Gertrude keeps hounding me to write another blog post. “I’m busy,” I tell her, obsessed with writing my next novel. It’s about the power of charismatic figures to draw us in—and then poison our environs with rancor and distrust. It’s about the consequences of allowing bullies to prevail.
I hadn’t planned on mirroring current events. But serendipitously, here I am: 86,000 words into the second draft.
One of the main characters in my novel, Billie Ochoa, teaches a course on Cold War politics. Consequently, I’ve been reading about Stalin’s tyrannical regime, red-baiter Joseph McCarthy, the Cuban Missile Crisis, trying to understand how bullies capture our imaginations so effectively that we freely put ourselves—and our democracy—at great risk.
I’m still working on a title for the book. Perhaps Tens Minutes to Disaster. Or The Deceit of the Deal. Or simply Splat!
Even Gertrude–who sees dust bunnies as a threat to our existence–thinks I’m paranoid, exaggerating, trading on conspiracy theories. “Surely we’ve learned important, unforgettable lessons from the 1950’s,” she says. Loyalty oaths. Blacklisting teachers and actors. Jailing labor organizers. Abrogating free speech in the name of national security. Manipulating the media. Did you know the CIA hired journalists and major news outlets to spy for the US government? The New York Times. CBS News. Time and Life Magazine. The Christian Science Monitor. All participated in a CIA-funded effort called Operation Mockingbird.
Gertrude chimes in, “That wouldn’t happen now. Besides, wasn’t that a really long time ago?”
I remind her that President-elect Trump has appointed at least three retired generals to his Cabinet. According to the Atlantic Monthly, the last time that happened was President Ulysses S. Grant. Right after the Civil War.
I wonder aloud how many steps we are away from a coup.
If it’s paranoia, I’m not alone. An op-ed piece in the New York Times by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy? cites three indicators that put democracy at risk including, “a failure to reject violence unambiguously, a readiness to curtail rivals’ civil liberties, and the denial of the legitimacy of elected governments.” I would add: the insistence that facts don’t matter.
All of which are tactics used by our current President-elect.
But a coup? That wouldn’t happen, at least not in America. But imagine, Levitsky and Ziblatt opine, if there were another large-scale terrorist attack on the United States. Or rioting in the streets.
Raise your hands if you remember Kent State.
Here’s where I end with a message of hope. In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, Barbara Kingsolver, encourages us to use our skills and talents—whatever they may be—to speak up. “Every soul willing to do that is part of our team … to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.”
Teachers. Scientists. Journalists. Artists. Therapists. Historians. Political Scientists. Electricians. Physicians. Carpenters. Nannies.
I’m using mine as a writer. Because words matter. And actions do too.