Monday, December 18, 2017

Reading is Resistance: On Tyranny and the Anti-Trump Cottage Industry

The United States of 2017 is not Germany of the 1930s. Our recent martial traumas do not include a humiliating defeat from a bordering long-time adversary. Our economy is not in free fall. We are not subject to destructive sanctions. Our status on the world stage is different. We have technology that allows for the quick organizing of opposition and the spreading of information, as well as an information technology infrastructure that is difficult to control. Even with the massive wealth disparity, as a population, we have more money. Democracy itself is an older, more developed system of government.

There are many reasons why the United States might avoid the rise of fascism in this country when Germany did not, but perhaps the biggest one is that Hitler already happened. We can correlate the strategies with the outcomes. We can compare what Hitler (and Stalin and Mussolini and Franco) did with what the Trump administration is doing. Unlike the Germans of the 1930s, we can say, “Oh, this is the same thing that Hitler did to discredit the press.” Of course, some people are refusing to believe the signs and, of course, some people are quite comfortable with the rise of fascism in America if that fascism embodies white supremacism and/or narcissistic capitalism and/or a theocracy based in their Christianity, but they do that in opposition to what is obvious to the rest of us. In short, we are prepared to prevent a Hitler in this country in ways the Germans simply could not have been.

That is the thesis of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, and, in many ways, of the study of history itself. By knowing how Hitler came to power, by studying the failures of people, not just in Germany but around Europe and, even in the United States (haven't forgotten you, you America First assholes), we can avoid those failures and prevent that rise of power today. As a document, On Tyranny is a pretty handy tool. You can read it straight through, use it as a starting point for greater research, build your life around it, or even just leave it in your bathroom as a constant reminder of what is at stake and what you can do about it. It's the kind of little book that can be life changing in big ways and small ways. I would go so far as to say, even if we do prevent the rise of fascism in the United States, there's a lot in this little book about just living a fully engaged life. (Implying that living a fully engaged life is a barrier against fascism, which has merit. I do wonder about the weight of sadness Trump supporters constantly carry with them.)

But that isn't what I really want to talk about. As important as it is to build anti-fascism into our identities through books about fascism, On Tyranny connects to another trend in America since the 2016 election, one that has been driving me fucking nuts, and one that speaks more to the reaction of Republicans today than any thread of human history.

Publishing is (for many good reasons) a slow industry. It takes a long time to make a book and so it inherently takes a long time to respond to trends and social changes. (Which is also often a good thing.) Publishing is also (for less good reasons) an under-capitalized industry. Books are expensive to produce and under-priced (if you've got all day, I am more than happy to talk about that), which means that publishers often don't have a lot of financial flexibility. This leads to a lot of different practices, but it also means that it is very difficult for publishing to respond in a timely manner to current events, even when they know that response could ultimately be profitable. (Sure, while we're talking about books being under-priced, I'd be happy to explain why the industry could easily churn out a million adult coloring books in, like, six months.)

And yet, within months an entire cottage industry of anti-Trump and resistance literature, like On Tyranny, sprung up. My publisher Melville House (which has some experience in this) crashed an anthology of responses to the election, a history of antifa, and a book about impeachment and has more on the way. Their book on impeachment wasn't even the only one that came out this Fall. There were so many of these books coming out that PSB had a rotating activism/resistance display that was extremely popular with our customers. This really isn't about publishing, but as I saw these books piled on our new nonfiction table, as I thought of the energy it takes to move the wheels in publishing, and as I connected that energy to other events in the world, like thousands of us stupidly throwing money at Jill Stein's recount, an idea emerged that really stuck in my fucking craw.

Why the fuck were any Republicans actively supporting the Trump administration? Americans are so desperate for any kind of resistance to Trump, especially from Republicans, that even mostly meaningless gestures, like Jeff Flakes's, inspire rounds of praise. I mean, imagine if Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain, all of whom pride themselves on their independence and don't particularly need the Republican party establishment to maintain their power, formed a new party right after the election. Or, if not right after the election, some time after it became clear the Russia meddled in our election and that an investigation of the Trump campaign was underway. Or at any point in the year, when the Trump administration did something terrible.

First of all, they would be swamped with applications from Republican strategists, pundits, and staffers. (You know, all the Republicans that are on MSNBC.) I think they would also see other people in Congress (Jeff Flake most likely) join them or at least express sympathy for their cause. They would probably have also been joined by a number of other anti-Trump Republicans, like Ana Navarro, Evan McMullin, and potentially even Mitt Romney. I know I would have called Mass Governor Charlie Baker to let him know he had a new option. But even if just those three in Congress switched, they would immediately become the three most powerful people in Washington as the Republicans would be unable to accomplish anything without them. Sure, Mitch McConnell would almost certainly retaliate by removing them from their committees and refusing to bring any of their bills to the floor but nothing he could do would make their votes any less valuable.

