The Unbearable Lightness of Donald Trump

Donald Trump

Friday

Here’s a must-read article by Charlie Pierce of Rolling Stone on the importance of memory and what happens to us when we forget. Donald Trump, Pierce says, “will rise, and keep rising, until we remember what came before.”

Pierce’s point is a variant of George Santayana’s well-known observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I reflect on Pierce’s article for this blog because he references Milan Kundera’s novel Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

The 1977 novel, set in Soviet-controlled Czechoslovakia, examines a number of different situations where people attempt to airbrush away things from their past that might incriminate them, an understandable response to changing autocratic regimes. Early on, Kundera relates an incident from the Stalinist purges that poignantly sets up his theme:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on to the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was the great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close by him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section make hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on that balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.”

Pierce uses as a running theme for his article the following Kundera observation from the novel:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

While remembering is important in dictatorships, Pierce says that it is even more important in democracies. That is because citizens in dictatorships at least “see the effects of forgetting and unknowing in every transaction in their daily lives.” This is not the case for citizens in liberal democracies:

In liberal democracies, and especially in this one, there are so many distractions and so many options and so much media that the corrosive effects of the loss of the power of memory can elude anyone’s notice until something important comes apart all at once.

In recent decades, Americans have become experts at forgetting:

The 2016 presidential campaign—and the success of Donald Trump on the Republican side—has been a triumph of how easily memory can lose the struggle against forgetting and, therefore, how easily society can lose the struggle against power. There is so much that we have forgotten in this country. We’ve forgotten, over and over again, how easily we can be stampeded into action that is contrary to the national interest and to our own individual self-interest. We have forgotten McCarthy and Nixon. We have forgotten how easily we can be lied to. We have forgotten the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs and the sale of missiles to the mullahs. And along comes someone like Trump, and he tells us that forgetting is our actual power and that memory is the enemy.

The first decade of the twenty-first century gave us a great deal to forget. It began with an extended mess of a presidential election that ended with the unprecedented interference of a politicized Supreme Court. It was marked early on by an unthinkable attack on the American mainland. At this point, we forgot everything we already knew. We knew from our long involvement in the Middle East where the sources of the rage were. We forgot. We knew from Vietnam the perils of involving the country in a land war in Asia. We forgot. We knew from Nuremberg and from Tokyo what were war crimes and what were not. We forgot that we had virtually invented the concept of a war crime. We forgot.

Then Pierce hits us with our complicity in the process. We don’t forget because we are worried that Stalinist authorities will rifle through our past and imprison or execute us. We forget because we think that memory makes us weak:

In all cases, we forgot because we chose to forget. We chose to believe that forgetting gave us real power and that memory made us weak. We even forgot how well we knew that was a lie.

Pierce doesn’t go into detail about how Trump, through the power of distraction, is able to make us forget whatever he says that gets him into trouble. Just think of how many times he has gotten us to chase a new bone he has thrown out. We’ve become an ADHD society. When reality is this malleable, no one ever needs to be held accountable.

Among the most important things that Trump is calling upon us to forget is our identity as a nation that owes its strength and vitality to immigrants. Pierce quotes historian Kammen who quotes Hamlet as he identifies this source of America’s greatness:

The late historian Michael Kammen likened even the newest Americans to Fortinbras in Hamlet, who declares that he has “some rights of memory in this kingdom.” Even the immigrants most lately arrived can, Kammen argued, “have an imaginative and meaningful relationship to the determinative aspects of American history.”

This is what Trump wants us to forget when he calls for building a wall and banning all Muslim immigrants. Pierce concludes,

When Trump chants his mantra—”Make America Great Again”—the rest of the slogan is unsaid but obvious. The implied conclusion is “…Before All of Them Wrecked It.” And that is what has been selling, all year long, because while the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting, there is no guarantee that either struggle will end in triumph.

A couple of other notes about Kundera: In addition to describing how dictatorships attempt to erase history, Kundera in his novels shows us how intoxicatingly light we can fell when we forget. That helps explain the title of Kundera’s best known novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and it is the point of an extended parable in Book of Laughter and Forgetting where a character thinks that she has escaped her history by reaching an island inhabited by children. No longer, she thinks, will her memories weigh her down.

Children are innocent because they have no history. At first Tamina is joyous as she engages in ring dances with the children.  When they later rape her, however, Tamina  realizes that children also lack morals and a sense of responsibility. They are capable of anything.

At the moment, too many voters are acting like children. As a result, we now see a racist, misogynistic, narcissistic, xenophobic quasi-fascist as the presidential candidate of one of our two major parties.

We’d better start remembering fast.

Added note: I see that Timothy Egan of The New York Times this morning sees Trump already beginning to erase the past few months:

[If]f you were disliked by two-thirds of American women, 73 percent of nonwhites, 70 percent of voters under age 35 and 67 percent of college graduates, you’d feel some urgency to dial back his inner Sarah Palin.

So we saw the man who killed the Party of Lincoln in all his babelicious-loving glory Tuesday night, the first of 188 days until the general election. He can’t possibly take back everything. How do you replace xenophobia, racism, misogyny and factual malpractice with “we’re going to love each other,” as he said after winning Indiana?

Simple. Count on American amnesia, our opioid.

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