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One would be hard-pressed to recall the last time writers made political news in America, but last week it happened, and in large numbers too: initially, 450 authors, including ten Pulitzer Prize winners, signed “An Open Letter to Our Fellow Americans” opposing “unequivocally, the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for the Presidency of the United States.” The letter was posted here, at Lit Hub, and it has been gathering signatures from colleagues and bookish civilians (over 20,000 to date), who evidently endorse the reasons for the opposition, including a rhetorical (“Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power”) and a philosophical one (“Because the search for justice is predicated on a respect for the truth”), as well as some angry-sounding ones (“Because the rise of a political candidate who deliberately appeals to the basest and most violent elements in society… demands, from each of us, an immediate and forceful response.”)
Fucking A, says I! For I too deplore Trump and everything he and his squirrel-pelt hair stand for.
Yet, I didn’t sign the Letter.
For one thing, if the writers take the American electoral system to be legitimate and legal, the way to oppose Trump’s candidacy is to vote against him—that’s what voting is for. It’s true, as the writers assert, that “the history of dictatorship is the history of manipulation and division, demagoguery and lies,” but Trump is presently abiding by the rules of democratic election, as are his followers, rabid as they may be. It’s also true that “neither wealth nor celebrity qualifies anyone to speak for the United States, to lead its military, to maintain its alliances, or to represent its people.” But what would qualify Trump to speak for the United States is his being elected in the fall. Horrifying as that may seem, that’s how the system works—the election is the job interview. The Open Letter demands that Trump be excluded from the democratic process because he and his words are repellent, because his pelt and short fingers tarnish the comforting picture of American history that “despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together.”
It’s questionable, however, that his absence from the electoral process would restore the said picture to its full American glory. Would the writers have written a letter opposing Ted Cruz, an ardent sociopath who at some point in his life must have tortured rodents, and who is just as hateful as Trump, because he would’ve conformed to the accepted practices of American politics? Would Ben Carson, a stranger to reason, comply with the writers’ belief “that any democracy worthy of the name rests on pluralism, welcomes principled disagreement, and achieves consensus through reasoned debate”? What is the threshold of acceptability? Being a professional politician? Being a Democrat? Not having short fingers? Not being Trump?
One could imagine, if with great difficulty, an Open Letter where the writers would be objecting to what made Trump and Trumpism possible, opposing an America that is no longer ethically and morally viable as a communion of equal citizens and has metastasized into a system reproducing inequality while defusing dissent with War on Terror and base entertainment. But one could never imagine a letter where the writers would’ve opposed the disasters of the Bush regime with the same ardor. And not because it’s hard to see how George W. (who glows quaintly in the light of Trump) fits in with the writers’ belief “that knowledge, experience, flexibility, and historical awareness are indispensable in a leader,” but simply because a letter signed by the nation’s literary elite, imploring fellow Americans to oppose Bush’s candidacy/presidency never existed—George W., it appears, could effortlessly squeeze his dumb war-criminal ass into the framework of “a great experiment.”
One has a hard time recalling a novel that has forcefully addressed the iniquities of the post 9/11 era: the lies, the crimes, the torture, the financial collapse, not to mention Americans’ complicity in all those glories, including the fact that Bush had approval ratings reaching the nineties on the eve of the Iraq invasion. If some future historian attempts to determine what occupied the American writers’ minds since the beginning of the millennium by reading all the Pulitzer Prize fiction winners between 2002 and 2016, s/he would find few traces of Bush, or Iraq, or Abu Ghraib, or Cheney, or the financial collapse, or indeed any politics. Apart from The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which has some things to say about American exceptionalism, the closest to political engagement a recent Pulitzer winner comes is by way of North Korea, the setting for Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, addressing the outrageous misdeeds of a reassuringly non-American regime.
There is a good case—literary or not—to be made for ideological continuity between the Bushite and the Trumpite America, but exposing that evolution would require a lot of writing, which might interfere with all the open letters re: present calamity that clamor to be written. Perhaps it is indeed better to let the bygones be bygones, and continue “the great experiment,” even if it’s repeatedly plagued by predictably terrible results. If a reality-TV starlet, continuously high on Viagra and racism, is what it takes to get American writers back into politics, let us welcome the development. Perhaps there is an author among the Open Letter signatories eager to develop a narrative in which Trump—or his hairier, more narratively compelling avatar—wouldn’t be the false cause of our discontent but a symbol of an America struggling to forestall its precipitous intellectual and political decline, to which the absence of its literature from its politics must have contributed.