And how they would be praised! Doing this would have pretty much sewn up Time's People of the Year. The entire right-of-center world be talk endlessly about “a new path for conservatism” or something. And think of the New York Times profiles! They'd have to establish a special pension just for copy editors rendered only able to think in synonyms for “brave” and “principled.”

But most importantly, their new party would have been drowning in money. Not just from those who might eventually join said party, but, well, from everyone who has been donating in special elections, donating to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood and other organizations actively fighting against the Trump administration, and buying copies of On Tyranny and all of those other books in that anti-Trump cottage industry. The American people have been and for the most part still are desperate to spend money to oppose Trump and a Republican splinter party could have raked in a fuckton of it.

And here's what sticks in my craw. They didn't. Not only did they not form a new political party, they didn't even leave the party to become independents. Not only did they not become independents, but they rubber stamped all of Trump's cabinet nominees, even those who were obviously unqualified and obviously crony appointments. (And they continue to rubber stamp catastrophically unqualified nominees in a way that will cost taxpayers for decades to come. Looking at you unqualified federal judge who is going to get every single one of his decisions appealed.) But they didn't just rubber stamp his appointments, they let their colleagues drag their feet in investigating the election, they did nothing about his raft of toxic executive orders, and they only responded with any amount of courage on anything after massive, sustained, almost unprecedented push back from their constituents.

I mean, if we still have a democracy at the end of this, someone is going to have to lead whatever is left of the Republican party and there are a half dozen or so people who could have grabbed that role. (Who could still grab that role!) It would be so easy and yet they didn't do it. And this is one of the things that keeps me up at night. Not a single fucking one of them did a single meaningful fucking thing. The power was there for the taking. The money was there for the taking. If publishing can turn on a dime and create a whole cottage industry, politicians whose organizations are designed to respond to the whims of the people should have been able to also turn on a dime and capitalize on this opportunity. Shit, if the founders of this new party published a “statement of principles” or something as a book, that would have been the bestselling book in 2017. By a wide margin.

I'm a lefty, so to me, this reveals the fundamental rot at the center of the Republican party. To me, this reveals how decades of coded racism, rhetorical judo, fact-denial, and crony capitalism has rendered even those Republicans ostensibly independent from their party, unable to understand and respond to Trump's threat to America. To me, this fits right into the progress of the Republican Party into a cash cow for con artists scamming old people, authoritarians, theocrats, and narcissistic capitalists. That not a single fucking one of them took this opportunity, to me, is just proof that the process that started with McCarthyism and picked up steam with Nixon's Southern Strategy is reaching an end point. But you can write that off as just anti-Republican bias if you want.

But even if you do, you can't deny one major fact. The American people are so hungry for anti-Trump action that even a slow-moving, under-capitalized industry like publishing can respond quickly to that trend and churn out books like On Tyranny. At the very least we have to ask ourselves why politicians in general and Republicans in particular have not.

I generally like the wrap these pieces up in a way that connects reading to resistance, to show how the act of reading in general and reading specific books give us the tools to fight against the rise of fascism. But this piece is really more about the book industry than the act of reading itself. And the book industry is kinda strange. On the one hand, it is driven by storytelling, by perhaps the fundamental human trait. On the other hand, the contemporary American book industry is relatively new, developing in and around WWII when a perfect storm of lowering material cost, universal literacy, and unprecedented economic growth created an entirely different type of demand than books had ever had. Even then, you'd probably have to argue that publishing is almost entirely different now than it was after WWII, late capitalism having threshed what had been hundreds of publishers into a concentrated handful of tiny fragments of massive other non-book corporations, surrounded by dozens of small presses doing much of the cultural labor. Furthermore, it's hard to know exactly how much of a direct short-term impact book culture and thus the book industry actually has on American society. Sure, many of the most popular and critically acclaimed TV shows and movies started as books and, sure, I would argue the recent growth in great television comes from television applying the storytelling techniques of books and novels, but, all too often, the wider popular culture doesn't know about the bookish origins of their favorite movies and shows and isn't familiar enough with contemporary print storytelling to identify its influence on TV and movies. And, of course, we've all see those dire statistics about who reads books, who buys books, and how many books are read and bought each year.

Regardless, books are fundamental to culture even if their impact isn't always visible, and the health of the industry and what comes out of it says something about American culture. I don't think publishing has ever made a clearer statement. The American people want leaders to fight Trump and they are willing to pay for even the illusion of that fight.

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