Read and resist: The essential books for activists in the Trump era

Bill McKibben, Dave Eggers, Margaret Atwood and others explain what words inspire them to keep fighting

“This Is an Uprising,” by Paul and Mark Engler, is suggested “resistance reading” by Bill McKibben. CREDIT:
“This Is an Uprising,” by Paul and Mark Engler, is suggested “resistance reading” by Bill McKibben. CREDIT:

The presidency of Donald Trump provides daily outrages — from his ongoing assault on domestic and global climate action to his firing Tuesday of FBI director James Comey — that have spurred a “resistance” movement.

In a series titled Resistance Reading, Mother Jones talks to authors, activists, and others for book recommendations “that bring solace or understanding in this age of rancor.”

For people in the climate movement, there are many suggestions, including mine, that can offer wisdom and insight into our current political situation.

“We’re in an age of protest,” says Bill McKibben, founder of and one of the world’s best writers on climate. He recommends:

  • Rules for Revolutionaries, by Becky Bond and Zack Exley. They “spearheaded Bernie’s distributed organizing team” and “understand the tools that work right now for big change.”
  • This Is an Uprising, by Paul and Mark Engler. McKibben calls it ”the best summary of all that the last 75 years has taught us about nonviolent organizing.” He adds: “It’s the book I wish I’d had a decade ago, because it would have saved a lot of trial-and-error experimentation as we got up and running.”

Margaret Atwood, Twitter fan and author of dystopian classics like “The Handmaid’s Tale” wants you to read:

  • The Lord of the Rings, since it’s about “a horrible tyrant. An obsession with power…. Small folks doing their bit. And it comes out all right at the end. Or sort of all right. So comforting!”
  • Moby-Dick, “An arrogant, narcissistic, crazed captain bent on revenge tackles the life force of Nature, and loses…. Don’t let it happen!”
  • Darkness At Noon, by Arthur Koestler, about “how totalitarianisms brainwash people into caving in.” It’s “not exactly consoling, but forewarned is sometimes forearmed.”

McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers — author of the 2013 dystopian novel (and now movie), “The Circle,” as well as “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” has two recommendations:

  • It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’s classic 1935 book of semi-satirical fascist prophecy.
  • The Great Lie, a collection of essays by writers who lived under tyranny, such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Václav Havel, and Hannah Arendt, for those who want to understand “the parallels between our current flirtations with truthless fascism and those societies that were truly crushed by totalitarianism.”

My own recommendations focus on collections of short essays:

  • Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, edited by Roy Basler and Carl Sandburg, is a master class on what America needed to do to preserve liberty the last time we were so divided. Alongside classics like the Gettysburg Address are gems like “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” in which a 28-year-old Lincoln explains the danger to the Republic of a demagogue just like Trump.
  • A Collection of Essays, by George Orwell features the best work from the greatest essayist of the 20th century. Orwell is so relevant today, over six decades after his death, that he’s routinely ranked as Amazon’s No. 1 author in both “classics” and “contemporary” literature and fiction. Few essays offer better commentary on our alternative-facts president than 1946’s “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell explains why “in our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible.”
  • Brave New World Revisited, by Aldous Huxley is a 1956 collection of essays Huxley wrote about the dystopian future he had envisioned in this 1932 classic. Essays like “Propaganda in a democratic society” and “Subconscious persuasion” are as relevant today as Orwell’s essays. One must-read is Huxley’s 1949 letter to Orwell (author of 1984) about which of their dystopias would turn out to be more prescient.

Trump’s twin wars on climate and democracy are really inseparable at this point, and both can lead to dystopia. His climate policies could create dozens of failed states south of the U.S. border and around the world, as I’ve discussed. They could lead to hundreds of millions of refugees and more authoritarian demagogues like Trump himself.

So all those who resist Trump need to understand how people can fight back against his totalitarian instincts. The above recommendations are a good place to start.