We discuss with Amy Siskind—the activist-writer who's been steadily documenting each not-normal act since the election—the dangerous incompetence of No. 45, and the power of resistance.
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We somehow slipped into the wrong timeline on November 9th. A butterfly flapped her wing the wrong way in, let’s say, Denmark, and reality tilted. Since then, the United States has been careening into authoritarianism with only the past-warranty brakes the Founders provided us with to stop it. Every day brings a half-dozen things that would have seemed impossible just last year. The rising swamp of blatant kleptocracy belches up shady pay-offs and Trump informercials delivered at the presidential podium. Government agencies are handed over to hangmen, Nazis stalk the Oval Office, and the president rattles his little saber, all while the GOP whistles Dixie.
Keeping track of it all is dispiriting and nearly impossible. So we’ve sought out the person who’s been brave and willing enough—and with the resiliency and stamina—to document all of this insanity day by day. Her name is Amy Siskind. Perhaps her 20 years on Wall Street may explain where she built the skills and the thick skin to take on such a task. But for most of the last decade, Siskind has devoted her attention to the empowerment of women and girls: In 2008, she co-founded The New Agenda, a national organization that works on issues like economic independence, gender representation, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Since the election, she’s been spending her Saturdays composing a detailed list of not-normal things that our current president and his cronies did in the previous week. It is a record of this administration’s blatant and subtle tilts toward authoritarianism, to be used as a weapon against gaslighting and legislative erosion. When reading Siskind’s lists, it’s easy to picture her crouching in a hidden corner like Winston Smith in 1984, scribbling out her memories on smuggled scraps of paper that she hides in a crack in the wall. But her lists are entirely public, posted on Facebook—the playground of Russian bots and Macedonian teenagers after a quick meme buck—and shared by millions of people across this country, and in other countries.
As our current president approaches his hundred days in office, we sat down with Siskind to discuss her take on how it’s all adding up, and what she thinks the future might hold.
Right after the election, I just tried to consume as many articles as I could about authoritarianism, kind of just in preparation for what might be coming our way. I just basically was consuming any information I could to try to understand what it would mean and what it would feel like as it played out if we had a leader that was an authoritarian. And one of the things that many of the articles mentioned WAS it would be a slow process of change. It wouldn’t be that we would wake up November 9th and the world would be different. It would be a slow degradation of “normal” as we knew it. Many of the articles suggested writing things down before it all started, so you would have a way to trace yourself back. So I decided to do this list as sort of a way to keep track of the changes happening each week, to reflect WHAT the experts had warned, that it would be a subtle degradation of the normalcy that we knew. And so, I did the first one the Saturday … not the direct Saturday after, but the following Saturday, so it would have been the first full week. I happened to go up to Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, which is sort of my place of recharge and inspiration, and I was reading about her work, and courage, and I’ve done the tour a hundred times, but one thing that just clicked in my mind was that she did her daily column, My Day, and the importance of writing things down, so people would remember, and that night I went home and wrote the first week’s list. Which is a cute little list compared to what it is now. I mean, there was one thing unusual that first night, which was there was a New York Times reporter who had tweeted a criticism of his paper, and the next morning I woke up and looked for it, because I thought it was a really interesting tweet, and it was gone. I happened to have screenshotted it, because I had quoted it. I just thought that was an interesting sign of silencing dissent, which was one of the things authoritarian experts had warned about. So, that was the picture for the first week’s list.
Yes, designed chaos. Chaos by design.
I don’t know if other people have done formal lists. I’m not a history buff, and didn’t see in any articles that others had done week-to-week lists. This was sort of my take that I took from just from general recommendations of writing things down. But I think it was week…I’m going to say it was week 9, the week when Meryl Streep made her announcement at the Golden Globes. Not announcement. When she was being honored and she made that powerful speech. That week, that list for some reason just went viral. It had, like, two million views. And people started writing to me and saying, you know, “I’m praying for your safety” and “Make sure you’re backing this up and you have it in safe places!” or “I’m backing it up for you.” And I think it was that week that it really hit me, you know, at that point, of the importance of it, but also to keep it safe. So, I do. That’s why I do it in different formats, like on Facebook, where it would be harder for somebody to hack. I’m very fastidious about backing up the stuff on Medium. I’m not normally a person that is an alarmist, but, yeah, with one good spammer they could come in — and obviously they’re very good at that – and wipe the list away. So I’m very cautious about having them in a bunch of different forms in a lot of different places. Because realistically, yes, this is what happens in silencing dissent. And the first few weeks were very heavy on silencing dissent, if you look at the early lists. Stuff you won’t remember like the union worker that he tweeted about that was getting death threats. From Carrier. He’d said [Trump] didn’t create as many jobs as he publicly said. That kind of stuff. The first few weeks were attacking our media, attacking individuals, attacking anybody that was speaking out. So, that was certainly part of what I thought we could expect, and that was certainly what happened.
