Yes, We Are Like Frogs in Boiling Water With Trump as President

Amidst a sustained hurricane of appalling chaos, Siskind provides grounding for evaluating the real damage of the Trump presidency. In the following excerpt from The List: A Week-by-Week Reckoning of Trump’s First Year, Siskind recalls how she came to begin compiling The List.

On the morning of Saturday, November 19, 2016, I found myself driving up to Val-Kill, the home of Eleanor Roosevelt. The week before, Trump had stunned the country by winning the election, and I was still reeling. The country’s reaction to his victory was swift and hideous: The bigots in America took it as a legitimization of their hatred of others, and acts of hate were ubiquitous. Trump had ratcheted up his criticism of free speech, tweeting insults that morning at Saturday Night Live, the New York Times — even the cast of Hamilton. This isn’t normal, I found myself thinking. We are in great danger.

I needed to take a break from the steady stream of e-mails flooding my inbox. This is the worst day since 9/11…. What do we do now? How could I assure others that we were going to be okay when I wasn’t sure myself? I needed the steadying influence of my personal heroine. I found myself wondering, What would Eleanor do today?

That Saturday was a crisp, sunny day, and Val-Kill a familiar vision of peace in what already felt like a country in chaos. I first started by reading Eleanor’s quotes on government and democracy and courage, walked by the old typewriter she used to write her weekly newspaper column, My Day, then took my dogs along the trails she had walked each morning with her Scottish terriers. My heart felt heavy, but somehow, in Eleanor’s presence, I felt less scared playing her words in my mind again and again, “Courage is easier than fear.”

As I walked, I found myself thinking about some of the articles I’d read in the aftermath of the election. Experts in authoritarianism — Masha Gessen, Sarah Kendzior, and Ruth Ben-Ghiat — wrote about the tools of autocrats: using hatred as fuel, silencing dissent, disregarding norms, and breaking down trusted institutions. All described how things would be changing, slowly and subtly, warning us not to be fooled by small signs of normalcy on our march into darkness. Sarah Kendzior suggested that citizens write things down, starting that day, making a list of the specific things they never would have believed, things that they never would have done, before the regime came into power.

On the ride home, I knew what I had to do, and I started that night.

The List didn’t start with any grand ambitions or even a vision. I just had an instinct to write down all of the things that were happening — things that were not normal. Each Saturday, I shared The List on Facebook and Twitter. Week 1 had nine items, but by Week 2, The List had doubled to eighteen items and concluded with, “I’m sure there are more. This list is overwhelming already.” Little did I know. A few weeks in, as the readership started to take off, people asked that I add source links so they could read the articles: Already the chaos was building, there was so much to keep track of, and people were missing news items. A professor from my alma mater who read The List e-mailed to say, “We are the frog in the water who doesn’t notice it is getting to boil degree by degree.”

The weekend before Trump took office, January 14, 2017, The List went viral for the first time: Week 9, with thirty-six not-normal items, was picked up by several prominent progressive bloggers and had close to two million views. I wrote a short note that week observing that in normal times, “any one of these items would be a shock” and the “lack of consequences has changed me, and I suspect us all.” I told readers I hoped The List would help us “trace our way back to normal when this nightmare is over.”

The Women’s March was the next weekend, and I chose to walk in my home city of New York, thinking that in a smaller crowd I would run into my friends. More than four hundred thousand showed up — a sign that Americans, especially women and members of marginalized communities, would not go quietly. In the coming weeks, as Trump took office and power, the weekly lists grew to sixty items, and my Saturdays were spent catching up on documenting our falling norms.

Even as The List grew longer week by week, the themes remained consistent: Trump was interested in making money and staying in power, and he would take whatever steps necessary to make these things happen. Every week he fanned the flames of hate: from signing the Muslim Bans to the Transgender Military Ban, to ending DACA, to increasing ICE roundups, to repealing the Global Gag Rule, to taking swipes at NFL players. He took steps to consolidate power such as installing regime members to undermine the very agencies they were meant to lead, silencing dissent and our free press, intimidating the legislative branch, and stuffing the judicial branch full of extremists. At the same time, Trump transformed our standing in the world, alienating our closest allies while cozying up to authoritarians, including, of course, Putin.

In May, as Trump continued staffing up the regime, the lists of not-normal items were approaching one hundred per week. Now there were many hands involved in the work of destabilizing our fragile democracy, but key roles at federal agencies were left vacant and many seasoned veterans had departed. Especially noteworthy was the loss of diplomatic channels in our state department. Meanwhile, the Trump-appointed agency heads had open-door policies for lobbyists and executives from the industries the agencies are designed to regulate. Week by week, rules and regulations put in place to protect the environment, consumers, marginalized communities, women, the poor, and people with disabilities were being rolled back.

In late June, I received a message from Margaret Sullivan at the Washington Post, asking if she could interview me about The List. I was thrilled! I had been waiting for the right columnist and publication for The List’s coming-out story. Margaret’s article went viral, reaching the top of the most-read pieces at Washington Post online with more than two million views. Shortly thereafter, someone who read the article nominated The List to be archived at the Library of Congress. I was incredibly grateful that The List would now be preserved for posterity, and would also have a home safe from hackers. At the suggestion of journalism professor Jay Rosen, I wrote a blog post memorializing this development. The very next day, I became the target of Russian-state media outlets and blogs….

By mid-July, I realized the items I was listing weren’t the only things subtly changing — I was changing as well. I felt like the character Carrie on Homeland, with thousands of items and trails of connections to Trump’s end mapping out in my head. Naïvely, that day at Val-Kill months earlier, I imagined justice would catch up and Trump would be gone by the summer. The injustices were piling up, but there was no accountability or consequences! I headed to Vermont for some solitude and space to marinate on my new reality. At this point, I was devoting more than twenty hours a week to The List, and my old life and plans for what came next were sidelined. I decided I should record how this was affecting me and visited my favorite bookstore to pick out a diary. The first entry reads, “I am on the toughest climb of my life, and the hill feels steep and unrelenting.”

A personal challenge throughout was staying engaged and dispassionate without losing my empathy and humanity. The country I love was under siege, and I was heartbroken and devastated. There were events, like Charlottesville and Myeshia Johnson standing over her husband’s casket, where I found myself staring at the computer screen with tears streaming down my face. There were weeks when, with my growing public voice, I spoke out against hate and became a target myself. After Week 39, in August, I tweeted at web-hosting company GoDaddy, complaining about the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer’s inflammatory attack on Charlottesville heroine and martyr Heather Heyer. Within twenty-four hours, the Daily Stormer was taken down, but my home address and phone numbers were posted online. That week I hired an armed security guard to be stationed outside my home. As summer came to an end, I was spending some thirty hours a week on the lists, which were now approaching 120 items each. When I cracked a tooth and made an appointment with my endodontist, she gave a diagnosis without missing a beat: “This is what happens in dictatorships. You’re screaming in your sleep!” She advised getting a mouth guard, which, she offered up, many of her patients were doing. Ironically, as I sat in her office waiting to be seen, I was reading an op-ed by Dana Milbank, “President Trump Is Killing Me. Really,” describing the impact on his physical health. Psychotherapists remarked on their patients’ focus on politics — a feeling of outrage, fear, and loss of control. Our country was truly suffering, physically, emotionally, and mentally, under the Trump regime.

As year one of The List drew to a close, I reread the articles by the experts on authoritarianism, and their predictions were coming true: Trump was still holding his campaign-style rallies with chants of “Lock her up!” as he encouraged the FBI and DOJ to do the same. He was still complaining about the “rigged system,” which he assured his raucous crowds he would fix by silencing the fake media and dismantling what was left of the Deep State corrupt institutions that hampered him from assuming full control. It turns out authoritarians do follow a fairly predictable game plan — even if new to us and our fragile democracy. Our country has spent a year in chaos, and so often people worry out loud about forgetting all the events that happened in a single week. And so I am grateful I took the experts’ advice and constructed a trail map for us to follow back to normalcy and democracy — a journey, sadly, I suspect will take years if not decades to travel.