Towards a unified theory of Resistance Lit™️

The Trump era has cursed us with way too many books about norms that no one cares about, rules that no one follows, and conspiracy theories too convenient to ever be true.

Months before Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s heavily redacted report on Russian election meddling was sent to Congress, an unlikely consumer craze had already erupted around the unreleased document. As The Daily Beast reported last month, multiple publishers, including Scribner, Coventry House, and Brown Books, crashed Amazon’s bestseller list by accepting preorders for bound copies of the forthcoming report, which was made freely available to publishers everywhere — as well as, more importantly, members of the public — on April 18.

Clearly, there are countless people who do not want Donald Trump to be president, and by God, they buy books. As of the publication of this essay, The Washington Post’s edition is holding strong at number two on Amazon’s nonfiction bestseller list, outpacing offerings from Michelle Obama, Chelsea Handler, and David McCullough. Currently on Amazon, you can purchase versions of the report under titles ranging from No Collusion to It’s Mueller Time to The Fucking Mueller Report. It is truly an exciting time to be alive.

Thus far, the Mueller Report has played out as yet another exercise in overpromotion and deflection, with most of the ire landing at the feet of Attorney General Bill Barr. Had the investigation even slightly compromised President Trump’s position as commander-in-chief , there might be a case to be made for an informed citizen’s reading it (however, given that Trump has asserted executive privilege in an attempt to keep lawmakers from getting their hands on the unredacted version of the report as well as the underlying evidence informing it, those blacked-out passages may contain a different story). But the 450-ish page document isn’t exactly a beach read, either, so those looking for a lurid portrait of a White House in turmoil would be wise to look elsewhere. Still, as the latest bonanza in vaguely liberal publishing, The Mueller Report joins an overflowing shelf of bestselling Resistance Lit books, all of which serve to reinforce readers’ piqued indignity without seriously confronting the horrors perpetrated by the current administration.

Resistance Lit may seem like a sprawling genre, but its variants share a series of core tenets, perhaps most importantly, decrying the Trump regime’s desecration of normative politesse rather than its gross human rights violations. In this respect, James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is the apex of the form. As an operative whose handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails made him directly complicit in Trump’s Electoral College victory who was then summarily rejected by a tyrant of his own making, Comey’s grievance is not that the president attacks the free press or capes for murderous Nazis, but that he does these things without Honor. The former FBI director’s dream entails neither progressive policies nor a more just republic, but instead a modulated, values-neutral centrism which he equates with “Ethical Leadership.” Comey’s book sold a flabbergasting 600,000 copies the week of its publication.

Insider accounts of Trump’s reign have proven reliable cash cows. Michael Wolff sweet-talked his way into full White House access while writing Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, stuck around when the disintegrating staff neglected to tell him to screw off, and received a P.R. bounty via an irate tweet from his subject. For those readers more captivated by checkout-aisle tabloids, there was Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider Account of the Trump White House and Cliff Sims’s Team of Vipers: My 500 Extraordinary Days in the Trump White House, both of which were similarly trashed by Trump on Twitter, and both of which became instant bestsellers. That their authors were wholly unbothered by the prospect of cozying up to a racist power structure until their third-act heel turns deterred neither publishers nor a salivating audience. These books read like Trump hagiographies until their narrators suddenly and disingenuously realize their hero’s flawed character, and their success suggests a readership which relishes the Trump administration’s soap opera and prefers to see its inhabitants as bumbling Mr. Magoo characters rather than actively malicious functionaries. As for which one of these tomes gets adapted into an Aaron Sorkin movie, your guess is as good as mine.

Resistance Lit is about being a good citizen when good citizenship gets you fucked.

An offshoot of this genus is books critical of the Trump White House from Bush-era neocon standbys: David Frum’s Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic and Malcolm Nance’s The Plot to Destroy Democracy: How Putin and His Spies Are Undermining America and Dismantling the West reached across the aisle en route to the Times’s list. While Frum and Nance might not necessarily disagree with the president’s pleas for a return to medieval society, his being so brazen about it sure is making it hard for people like them to get tenured positions at American universities. (For the class: Propose potential titles for David Frum and Malcolm Nance’s books that they will inevitably write if and when a Bernie Sanders presidency comes to pass. Points will be awarded for both creativity and/or cynical plausibility.)