Yeah, you know, it’s a scary place to be, but I now have a certain understanding of Donald Trump, and what goes on in his head. Just as background, I’ve run a non-profit for a decade, but prior to that I worked on Wall Street for twenty years, so I understand the creatures like Donald Trump, and the people in his cabinet. Some of the stuff is just so predictable. I mean, some of him I can’t understand, but there are certain things — when you read about authoritarians and the things they do, like silencing dissent, create distractions, things like that. I can sort of see through what he’s doing, in a way, which, again, is a really scary place to be, to try to be in Donald Trump’s head. When he had all those consecutive weeks where he lost the narrative, and went down in the polls… what do authoritarians do? Like, what did Putin do? He planted a terrorist plot in his own country. And what did Trump do? He sent off some random bombs and got positive press for it. So there are certain behaviors by authoritarians that I have learned to predict, but away from that I also just, when I see things they kind of click for me because I’m looking at it with a more analytic eye. Like ten thousand feet above looking down. I think when I’m in the stuff day to day, and I’m not paying as much attention to it in that way, then it just seems like total chaos. Things happening without reason. But there is reason behind it. You can see what he’s trying to do with diversions and trying to change the subject and trying to take back the narrative. And when that doesn’t work, drop a bomb. Drop another bomb. Threaten a war with North Korea. These are time-honored traditions of authoritarians. Consolidate power. Don’t staff positions. Keep people on your inside that you trust, even if that inside circle is constantly shrinking. These are things that are traits of authoritarianism. I just keep seeing these things and I think, “Oh, I read about that! I read that might happen!” I try at the beginning of each week to draw up some general theme of what I see is happening. Some weeks it was longer, and it made the write-up too long, but I generally try to boil it down to a paragraph or so.
Ack. I don’t know. When I took this on, I never — I mean, the early lists are ten to twenty items, now it’s sixty to seventy items. It’s become — I had no idea what I’d taken on when I started. The hardest part is I’m always having to pay attention to the news every day. Even taking a day to do college tours with my son, when I came home that night it was like “Oh my God, I have so much to catch up on!” I have resigned myself to the fact that until he’s impeached, I really just don’t have my life back. I don’t know. I certainly had plans for November 9th, when Hillary ran, for my life. As a friend of mine likes to say, “People plan, God laughs.” My life has been turned upside down. This is not what I had anticipated doing. I didn’t want… I don’t know know if ‘want’ is the right word, I don’t think anyone wants to be doing any of this. I feel at this point like it’s my civic duty, and I know that people are depending on me. I take responsibility for it, and I take it very seriously, so I’m going to keep at it. But it is not a joyful thing. When I write the list, there are some weeks where I just feel sick to my stomach because I see what is happening. And the worry about what could happen: the wars, the bombs. So, it’s not a labor of love, but I now understand the importance of it. To have been keeping track of it, and to continue keeping track.
I sort of view them as there’s this area of gray… or I should say overlap. They both are the resistance. I don’t remember the exact poll, but it said that some 80-odd percent of the calls and the resistance work so far was being done by women. And I think it’s women largely more because we’re impacted first. We watch our kids being impacted, and our friends, and we’re just more in tune with it. There was a poll that came out this week that said that the way women viewed him had gone down by 25 points. So there’s some crossover in terms of women being involved in this resistance and being leaders of this resistance with the work that our organization does. We’ve certainly had a lot of people that got involved with us because of it. As to our work, the work that our organization does, a day or two after the election, we had a board call and we decided that beyond what our normal work was, we needed to do a lot more for different subsets of women who would be impacted , be it Muslim women, be it Latino women, be it Black-American women, or LGBT women. So, we as an organization have taken on more, but that’s also made me more aware, as I do my lists, of watching those subsets of people come under attack. I try to highlight that the best I can each week: what’s going on with ICE raids, what’s going on with executive orders taking away women’s right that people aren’t even noticing because there’s so much chaos, it’s hard to keep track. Stuff Jeff Sessions is doing, and its effect on Black-American women, and the Muslim ban, and LGBT discrimination made legal in the Federal agencies. So, I guess the work and the new agenda and the work we were planning to do as an organization helped me calibrate what to look for and what areas he might come after different subsets of women. We have a think tank in our organization which is 60% women of color, so I think we also have a really good sense of how different subsets of women are being impacted. I remember in one of our discussions, one of the women in our group who’s Latina said “My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m carrying around my passport now. So, through our discussions we’re getting a very good sense of how we’re all being impacted. I mean, I’m gay, I’m Jewish, so I’m impacted. One of our board members is married to a woman of color, and her children are of color, so she’s concerned about the stuff with Sessions. So, I was kind of going with eyes open looking for things, and unfortunately they’re all happening in a higher degree—and this quickly—then I feared. It’s all happening. The stuff he ran on, and the stuff that crosses over with authoritarianism, it’s all happening. Through my organization I’m just more aware, because of the inclusion and diversity of our work, how it impacts us more broadly.
