As the New Year begins, on the advice of various and sundry, to avoid the constant din of Donald Trump and his wrecking crew, I’ve been trying to read a novel from time to time—just to take a break from the maddening reality of life in these not-so-United States.
Alas, I have to report that even fiction has betrayed me. It probably was wrong to pick up John LeCarre’s latest espionage thriller, Agent Running in the Field, and expect any kind of escape from reality. As noted earlier, the book has a decided anti-Brexit tilt, but I hadn’t fully anticipated that LeCarre, now 88, would let it rip so thoroughly against Trump and for good measure, Vladimir Putin. Jolly good.
One of the characters describes Trump as “a gang boss, born and bred. Brought up to screw civil society all ways up, not be part of it.” Another asks, “Do you or do you not regard Trump, which I do, as a threat and incitement to the entire civilized world, plus he is presiding over the systematic no-holds-barred Nazification of the United States?”
As for Putin, according to LeCarre, he “had always been a fifth-rate spy. Now he was a spy turned autocrat who interpreted all life in terms of konspiratsia. Thanks to Putin and his gang of unredeemed Stalinists, Russia was not going forward to a bright future, but backwards into her dark, delusional past.”
There’s more, especially about the relationship between Putin and Trump, which a former Russian double agent describes as Trump doing “everything for little Vladi that Vladi can’t do for himself: pisses on European unity, pisses on human rights, pisses on NATO,” but I don’t want to spoil the rest of the book’s righteous indignation for you.
So scratch that novel for escapism. Then, figuring that something a bit less current might work better when it came to soothing my contemporary agita, I picked up the copy of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities I bought in London a couple of months ago.
I had never read it before. But of course, it, too, resonates with these awful times in which we live, as Dickens’ tale of aristocratic rot and the rage of the dispossessed before and during the French Revolution parallels in broad strokes the vast economic inequality and populist anger of today.
Much of the book was inspired by Thomas Carlyle’s history of the revolution. In turn, Dickens exposes the brutal cruelty of the French elite—one of them tells another, “Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend… will keep the dogs obedient to the whip.” And yet, Dickens warns, “Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.”
And so the people lash out with fury—“Every living creature there held life as of no account, and was demented with a passionate readiness to sacrifice it.” A righteous revolution becomes the Reign of Terror that indiscriminately massacres thousands.
Obviously, we are nowhere such countrywide horror today, yet every time we hear of another gun-fueled mass killing, or another hate attack on those of different creeds or colors, or of children in cages, or immigrants denied, or ugly graffiti and tweets, or irrational anger and lustily shouted jingoism at parades and rallies, we’re hearing the whisper of the blade that suddenly could be sharpened and aimed not toward some other guy but toward ourselves as well.
I was struck, too, by this passage, so reminiscent of the current state of America, the mental disarray and spiritual exhaustion as transgressions, violations and lies pile one upon the next. Dickens describes the state of mind of his protagonist, Charles Darnay in London, hearing news of the turmoil in his French homeland: “… the swift changes and troubles of the times which had fallen on one another so fast,” he writes, “that the events of this week annihilated the immature plans of last week, and the events of the week following made all new again; he knew very well, that to the force of these circumstances he had yielded—not without disquiet, but still without continuous and unyielding resistance.”
We must resist and cannot afford to yield. On top of all else, the chaos and confusion wrought by this president and a cabal of allies who value power and Mammon above any shred of propriety and lawful order cannot stand.
Look at just the last couple of days—left hands having no idea that right hands even exist—as The Washington Post reports Trump’s court fool Rudy Giuliani trying to make a deal “backed in part by private interests, aimed at engineering a negotiated exit to ease President Nicolas Maduro from power and reopen resource-rich Venezuela to business.” A deal running contradictory to stated US foreign policy, “alarming administration officials confused about whose interests [Giuliani] was representing.” In fact, a deal the White House claims is complete news to anybody there. Bedlam.
Then look to The New York Times account of “84 days of conflict and confusion” surrounding the freeze of aid to Ukraine in an attempt to extort investigations that would undermine the American 2020 elections—a campaign, “spearheaded by Rudolph W. Giuliani” that has led to Trump’s impeachment.
The Times writes, “In many ways, the havoc Mr. Giuliani and other Trump loyalists set off in the State Department by pursuing the investigations was matched by conflicts and confusion in the White House and Pentagon stemming from Mr. Trump’s order to withhold the aid…
“Mr. Trump used the bureaucracy to advance his agenda in the face of questions about its propriety and even legality from officials in the White House budget office and the Pentagon, many of whom say they were kept in the dark about the president’s motivations and had grown used to convention-flouting requests from the West Wing. One veteran budget official who raised questions about the legal justification was pushed aside.”
There they all are again—conflicts, confusion—and Rudy.
And so we face 2020 with a curious mixture of dread and optimism that an end is in sight, simultaneously fearing and hoping that it could be, as Dickens said, both the best of times and the worst of times; “the epoch of belief… the epoch of incredulity… the season of Light… the season of Darkness… the spring of hope… the winter of despair.” He adds, “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
Would that it were all just a novel. Trust me—it’s not. Happy New Year. Hold on tight.
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Michael Winship is the Schumann Senior Writing Fellow for Common Dreams. Previously, he was the Emmy Award-winning senior writer forMoyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, a past senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos, and former president of the Writers Guild of America East. Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWinship.