When We Forget

Donald Trump will rise, and keep rising, until we remember what came before.

Esquire, By Charles P. Pierce, April 29

In Lenin’s Tomb, his lucid account of the end of Soviet Russia, David Remnick uses as an epigraph a famous quote from Czech author Milan Kundera. “The struggle of man against power,” Kundera wrote, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The philosophy was central to Remnick’s contention throughout the book that one of the critical weaknesses of the Soviet state, and of all of its satellite governments in Eastern Europe, including Kundera’s Czechoslovakia, was that it required its citizens to fight against their own memory, to unknow what they clearly knew. Sooner or later, the effort to forget and to unknow becomes too much of a burden for too many people and they force the collapse of the system. Humans are driven to remember. Humans can crack from the effort it takes to deny and to forget. The consequences can be therapeutic or they can be catastrophic, for people and for the political societies into which they organize themselves.

This is as true of liberal democracies as it is true of authoritarian states. In fact, the effects of forgetting can be worse in the former, because citizens of authoritarian states see the effects of forgetting and unknowing in every transaction in their daily lives. In liberal democracies, and especially in this one, there are so many distractions and so many options and so much media that the corrosive effects of the loss of the power of memory can elude anyone’s notice until something important comes apart all at once.

The 2016 presidential campaign—and the success of Donald Trump on the Republican side—has been a triumph of how easily memory can lose the struggle against forgetting and, therefore, how easily society can lose the struggle against power. There is so much that we have forgotten in this country. We’ve forgotten, over and over again, how easily we can be stampeded into action that is contrary to the national interest and to our own individual self-interest. We have forgotten McCarthy and Nixon. We have forgotten how easily we can be lied to. We have forgotten the U-2 incident and the Bay of Pigs and the sale of missiles to the mullahs. And along comes someone like Trump, and he tells us that forgetting is our actual power and that memory is the enemy.

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