A somewhat less contemptible — if comparably befuddling — line of Resistance Lit focuses on MSNBC-core pseudo-conspiracies and how they relate to implausible maneuvers of impeachment. Tweet marathoner extraordinaire Seth Abramson and other broken-brained Internet goons have penned popular books on Russian interference which, to cite the Mueller Report, were more or less for naught. There’s an entire cottage industry of wonky  manuals  delving  into  the impeachment clause’s process and precedent, which might be worthwhile if impeachment weren’t a pipe dream obviated by a stoolie G.O.P.-controlled Senate and limp Democratic House leadership — the latter of which, in a hamfisted jab at broadening electoral appeal, refuses to perform its duty of holding the president accountable. But why get mad about infant detainment centers when you could grouse about Russiagate and entertain impeachment fantasies? The Mueller Report’s enlivening of illogical impeachment fervor — the belief that a blockading Congress would choose to oust the most overtly xenophobic president in modern history on a technicality related to emoluments or obstruction of justice — nestles it within this category.

In advancing a unified theory of Resistance Lit, it’s worth establishing what Resistance Lit is not. Resistance Lit is not investigative journalism. It is not grounded in policy. Crucially, it is not those quasi-memoirs which presidential hopefuls churn out while forming exploratory committees. Resistance Lit preys upon people who aren’t well-read enough to know that better, more succinct takes are available online, and usually for free. Resistance Lit is beatifically, obliviously earnest and impervious to snark. Resistance Lit is a grift, and Resistance Grifters are gossips obsessed with vapid norms, exalting a gentleman’s rulebook which exists only in their minds. They are comfortably, righteously aggrieved, somehow never close enough to the firing line to get mad about the right shit. They don’t really have anything to lose.

Clearly Resistance sells. But who’s buying? To investigate — and in an attempt at distinguishing Resistance Lit from purposeful leftist literature — I turned to the latest political offerings from Melville House, the Brooklyn-based independent publisher which, in addition to publishing the Mueller Report, has found a recent calling in assorted and sometimes contradictory liberal-leaning titles: Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, and The Constitution Demands It: The Case for the Impeachment of Donald Trump.

I began with Barbara A. Radnofsky’s A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment, which like the Mueller report, doesn’t make for particularly light reading. Radnofsky, a mediation lawyer and onetime Democratic Senate candidate from Texas, provides a brief overview of the origins of impeachment law and the nineteen impeachment cases in U.S. history. Per Radnofsky, American impeachment powers are both broad and ambiguous, elucidated by the Founding Fathers with memories of a tyrannical monarchy and largely clarified by the Nixon commission. Impeachment motions have been advanced for any combination of incapacity, negligence, corruption, and betrayal of trust, although the clause has predictably become harder to invoke given increasing congressional polarization.

Radnofsky admires the foresight of a non-criminal check on power tried by a non-judicial authority. But it’s this very conceit which, in modern practice, has reduced the impeachment clause to yet another arena of partisan hackery, and renders it insufficient to rein in a figure of Trump’s stature. In addition to its vagueness, Radnofsky notes instances in which the impeachment clause seems quite arbitrary. James Wilson, a Declaration of Independence signatory and delegate at the Constitutional Convention, said that a president need be “amenable” to laws “in his private character as a citizen, and in his public character by impeachment.” While this language is evidently conciliatory on the matter of paying hush money to cover up one’s extramarital affairs and then lying about it while running for president, it is manifestly less so on the matter of carrying on an extramarital affair with a federal intern and then lying about it while being president.

Nevertheless, Radnofsky dredges up a few gotchas from the Founding Fathers. For instance, James Madison argued “that the ‘wanton removal’ of a meritorious officer would amount to impeachable maladministration” (the operative and subjective word, I suppose, being “meritorious”). He also stressed that the president could be impeached for malpractice or neglect of duty, loss of capacity, or betraying our trust to foreign powers. Unfortunately, the question of whether the president has violated his duties and the public trust is left to the interpretation of a sectarian legislative body. Across American history, she notes, both judges and elected officials have been impeached for almost entirely political reasons.

For liberals hoping impeachment will provide deliverance from Trump, the Clinton case is a grim antecedent, establishing that the concept of “fitness for office” is amorphous, that sexual misconduct doesn’t necessarily qualify as a high crime or misdemeanor, and that some transgressions are best left to the electorate. However, it also verified that impeachment articles need not relate to official duties of office — making the fact that Nancy Pelosi is only willing to entertain the notion of impeachment now that Trump is refusing to follow Congress’s rules all the more exasperating.

Oddly, the cases surveyed in A Citizen’s Guide to Impeachment affirm Radnofsky’s faith both in the Founding Fathers and in an ethical, functional bipartisan legislature; she cites John F. Kennedy and Lindsey Graham (lol) among those who’ve modernized impeachment law in the service of a nation. But one need only consider the obstruction charges against Clinton versus Trump’s relative impunity to conclude that the parties do not wield impeachment with commensurate faith. If, as Radnofsky argues, the impeachment clause should serve as a deterrent to misconduct, it is in fact little more than a symbolic gesture, barely any more pragmatic than the appointment of a “Special Counsel.” That optimistic liberals need resort to bizarre collusion scenarios in order to even fathom its invocation proves the clause’s inefficacy — as does the fact that even though he was too inept to team up with Russia and do crimes to steal the election, per the Mueller report, when Trump learned he was to be subject to a Special Counsel investigation, he, “slumped back in his chair and said, ‘Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I’m fucked.’”

