As the year draws to a close and the month-long countdown toward a Trump Presidency begins, well… crap. This year certainly did not end on an especially high note, and 2017, when the man actually assumes office, looks to be even worse. Donald Trump, as a President, presages a descent into madness in America: an age of oppression, of economic collapse, of political harassment of dissent, and of a collapsed media.
Not all is lost, however. Not yet. One powerful idea for how to gird your mental loins for what is to come: write things down. Write down what you love, what you value, what has meaning for you. Write down what is true, what is untrue, and don’t hold back even if you think it is stupid. At some point, you will look back and marvel at the things we thought were unacceptable but seem commonplace, and wonder what happened to the things you thought everyone else agreed were true. That is just the way of these things. Everything bubbling up from the fever swamps of social media now, from the new President’s inability to tell fact from fiction, to propaganda and fake news, makes it more important than ever to write down, concretely, what is important to you and use that to keep yourself centered.
Writing things down is powerful. And I do mean write — don’t type them on your computer. Take out a pen and start to write down what matters to you by hand. Not only is handwriting notes better for remembering concepts and values, the slower act of physically writing forces your brain to slow down and think as you go. Plus, hand-written notes are immune to hard drive failures.
One way to think of this listing of important things is to categorize them. Obviously our morals, values, and the things that have meaning should be written down. Do it, right now, on paper so it can’t be hacked or easily stolen. If you care about equality, write down what equality means to you — it doesn’t have to be anything florid, but something as basic as “equality means we do not treat people differently because of their religion,” or “equality means we do not punish poor people because they cannot afford wealthy people things.”
By writing these things down you will have a starting point when confronting the literal derecho of bullshit that is on its way from the White House. It is going to be difficult to withstand — Trump has mastered the art of the gish gallop, whereby he floods the zone with so much nonsense it becomes impossible to refute or respond. The way Trump mobilizes language is crucial to his power, and it is at the heart of how he won. We should not lost sight of the vast and ever-growing list of Trump’s outrages, but I would say the greatest danger he poses to our society is toward language. This is not a minimization of how he has said he intends to treat women (poorly), or minorities (poorly), or queer people (poorly), or women (poorly), or the poor (poorly). Rather, that his abuse of language is what enables all of these things. Trump both broadcasts his intentions, and he subverts how he intends to carry them out — and he does so continuously. This is most often written off in the media as him “falsely alleging” something (or more plainly: lying his ass off) but it goes deeper than that.
Donald Trump is, at an aspirational level, an autocrat. He demonstrates no knowledge of how the government actually works, and he uses his Twitter account to freely punish people, businesses, and other figures that displease him. He insists he will force various free actors to do things (move manufacturing jobs back from overseas, punish various groups, force others to be more prosperous), to raucous applause.
If there is any iron-clad rule in approaching an autocrat, it is this: take him at his word. This can be difficult to parse out with a man like President Trump, who seems as comfortable inventing things as he is actively lying about them. But we can distinguish between the a concrete “policy” and an aspiration — the difference between “I will bring back your coal mines” and “I will attempt to deport millions of Latino immigrants.” The former is aspirational, the latter is concrete (I put “policy” in scare quotes because Trump does not have policies, but rather bigotries that are expressed through incidental policy statements).
Anyway, so we have concrete things Trump and his team are saying (like how he will pick and choose which companies succeed, or when he asked the Department of Energy to assemble a black list of employees who have worked on climate change policies, or State Department employees who focus on women’s rights), and he is justifying it through his aspiration statements about American greatness, his own searing brilliance, or how everything is a false flag. And so on.
With everything Trump says, his language matters. But it doesn’t matter in the way we normally think — it isn’t just what he says, but the online lynch mob he mobilizes, along with a pliant media, that makes him completely off-script for American politics. There is no blueprint for a President using Twitter to short companies with a lie because an executive displeased him. Worse still, when the CEO of said company responds, very politely, by saying that of course they won’t live up to that lie, the country’s largest cable TV network portrays that as a win for Trump. It is circular, and untrue, but that does not matter. What matters is that the language is used to emphasize and amplify Trump’s power.
This dynamic plays out on all levels. It is hard to know what to do when Trump defames a local union leader, and then laughs as the man was flooded with online abuse and death threats — especially when his wife has ostensibly (and inauthentically) devoted herself to ending cyberbullying. Like with the flood of fake news that propelled him into power, there is a fine line between debunking his outrageous lies and amplifying them to a fallow audience. Debunking everything he says will, at some point, stop being meaningful — already, too many are acclimatizing themselves to it, writing off his insane raging as “Trump being Trump.”
The rapidity of this change is startling. Could you imagine the outcry if Barack Obama maintained a private security force of personal guards he imported from Chicago when he was about to take the oath of office? No, because he would not have done it in the first place, but also because his perfectly ordinary behavior sparked such enormous whitelash from the country that took the form of the Tea Party and birtherism (which Trump supported). Yet this inconceivable-for-Obama behavior is what Trump is doing right now. Our range of what we consider outrageous and merely annoying can change without our even knowing it.
So stay vigilant. Writing down that it is wrong, say, for the President to pick winners and losers in our economy, helps keep perspective while he’s bragging about which companies he is going to target for job-saving. Writing down that we don’t simply target people for their religious will help when his surrogates begin constructing the case for registering and then monitoring Muslims.
Writing things down is how we can stay on guard against the wild and freewheeling use of fabrications and hyperbole by Trump’s team of political hacks. The incoming class of officials is filled with conspiracy theorists and morally unmoored nihilists who do not care if what they say is true or what they do is remotely harmful to others. They can and will do enormous damage, and it will be hard to realize what they are doing unless you write down, now, what matters to you and what you will hold the line about.
So write! Take out a piece of paper and write down what you care about, what you believe in, and what lines you simply will not let yourself cross. Then stick is somewhere you will be able to find later — in a drawer at home, on your computer monitor, anywhere. You just might be surprised at what comes out when you do, and it will serve as your lighthouse through the darkness that approaches.