A recent blog post of the National Book Critics Circle asked members “at this time of cultural shift” in the dawning era of Donald Trump to identify their “favorite work of resistance literature.” The writer Paul Wilner identified John Steinbeck’s “quietly furious” strike novel In Dubious Battle as his personal choice.
“We may not see the future lying before us,” Wilner explained, “but Steinbeck has provided a valuable road map to the lessons of the past. He may have fought kicking and screaming against the label of ‘engaged’ writer–he’ll never be confused with Sartre, to his credit–but he understood the power, as well as the perils, of resistance.”
True enough, but my choice of road map for resisting Donald Trump would be The Moon Is Down, the play-novella John Steinbeck wrote during the early, dark days of World War II about anti-fascist resistance by the citizens of a Nazi-occupied country in northern Europe. Steinbeck’s little book inspired citizen resistance in Nazi-occupied territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It contains practical advice for Americans opposed to Donald Trump’s attitudes and actions as president, 75 years after it was written.
Set in a fictionalized version of Norway, The Moon Is Down tells the story of what residents do when alien soldiers — never named as Nazis, but unmistakable nonetheless — invade their peaceful coastal mining town by air, land, and sea. Hitler’s forces tried hard to suppress The Moon Is Down in Nazi-occupied lands (possession was punishable by death in Mussolini’s Italy), but contraband copies, printed and passed on by hand, were widely credited with sustaining anti-fascist resistance until Nazi occupation ended in 1945. Once World War II was over, John Steinbeck was awarded the Freedom Cross by King Haakon VII of Norway, that nation’s highest civilian honor.
Magnified by an unforgiving winter, the passive bitterness of an occupied people morphs into active rebellion that begins quietly when the town’s mayor refuses to drink with the army officer who — unlike Donald Trump — is a moral man following orders from others. The refusal to cooperate eventually costs the mayor his life, but not before his example inspires numerous acts of rebellion, some violent, by residents of the town.
Sanctuary-city mayors around the United States are setting a similar example by signaling their refusal to cooperate with federal orders to round up undocumented residents for deportation. Demonstrations at legislative town hall meetings, by citizens concerned about health care, are following a similar pattern. People are standing up to power.
When civil rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis was interviewed on Meet the Press not long ago, he prepared the stage for official resistance by explaining to Chuck Todd why he felt Donald Trump was “not legitimate” and why he refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. “You cannot be at home with something that is wrong,” Lewis told Todd, citing the example of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”
John Steinbeck understood this principle but professed to be surprised that The Moon Is Down proved so popular, explaining that he wrote the book “as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.” When the mayor in Steinbeck’s story says that he feels the will of the people and acts accordingly, he gives unspoken permission for their resistance, the ultimate result of which is left — in typical Steinbeck fashion — for readers to decide. As Steinbeck makes clear, however, the occupiers are flummoxed because they fail to understand the psychology of people brought together by crisis. Products of a top-down, authoritarian culture familiar to students of Donald Trump, they are unprepared for popular resistance and cannot cope when confronted with democratic dissent.
As Steinbeck’s mayor explains to the puzzled commandant who is trying to keep order, “Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.” John Steinbeck’s advice couldn’t be clearer: Once a bully picks a fight, resist. You may lose the battle, but you’ll eventually win the war.
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015, now living in Woodland Hills. This piece first appeared in Steinbeck Now.