Weimar Republic on the Hudson: Days Before the Inauguration, America’s Literati Prepare for Fascism

'As Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin have started by going after the intellectuals whose words might form an opposition, so Trump started by going after us,' says one of the organizers.

Rita Dove and Robert Pinsky speak at a writers' protest at the New York Public Library. YouTube

NEW YORK - After a week when an emotional farewell speech by U.S. President Barack Obama was followed by a press conference where Trump scolded reporters and called CNN “fake news,” and a weekend when the president-elect insulted civil rights icon John Lewis, chances of a national reconciliation on January 20 seem even slimmer than before.  

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, some of America's most celebrated authors gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library to protest Donald Trump’s attacks on freedom of speech. In a protest called "Writers resist," Michael Cunningham, Laurie Anderson, Moustafa Bayoumi, Rick Moody, Art Spiegelman, Jacqueline Woodson, Eve Ensler, and dozens of others read poems and texts to guide contemporary Americans as they embark on the path of resistance to Trump’s administration. George Orwell, Allen Ginsberg and even Frank Zappa (offered by Art Spiegelman) were popular choices – as was, understandably, Martin Luther King.

"Our focuses used to be violation of freedom of the speech that happen abroad. We never dreamed that we would be turning our attentions at home, at the level we now need to," said Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, a literary association that works to protect open expression. “As Chairman Mao and Joseph Stalin have started by going after the intellectuals whose words might form an opposition, so Trump started by going after us. We are the ground zero for his fight for total power,” he said, addressing New Yorkers holding protest banners and portraits of James Baldwin, Junot Diaz and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Comparisons to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, and Communist China were woven into the readings and speeches, and the word fascism was mentioned again and again, without the hint of the sarcasm and humor that had accompanied such warnings in the months leading up to the election.

Art Spiegelman speaks at a writers' protest at the New York Public Library. YouTube

Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky wrote a poem for the occasion, inspired by the battles against oppression of Gwendolyn Brooks and Polish poet Czesaw Miosz. “Now my fellow dissidents, we endure a moment of charismatic indecency. Charismatic indecency and sanctimonious falsehood beyond shame. Our polish grandfather Milosz and our African American grandmother Brooks endured worse than this. First fight then fiddle, she wrote,” read Pinsky from the poem. 

Michael Cunningham read a short paragraph by Ursula K. Le Guin: “You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

The event lasted more than three hours as hundreds of people listened attentively in spite of the cold. Some cried while others held back tears. The speakers seemed emboldened by the unity and solidarity in their ranks, and after chanting, “Writers, Resist” and “United Together,” they led the crowd in a march toward Trump Tower. 

“Refusing to be silent, gathering in front of the New York City library and speaking out,” was the way writers could counter the deligitimization of people in the arts who are criticizing the new administration, Cunningham told Haaretz. “God Bless every person who stood in the cold for I don’t know how many hours. It gives me hope,” he added.

“I have never seen people coming together like this, in solidarity, in my lifetime in this country," said playwright Eve Ensler ("Vagina Monologues"), speaking to Haaretz before the rally. "What moves me so much is that not one artist agreed to perform at the inauguration. What artist must do is stand united with our voices and not allow the delegitimization. Trump creates an atmosphere of fear and people become isolated. Writers need to not back down in the face of this fascist regime. I reject Donald Trump as my president, he will never be my president, I will never make him normal, and I will speak every day until he is gone, hopefully soon," she said.

As writers were reading poems in New York City, similar protest were held in Houston, Austin, New Orleans, Seattle, Los Angeles and other cities across the United States. Solidary rallies also took place in London, Hong Kong, Amsterdam and Vancouver.
 
Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of bestselling “The Sympathizer” and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016, was among the literati who participated in the Los Angeles event.

“One of the most important tasks that writers have is to speak truth to power, and to stand up to injustice," he told Haaretz in an email. “For most of the writers that I know, the perception is that Donald Trump is someone who abuses the truth and threatens acts of injustice on those who are not white, not male, not heterosexual, not Christian, not powerful, not Americans, and not citizens. Part of his power arises from his use and abuse of language and storytelling, which makes it even more urgent for writers to use their own talents in language and storytelling to contest his version of America. As the political struggle against Trump and his allies will be played out in many arenas over the next few years, writers will need to aid that struggle by doing their best to offer their vision of a more inclusive, generous, and loving United States.”