The Curse of Memory
When I was much younger, a writer named Paul Slansky put out a book that had a huge effect on me. The Clothes Have No Emperor: A Chronicle of the Reagan ’80s was formulated by its author as a defense mechanism, what we’d call today a means of self-care — a way of staying sane in the face of the fact that the impossible had happened: “an actor,” as Slansky stressed repeatedly in the book’s introduction, “is playing the President.” Appalled at the ease with which the people and the press had accepted what was, to him, a self-evident truth — that a television host had been hired to pretend to lead the nation, spouting burbly patriotic affirmations while his right-wing cronies looted the public till and destroyed American institutions — Slansky began combing through newspapers, television broadcasts, magazines, and every other medium he could get, slowly building a case that it was the country, not him, that was going insane. (This was in the days before the Internet, if you can imagine such a thing.)
The result was a stunning indictment of not just the horrid depths of corruption and indifference of the Reagan Administration, but of a public that responded to it like it was a particularly enjoyable Pepsi ad, and a press that bent over backwards to pretend that the President was not an affable dullard placed at the controls of the world’s most powerful machine as a distraction while his crooked backers robbed us blind. The book had its flaws, but the simple fact of daily documentation of Reagan’s lies and distortions — and of the media’s passive acceptance of them, lest they lose access to him altogether — had a powerful impact on me. I was 20 years old when it was published; Reagan was on his way out, but his vice-president was about to begin a multigenerational project to deepen the damage he’d done.
When Donald Trump was elected president in November, I thought, what better way to cope with a world that had once again gone mad than by continuing Slansky’s project? It would be easier now, with the internet making it simple to track the new president’s every utterance; all I had to do was write down one thing — just one thing — that this human fart joke did every day to keep myself sane and remind the future (and the ever-forgetting present) of our folly.
I lasted five days.
Despair set in almost immediately. I still had issues with Slansky’s methods, but I gained new respect for his sheer determination; Trump was such a hurricane of idiocy and lunacy that I could barely keep up. He seemed to do a dozen objectionable things an hour. The pure contempt he showed for any kind of professionalism or decent human behavior was just too exhausting; there was no way I could keep it up for four years. With any ordinary bad president, with even a George W. Bush, I could have done it, but not with Donald Trump. He was just too much. While other politicians might rain piss from you on high, Trump was a complete and utter shit-storm, and everywhere he went, he drenched the good and bad alike with one stinking load after another.
So I can’t deny that Trump is something unprecedented in American politics. The men behind him are nothing new, really; Mike Pence, who it is commonly assumed will actually be running the country while Trump angrily tweets at whatever hot dog vendor, pigeon, or wandering cloud has crossed his path that day, is a run-of-the-mill right-wing ideologue who would have found a comfortable chair in any Republican administration of the last 50 years. The frauds, cronies, cranks, and thieves forming his administration are a dismal lot of looters, it is true, but all of them can easily be imagined serving a President Dole, McCain, or Romney. (More than a few of them, indeed, are holdovers from the Reagan era.) But Trump himself is special, if only because he is so uniquely unqualified, so proudly ignorant, so invincibly egotistical, and so relentlessly disdainful of the bare minimum of decorum previously evinced by holders of his office. We have been in a long hard downward slide towards the bottom of the political barrel, but until now, the President has at least had to pretend to act like the President; Trump acts like a rich prick who wants his $800 meal comped because the waiter’s hand touched his steak.
All of this is to say, I get why some people are utterly freaking out about the prospect of a Trump administration. I personally don’t believe that he’s some neo-Hitlerian monster who will rain nukes on whatever country makes fun of his hairpiece first; I think his administration will do more than enough damage by dint of being right-wing true believers without him needing to start a nuclear war or send Muslims to detention centers. But I get why at least half the country is upset. Even if it was some quasi-respectable Republican like Jeb Bush or George Pataki assembling a cabinet like this, it would portend a nightmarish four years ahead; replace them with a short-tempered, petty grudge-holding sham artist like Trump, and there’s good reason to panic.
The problem I have is when this panic leads us to forget the past, to ignore the lessons of our most recent mistakes, to long for a time when things were just as awful but at least seemed to make more sense. We are seeing this not only in the Democratic Party’s bull-headed unwillingness to realize why they so catastrophically blew the 2016 election (and spent the previous eight years shedding House, Senate, and gubernatorial seats), but in ways that will hurt us even more. We respond with childish enthusiasm to neoconservatives and right-wing squawkers who turn on Trump; and by so doing, we let their other poisonous enthusiasms back into the national conversation. We pretend that George W. Bush — a man who completely ruined our economy, lied us into a war that killed countless people, and instituted the biggest rollback of civil rights in the post-war era — was something less than a monster because at least he didn’t make jerk-off gestures during the National Anthem, or whatever the latest Trump outrage is. We retreat into the error of forgiving our side for being conciliatory, of asking too little of them, of letting them slough off the mantle of opposition, because what can we do with that man in the White House?
Most of all, we make a pretense that things are happening that have not happened before, when in fact they have happened long enough ago that we have forgotten them, or the people who made them happen seemed more pleasant and amenable to our minds. We make the absurd statement that Donald Trump is the first president to knowingly and blatantly lie to the public, forgetting that every president does this. We pretend that Donald Trump is the first time we have elected a capering, callow celebrity to dance around while people work evil, forgetting that Ronald Reagan is one of the most popular American leaders of all time. We act as if some of Donald Trump’s policies are uniquely evil, rather than mere continuations of those of his predecessors; in the case of his anti-immigrant fervor, we take it to extremes, forgetting that Barack Obama, who is still in the White House as I write this, deported more people than all other Presidents combined. We goggle at Donald Trump’s adversarial attitude towards the press, forgetting that Reagan too enforced a strict control of access to those who spun the news his way (in the pre-FOX era, no less), and that Nixon actually conspired to have journalists murdered.
I understand: it is painfully hard to remember. It is a huge amount of work to both pay attention to the awful things that Trump does and says, and also to remember that some of those things are not without precedent. It requires us to do what Slansky did every day, and in a much more polarized and information-rich environment, and to additionally read and understand a history that retreats farther away each year. But without memory, we are lost in an eternal present, where every insult is too much to bear, and so eventually we will not bear it: we will abdicate our memories and allow the ones who enjoy living in that constantly renewing moment to eradicate the past while they eliminate the future.