Observation Deck

Reading in the Dark

In the age of Trump, literature can sustain those searching for the courage to resist the politics of division.


On the eve of World War II, the German writer Bertolt Brecht composed the famous poem “To Those Born After.” Brecht addressed himself to a posterity that, he believed, would be unable to understand how it felt to live in a time of acute moral and political crisis. What defines such a time, he wrote, is that disaster becomes the only possible subject of thought, crowding out everything we think of as ordinary life: “What kind of times are these, when/To talk about trees is almost a crime/Because it implies silence about so many horrors?”

Brecht urged his readers to consider the actions of people living in these “dark times,” finsteren Zeiten, with particular sympathy: “When you speak of our failings,” the poem implores, “Bring to mind also the dark times/That you have escaped.”

It remains to be seen what kind of times will follow the election of Donald Trump. But in the days and weeks after Nov. 8, writers felt sure that the coming era will be very difficult indeed. Almost every writer who went on record after the election believed that the Trump presidency would usher in a new age of racism, anti-Semitism, persecution of minorities, and possibly even worse. The Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen and the Yale historian Timothy Snyder warned of a coming Putin-like presidency and gave advice on how to live when civil society is under siege. Gessen predicted that the first victim of the Trump administration would be the free press: “Many journalists may soon face a dilemma long familiar to those of us who have worked under autocracies: fall in line or forfeit access.”

Just as Trump was an unprecedented kind of candidate, so he promises to inaugurate an unprecedented kind of American regime. At such a time, turning to literature might seem like a gesture of retreat, even a form of denial. But in fact, the opposite is true: For it is literature that offers us the most meaningful record of what it feels like to live in dark times and how to, in the words of the poet W.H. Auden, “show an affirming flame” — how to keep humane values alive, even if they can’t prevail over barbarism.

A reading list for the age of Trump should begin with Auden’s Collected Poems. Like Brecht, the English-born Auden lived through the 1930s — which he called a “low, dishonest decade” — as one of the age’s most acute observers. A committed leftist in his youth, Auden would move to America during World War II and turn to Christianity in his later work. He even came to regret some of his early revolutionary poems, with their seeming endorsement of violence, and tried to omit them from the canon of his writing. But it is the early Auden whose work readers need today, with its combination of dread and courage in the face of that dread. His poem “September 1, 1939,” written to mark the outbreak of World War II, was widely circulated after the 9/11 attacks, but its message is even more fitting today: “The enlightenment driven away,/The habit-forming pain,/Mismanagement and grief:/We must suffer them all again.”

Hannah Arendt, another European writer who became an American during the war years, asked how Western civilization could have produced the catastrophes of the 20th century. Many of her books are classics of political philosophy, but it is her essay collection Men in Dark Times that may speak to us most directly today. Taking her title from Brecht, who is the subject of one of her probing essays, Arendt examines how history shaped and misshaped the lives of her contemporaries — including Pope John XXIII, who liberalized the Catholic Church through the Second Vatican Council, and the German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who spent years in jail for her advocacy of communism. Such men and women show what it means to live an exemplary life in the face of tyranny — and what price has to be paid for courage.

These European examples, however, are not perfectly suited to explaining our current American reality. Trumpism is a peculiarly homegrown phenomenon—not a fascism of mass parties and torchlight rallies, but a postmodern authoritarianism in which celebrity, propaganda, prejudice, and entertainment are all mixed together. The writer who first predicted such an American administration is Sinclair Lewis, in his 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. 

Buzz Windrip, the fascistic president of Lewis’s novel, was partly based on the Louisiana demagogue Huey Long, but today he seems premonitory of Trump. Lewis describes him as “a tireless traveler, a boisterous and humorous speaker, an inspired guesser at what political doctrines the people would like.” His character is absurd, violating every rule of political decorum, but this only makes him more popular. It helps him to appear authentic, even as he plays on Americans’ hatred of the press, mistrust of foreigners, and economic grievance. Only after taking office does Windrip introduce the full panoply of fascist techniques, from storm troopers to concentration camps. The ironic warning in Lewis’s title was meant for the America of the 1930s, an island of democracy in a world where fascism was on the rise; but it is equally relevant in our own time of right-wing populist movements.

Philip Roth’s 2004 novel The Plot Against America is an even more eerily predictive cautionary tale. In this counterfactual history, Roth imagines an America that elected the Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh president in 1940, instead of FDR. Lindbergh, running on an America First platform — a slogan that Trump revived in 2016, heedless of its historical resonances — allies the country with Nazi Germany. His administration starts a project, disarmingly named “Just Folks,” to remove Jewish children from their families and send them to live with Christians in the Midwest, ostensibly in order to help them assimilate. Pogroms break out, and an American holocaust looms, until Roth wrenches history back onto its proper course and has FDR return to the presidency.

The key to the novel’s power is Roth’s sense that American history, which liberals like to think of as a story of progress and gradual inclusion, can so easily go the other way. Roth reminds us that every historical moment carries within itself the potential for disaster. It takes the courage, vigilance, and cooperation of all citizens, including writers, to ward off the darkness — and perhaps a good deal of luck, as well. When that luck runs out, literature can’t change history, but it can at least serve as a witness.

A version of this article originally appeared in the January/February 2017 issue of  FP magazine.

Illustration by Edmon De Haro

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. He is the author, most recently, of Rocket and Lightship: Essays on Literature and Ideas.