The one frustration I have about the media is that they still haven’t taken stock of what went wrong. They were very much complicit in what happened with Russia. The leaks of the Hillary campaign emails came out, and they covered the leaks with such glee, every day the leaked emails, as opposed to looking at, well, it’s Russia leaking these. I think they’ve in some ways learned their lesson. When Wikileaks released their most recent leak, the media covered it as it should have been covered all along. But I still think a lot in the media have yet to do the reckoning they need to do with what went wrong with their coverage, and what they need to do differently. I do think some have risen to the challenge. The Washington Post, to my mind, has become the paper of record. I think they’ve broken a lot of news relating to Russia, and there’s Fahrenthold’s work on the kleptocracy as well. They stand out. A lot of the foreign press, like the BBC and the Guardian, and Reuters on their international side, they’ve done a really good job. CNN, on the written side, has broken a lot of interesting news. I was disappointed with the New York Times and their coverage of Clinton, and I wish they would have revisited that and understood that. I feel like they’ve really lost their stride. I mean, they have their insiders there, but they’re not covering him as critically, and they’re not getting the scoops on things that I would have expected a paper of record to get. As far as cable TV goes, Rachel Maddow certainly stands out as doing investigative work. At first they were all normalizing him. I think some of them have stopped. It varies. Some of them are still trying to cover him like he’s a regular president, like “look at his accomplishments” and duh duh duh. And that’s really not the story. Overall, they stood up to him, I think they’re trying, and racing each other for scoops, but we all can do better. They all can do better. I feel like they’re all chasing done the same story, and it’s just tweaked every day, as opposed to what Rachael is doing, which is trying to understand what’s going on. We need more of that, more investigative work, instead of bringing on pundits and explaining to us what people inside the beltway think. I think they don’t really understand the resistance, and what’s happening. Like they didn’t understand the Trump stuff. So, I guess that’s a long way of saying it’s a mixed bag. Some are doing a great job, and some can do better, I would hope.
Well, I do believe he’s going to be impeached before the end of the year. The things that I’m encouraged by…I have to tell you that after the Comey letter, I had no hopes that the FBI was going to be helpful, but it does seem like our investigator in the FBI has a full staff doing their work. We’re far enough along—I kind of see the big picture—where it’s now just accepted that Russia interfered with our election. So, that’s progress right there. And it’s been ninety days. Around day forty or fifty, we took that for granted. Now we’re on to the next level, which is “was there collusion?” I think we’re pretty far down that road. I would be surprised if by the summer you didn’t start to see Manafort or Carter Page or Flynn or Roger Stone facing some sort of charges. I’m sure the FBI and the Attorney General and whoever else is investigating—the US Treasury, with the Cyprus—I’m sure they’re staging it in a way with import, and they have, to a certain extent, a plan. Things are moving along. When you;’re in the midst of it, there’s a certain impatience. You read these stories, and every day there’s something new with Russia. And there’s, like, Eric Prince. There’s always a new character that seems to arise, Jared Kushner having meetings. It’s sort of like, when there’s enough smoke, you’re waiting for the fire to start. I think we all have to be patient, but I do believe we’re heading in the direction that there was a quid pro quo, and something happened there. On my list last week, twenty nine of them were about Russia, so that’s forty-one percent. It just shows you how much stuff is coming out. And why he’s bombing, then, to distract from it. I can sort of see that progressing, so I’m hopeful that by the end of the year we’ll be starting some kind of impeachment hearing, or however it plays out. I don’t know if it’s going to be impeachment, or if it’s going to be an FBI charge, or what the order will be. We’re in uncharted waters, so it’s hard to know, but I do believe things are moving along.
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