Radnofsky’s most prescriptive takeaway is that citizens should vote and maintain faith in elections, thus empowering a Congress best equipped to protect their interests via impeachment. But the more cynical reading of David Faris, author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics, is that Republicans have so perverted the supple implements of representative democracy that many of us need not bother. Faris asserts that, assuming the Democrats take back the White House and Congress, 2020 will pose their final opportunity to impart the will of the people over the distortions of the Senate, electoral college, and House gerrymandering.

Faris excoriates Democrats as spineless sycophants, writing with a flippant urgency: Trump is a “nightmare troll” backed by “Vichy Republican enablers,” his inauguration speech “Ernest Hemingway’s suicide note as interpreted by 4chan.” And while Faris’s argument — that fixing American democracy to actually resemble the will of voters is not only a moral imperative, but would overwhelmingly benefit the liberal party — seems like common sense, most sitting Democrats would likely scoff at it. His plan to save the country from corporate cannibalism and climate apocalypse involves court packing, statehood for Puerto Rico and D.C., multi-statehood California, ranked-choice voting, and a modern voting rights act to increase participation among suppressed demographics.

While even Faris seems to appreciate that the more far-fetched of his proposals are fairly arbitrary (Instead of seven Californias, why not seven Connecticuts?) he makes a convincing case that the institutions and norms presently steamrolling Democrats are themselves predicated on outdated, arbitrary compromises — as further evidenced by Mitch McConnell’s unparalleled record of sabotage in the Senate. And because the Constitution is mum on elections, the size of Congress, and the number of states and judges, he writes, Democrats are failing in duty by neglecting to subvert its vagueness in favor of the voting majority that already sides with them. If the policies recommended in It’s Time to Fight Dirty seem unrealistic, that’s a failure on the part of the Democratic Party, not Faris, who recognizes that chimerical norms have undone representative democracy and are incapable of fixing it.

My final stop was How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning by George Lakey, a sociologist and career activist who cut his teeth in the civil rights movement and went on to assist with campaigns related to labor, the environment, anti-sexism, and anti-imperialism. Lakey’s handbook builds on his decades of experience, offering insights on growing campaigns into movements outside the more traditional spheres of lobbying and institutional politics. His version of direct action is both a theory and a science, so while some of the book’s more personnel- and personality-focused components read like a corporate management training manual, he supplies a number of perceptive insights for our current moment. He cites studies which suggest that political polarization is directly tied to income inequality, meaning that liberals who preach the value of civil discourse do so at their own peril. Yet given the low trust in government during such times, he writes, polarization creates opportunity for change through extragovernmental movements. He advocates for proactive campaigns with discrete targets and goals so ambitious that even compromise is progressive in nature.

Sensitive to matters of racial and economic privilege, Lakey offers tips for deriving strength while overcoming identity politics. Looking back at United Automobile Workers’ cross-racial infiltration of Michigan’s auto factories, he hypothesizes that if the energy channeled by the left into self-policing “were instead focused through campaigns on changing the major policies that sustain institutional racism, it’s far more likely that racism will take a major hit.” He also sincerely considers the application of violence and property damage in direct action, acknowledging their hypothetical potency while ultimately advocating for neither.

Lakey believes that the suppressive power of oligarchic American elites leaves lower classes with few options but direct action, and he specifically cautions against letting Democratic politicians co-opt existing campaigns. Where Faris believes that an improved electoral system is the key to liberation, Lakey prescribes a nonviolent uprising, a “movement of movements” impossible for Democratic legislators to achieve on their own given the parameters created by election cycles and general shortsightedness. As such, both books fully transcend the morass of feel-good Resistance Lit, advocating for a basic morality and a pursuit of justice which relinquishes the cherished norms of the Democratic Party.

For the disavowed insiders, neoliberal conspiracists, and impeachment fetishists who populate the Resistance Lit canon, it’s not that the president hates poor people so much as that he has bad table manners. Gleefully embracing naivete, Resistance Lit is about being a good citizen when good citizenship gets you fucked. One can hope that writers like Faris and Lakey — who acknowledge the dire situation facing progressives and the need to repair democracy rather than to restore apocryphal values — might find a home on bestseller list alongside their shamelessly grifting contemporaries. But at this point, that’s looking about as likely as impeachment.