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The anti-Trump toolkit: the new books on how to resist authoritarian rule

What We Do Now and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.

After the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, the question for liberals is: what now? Two new books are offering answers.

The US president’s first weeks in power have been marked by resistance both on the streets and in the courts. The Women’s March on Washington, DC was one of the largest demonstrations in American history and was followed by protests against the “Muslim ban” executive order. The ban was challenged in more than 50 lawsuits.

The problem with using the law to constrain those in power is that those in power are able to define the law. Understanding how far Trump intends to reshape the state is crucial in deciding how to oppose him. The positive outlook is to see him as just a bad president: ignorant and hateful, but part of the system and therefore susceptible to being constrained by it. The pessimist’s take is that Trump is a strongman leader who will bend or break democratic institutions to serve his ends.

The latter view is extreme, apocalyptic and – based on the evidence so far – correct. But not all thinkers on the US left have grasped the point. That, at any rate, is the lesson of What We Do Now, a collection of essays published in response to the election result.

In his introduction, its co-editor Dennis Johnson argues that Trump is a catastrophe beyond all norms. “It has happened here,” he writes, riffing on the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, in which a populist demagogue ascends to the White House. But some contributions in the book seem oblivious to the disaster.

That is because, in certain cases, they were written before anything had happened. The opening essay, by Bernie Sanders, is an extract from his 2016 book. It is a rallying cry for “real financial reform” and suggests: “It is our job to make sure the next president and Congress turn that platform statement into a reality.”

Although that “next president” goes unnamed, the context suggests that Sanders was either confident that it would be Hillary Clinton, or under a deep misapprehension about Trump. Either way, his programme is of little use when what is now at stake is not a choice of policies but the existence of a political system.

Other contributions to What We Do Now have the urgency and emptiness of the recently traumatised. There are many commands to organise, connect and strategise, yet little detail about what this would require in practice. One essay suggests taking time to deal with your grief: wise advice in November but edging towards self-indulgence today.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most pragmatic responses come from those with roots in resistance movements. Cornell William Brooks, the president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, focuses on the legal battle to re-enfranchise
black voters. The feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem urges consumer boycotts, co-operation with centrist Republicans and an income-tax protest, with the withheld sum donated to Planned Parenthood.

Knowledge of the past can offer great protection against immobilising horror. This explains why a historian of the Holocaust has offered the most coherent manifesto on confronting Trump. Timothy Snyder’s brief and powerful On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century starts by denying two comforts: the temptation to luxuriate in disbelief and the seduction of acceptance. It can happen here because it has already happened in places very like here – and you are responsible for how you respond.

Snyder writes: “Societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.” That moral framing is important, because while What We Do Now focuses on how to avoid becoming a victim of Trump, On Tyranny also addresses the less flattering but equally urgent matter of how to avoid becoming a collaborator.

Snyder offers 20 practical suggestions for resistance. Some are attractively doable, such as “take responsibility for the face of the world”. Others are intimidating but essential: for instance, “be reflective if you must be armed” (“be ready to say no” if asked to do “irregular things”).

The recommendations are often unglamorous, requiring rags and cleaning products as well as banners and speeches. Snyder has slogans but they are calls for specific actions rather than assertions of outrage. This is what it takes to preserve a country – and yourself – from a ruler such as Donald Trump: constant, personally costly application to the hard way. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge