Shortly after Donald Trump was elected president, Amy Siskind took one of her occasional trips to Val-Kill, the Upstate New York home of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
“I needed a Zen moment,” Siskind, who had campaigned for Hillary Clinton, told me. “And that is a place that inspires me.”
Soon afterward, Siskind began keeping what she calls the Weekly List, tracking all the ways in which she saw America’s taken-for-granted governmental norms changing in the Trump era.
The project started small, read by friends and with only a few items a week.
By Week 9, though, the list had gone viral.
“It blew up – I had 2 million views that week,” she said. “People were responding like crazy, saying things like, ‘I’m praying for you.’”
As time went on, the list grew much longer and more sophisticated. Here are three of her 85 items from mid-June:
“Monday, in a bizarre display in front of cameras, Trump’s cabinet members took turns praising him.”“AP reported that a company that partners with both Trump and (son-in-law) Jared Kushner is a finalist for a $1.7bn contract to build the new FBI building.Vice President Mike Pence hired a big-name “lawyer with Watergate experience to represent him in the Russian probe.”Now, in Week 32, every item has a source link, and rather than just a few items, there are dozens. (Her weekly audience usually hits hundreds of thousands, she said, on platforms including Medium, Facebook and Twitter.)
The idea, she said, came from her post-election reading about how authoritarian governments take hold – often with incremental changes that seem shocking at first but quickly become normalized. Each post begins with: “Experts in authoritarianism advise to keep a list of things subtly changing around you, so you’ll remember.”
She’s not the only one to have this idea; on Twitter, for example, designer Laura Olin created @_rememberbot, where frequent tweets begin with the words “It is not normal” and catalogue the oddities of TrumpWorld. (“It is not normal for U.S. presidents to criticize federal judges.”)
But Siskind may be the most dogged and systematic. One follower even made a searchable database of her lists.
“It’s scary to look back on the early weeks and see what we’ve already gotten used to,” she said. Examples: a secretary of state who rarely speaks publicly, the failure to fill important positions in many agencies, a president who often eschews intelligence briefings in favor of “Fox & Friends.”
“We forget all the things we should be outraged about,” Siskind said.
Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor and author of the PressThink blog, called Siskind’s efforts “a service that is thoroughly journalistic and much needed.”
The lists “help people experience the history that is being made and keeps them alive and alert to the dangers of eroding norms,” Rosen said.
In their user-friendly format, he said, they are “one way of dealing with an overload of significant news, a surplus of eventfulness that allows things to hide in plain sight simply because there are too many of them to care about.”
It’s also, Rosen said, something that journalists can’t – or don’t – do, as they pay attention to the political dust-up of the day and don’t always provide much context or seem to remember what happened last month or last year. (“Since taking office, Trump has been at one of his properties every 3.5 days,” Siskind wrote this month.)
From Siskind’s point of view, an experiment has become a mission – one that sometimes competes for attention with bringing up her two kids and running a pro-women nonprofit organization that she founded.
“It has required stamina that I’ve never had before,” Siskind said.
Her followers appreciate the effort, if not the disturbing content. Kate McCreedy wrote on Twitter: “I read this every week. Absorb it. Get a stomachache.” And Jake Orlowitz, on Medium, called Siskind brilliant for compiling a “terrifying collection of horribles.”
She posts the list on Saturday on Facebook and Twitter, and Sunday on Medium, after working on it for 15 or 20 hours a week.
Siskind, who lives just outside New York City, left Wall Street in 2008. Over a 20-year career, she’d become an expert in distressed debt trading and, at one point, co-headed the trading department at Morgan Stanley and became the first female managing director at another firm.
She founded the New Agenda to focus attention on issues affecting the success of women and girls, including pay discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual assault on college campuses. She is also an LGBT advocate.
How long does she plan to keep up the list-making? “Until he’s out of power,” she said, which she believes – and fervently hopes – will happen before the end of the first presidential term.
“I don’t have a grand plan,” she said. “I just want to be able to trace our way back.”
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was The New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of The Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Reach her at Margaret.Sullivan@washpost.com.