Can Literature Help Us Make Sense of the Presidential Campaign?

By Kevin Rabalais

In his dying days, the story goes, Saul Bellow wandered through his house asking his wife where he had last set down “The Book.” Bellow had become obsessed (the story goes) with Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. The novel imagines that Charles A. Lindbergh defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 U.S. Presidential election.

Lindbergh’s first act as president: he signs a treaty with Nazi Germany, promising that the United States will not interfere with its expansion through Europe. 


“Fear presides over these memories, a perpetual fear,” Roth writes at the beginning of The Plot Against America.


Early in the novel, Roth’s Jewish narrator reflects on his childhood in the only country he has ever known: “I pledged allegiance to the flag of our homeland every morning at school. I sang of its marvels with my classmates at assembly programs. I eagerly observed its national holidays, and without giving second thought to my affinity for the Fourth of July fireworks or the Thanksgiving turkey or the Declaration Day double-header. Our homeland was America.”


Throughout the unforgivably long course of this presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton has never been more effective, never more convincing in making her case that the choice in the upcoming election is, really, no choice at all, than when reciting verbatim the words of her opponent.


Fear and disgust preside over my memories of this campaign, a perpetual fear and disgust and shame.


We live inside a single skin. We reside within the fading heat of our own memories. The inability to recognize that others wear a different skin from our own, haunted by equally vibrant memories, stems not only from a lack of imagination or empathy but also a lack of humanity.


The art of the novel continually reminds us that we are not alone, that we share this world with others.


“Most of us know the parents or grandparents we came from. But we go back and back, forever; we go back all of us to the very beginning; in our blood and bone and brain we carry the memory of thousands of beings.” —V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World


We are responsible for the memories we make. We have to live with them. Future generations will judge us as we so readily judge the past, as we so readily condemn the children of the Reich.


Brief interlude, part one: Put Donald Trump in a novel and the only person who would see him as a fully realized character would be Donald Trump. On a similar note, since no one else seems to have asked the question: Has Donald Trump ever read a novel?


For a long time, I thought I understood Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto.” Now I’m not so sure. The poem’s complexities promote different readings on each occasion. Good literature demands that we grow with it; the poem or story or novel gets smarter, makes us more intelligent, if we let it. Each new reading of Milosz’s poem, therefore, urges me beyond my previously comfortable understanding and existence. The seed that he plants with two words in his title—Christian and Ghetto—reemerge in the final stanza to feel, always, like a punch in the gut. As the speaker ponders his final judge and judgment, Milosz writes, “And what will I tell him, I, a Jew of the New Testament, / Waiting two thousand years for the second coming of Jesus? / My broken body will deliver me to his sight / And he will count me among the helpers of death: / the uncircumcised.”


This week, the GOP—the party that has condoned and now supports a man who doesn’t deserve the amount of attention needed to sling one of the petty and vulgar insults he casually spouts—will hold its National Convention. What this party’s presumptive nominee has taught us and what future generations will take from this era: There is no bottom to the depths that some people will lead us.  


Brief interlude, part two: “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” —Publius Terentius Afer

“…I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things.” —Donald Trump


In Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, we find, for my money, one of the great opening chapters in all of fiction. Here it is, in full:

In February 1948, the Communist leader Klement Gottwald stepped out on the balcony of a Baroque palace in Prague to harangue hundreds of thousands of citizens massed in Old Town Square. That was a great turning point in the history of Bohemia. A fateful moment of the kind that occurs only once or twice a millennium.

Gottwald was flanked by his comrades, with Clementis standing close to him. It was snowing and cold, and Gottwald was bareheaded. Bursting with solicitude, Clementis took off his fur hat and set it on Gottwald’s head.

The propaganda section made hundreds of thousands of copies of the photograph taken on the balcony where Gottwald, in a fur hat and surrounded by his comrades, spoke to the people. On that balcony the history of Communist Bohemia began. Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums.

Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and of course, from all photographs. Ever since, Gottwald has been alone on the balcony. Where Clementis stood, there is only the bare palace wall. Nothing remains of Clementis but the fur hat on Gottwald’s head.


“Get him outta here” –Donald Trump to a protestor at one of his rallies.  


The next chapter of Kundera’s novel begins with one of the most searing lines you’re likely to encounter in contemporary literature: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”


From The Plot Against America:

… at precisely four A.M. on Friday, June 28, the Republican Party, by acclamation, chose as its candidate the bigot who had denounced Jews over the airwaves to a national audience as “other peoples” employing their enormous “influence… to lead our country to destruction,” rather than truthfully acknowledge us to be a small minority of citizens vastly outnumbered by our Christian countrymen, by and large obstructed by religious prejudice from attaining public power, and surely no less loyal to the principles of American democracy than an admirer of Adolf Hitler.


There are, Kant believed, four questions that philosophy should answer: What can I know? What can I hope? What ought I to do? What is man?


To do everything in our power so that we are not, in our time of judgment, counted among the helpers of death, the helpers of evil, the ushers of hatred; to ensure that we live our lives in a way that means we are not, in that time, anywhere near those who devote their energies to dividing and creating fear and hatred among us: that is what Czeslaw Milosz tells me every time I read his poem.


Brief interlude, part three: I come from Louisiana, where the gubernatorial election of 1991 included one candidate who was a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and another, a former governor who during his third term stood trial for mail fraud, obstruction of justice and bribery. An inspired entrepreneur made T-Shirts that listed the candidates as “The Hood” and “The Crook.” “Vote for the Crook,” it urged. “It’s Important.”

Oh, dear T-Shirt Maker, I hope you’re still out there.


We know more, we hope for more, we ought to do better, than this. And yet here we find ourselves.

For our words, our actions, for our silences on this matter, the world will hold us accountable.




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