about politics than about the ideals and ideas of the American Experience. As we slide into what will surely be an even more exhausting election period, I’ll try to write here about just why these ideals and ideas remain important, and that Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ and enablers’ undermining of these ideals and ideas constitute a threat to our children’s future lives in the United States. Mr. Snyder’s history constitutes a warning; perhaps the history of American liberal democracy can constitute a brighter possibility.