And so we come to this day: Jan. 20, 2017. Inauguration Day. The day on which the U.S. White House becomes – in the eyes of many who voted for a different presidential candidate – Slytherin House, its occupant the Left’s own Voldemort.
During the 30 days leading up to today, I’ve been doing a lot of reading, scouring my bookshelves for inspiration and ideas about how to deal with today and the days, weeks, months and years to come. I also embarked on a little project during that time, tweeting key quotes from works I thought might be relevant for this moment in history. I did it as a countdown: 30 days, 30 works, 30 sets of quotes to think about in the run-up to Trump.
I found it to be a valuable experience, for myself if no one else. I revisited a lot of books I haven’t opened in years, from past events that significantly influenced my thinking over time.
Coming of age as I did during the Watergate era, I couldn’t escape signs that the Nixon presidency could have critical lessons for us during the presidency just begun today. The brilliant and much-missed Molly Ivins – whose 2004 book, “Who Let the Dogs Out?” was the subject of my Day 8 tweets – had choice words about the 37th president.
“Nixon was a sorry, sick human being, with a gift for exploiting lower-middle-class resentment, envy, and bigotry for his own political purposes,” Ivins wrote. “This country remains a nastier place today because of Nixon.”
Ivins’ concerns about the state of U.S. politics in the post-9/11 era also resonated:
“I may be an optimist, but I am also as frightened as I have been for this country since the Saturday Night Massacre under Richard Nixon, when I really thought he might call out the troops. In a different way, almost with our permission, I think we’re that close to losing all of it – the Constitution, freedom, rule of law, even the dream of social and economic justice.”
And that was in 2004!
Nixon, Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein, and “All the President’s Men” were a big reason I went into journalism, rather than science, my first love. But science has always heavily informed my perspective on writing and reporting, and the works of several science legends also came up during my Twitter project.
On Day 9, for example, with 21 days to Trump, I tweeted 34 excerpts from Carl Sagan’s 1996 book, “The Demon-Haunted World.” The entire volume is essentially Sagan’s cri de coeur for better education in science and critical thinking. The following comment seemed especially prescient in light of today:
“Those who seek power at any price detect a societal weakness, a fear that they can ride into office… Whatever the problem, the quick fix is to shave a little freedom off the Bill of Rights… The pretexts change from year to year, but the result remains the same: concentrating more power in fewer hands and suppressing diversity of opinion – even though experience plainly shows the dangers of such a course of action.”
The quote from Sagan’s book that stuck with me the most, though, was – Godwin’s Law notwithstanding – his recounting of Leon Trotsky’s description of the prevailing mindset in Germany in 1933:
“Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives along side the twentieth century the thirteenth. A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic powers of signs and exorcisms… Movie stars go to mediums. Aviators who pilot miraculous mechanisms created by man’s genius wear amulets on their sweaters. What inexhaustible reserves they possess of darkness, ignorance and savagery!”
Other passages that haunted me, even though I didn’t feature them in my Jan. 11 Twitter thread, came from Hedrick Smith’s 1976 book, “The Russians,” in which he described how the Soviet system – through a combination of censorship, repression, economic punishments and mis/disinformation – worked to break many dissidents. One of the saddest quotes came from a friend of a man named Leonid Petrovsky, who dared to speak against neo-Stalinism and quickly found himself unable to find work of any kind at all: “Now he is in no mood to make any protests,” the friend told Smith. “He is a good man, honest, but quiet. He is afraid.”
Beyond such chilling words, I also found inspiring ones. On Day 26, my Twitter subject was Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech – delivered during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While I’ve read and heard excerpts from King’s speech many times in my life, sitting there and reading it from start to finish on the evening of Jan. 15 brought me to tears. Building masterfully to a crescendo that gives you goosebumps, the language in King’s speech is beautiful, masterful, awe-inspiring. Read it and see for yourself… really, if you haven’t read it in a while, you need to.
So what lessons did I take away from my 30-day dig into history? And how might they help us in navigating the uncertain future? These are key things I learned:
One, the past always offers parallels for the present. This is, in a way, reassuring… because if times were bad in the past and yet we’re still here, there’s hope that — 10 or 20 years down the road — we can say the same thing about today.
Two, the more things change, the more some things stay the same. Demagogues have always lurked in our political landscape, no matter where or when we grew up. Authoritarians, racists and bullies have always been with us… and always will be. But so too have philosophers and artists, scientists and soldiers for social justice. So don’t believe people who say that any one moment marks the “end of liberalism” or the “end of conservatism” or, silliest of all, the “end of history”.
And, finally, knowledge matters. Ignorance is dangerous. But cynicism is even worse. When people throw up their hands, decide there are no such things as facts and everyone – the left, the right, the media, scientists, artists – is lying, that’s when things go from bad to worse.
“There is an unbelievable cynicism among people,” the Soviet physicist, mathematician and computer scientist Valentin Turchin said in “The Russians.” “No one stands for the truth. And if anyone says he is above Party and is trying to speak the truth alone, he is lying. This cynicism greatly helps the authorities keep the intelligentsia in line and exclude the ‘wild dissidents’ from society. People can travel to the West and hear Western radio broadcasts and it makes no difference, so long as there is this pervasive cynicism that it is just the other side speaking. This cynicism provides the stability of the totalitarian state today in place of the fear of the Stalinist years.”