This is always the first question I ask after people identify a problem. The 2016 election of Donald J. Trump will go down in history for its utterly bizarre and unexpected nature. Honestly, a reality television star? But the strangeness of the moment took many people’s breath away, despite the low-grade anxiety subtly acknowledging that a Trump win was possible. Then came the laments and protestations. “We just elected a racist, sexist, misogynistic, homophobe that threatened to torture the families of terrorists! Woe is us.”
And indeed, woe is us, but no amount of lamenting, protesting, hair-pulling, and despair will change anything. The question becomes, where do we go from here? The answer that I’ve developed over some thought and time is one that is almost designed to infuriate and disgust just about ever sector of the left. The reason is that it is predicated on a number of unpleasant truths and the American left collectively needs to understand the difference between “is” and “ought to be.”
Some will read this as being overly optimistic, or otherwise blind to how terrible Trump will be. Actually, I’m making the argument that we can do things that will force him to be less terrible, limit his time in power, and that these things are worth doing. If this poisons your pessimism with hope, then so be it.
Truth Number One: Trump Will Be the Next President of the United States. We must respond to that Reality.
There is no getting around this. Even if the electoral college disappeared tomorrow, it wouldn’t apply to this election. Faithless electors, while theoretically possible, are exceedingly unlikely to materialize. Yes, the electoral college is undemocratic and it was designed to be a bulwark against precisely the sort of populist that Trump represents, and yes these are both excellent reasons for electors to cast a vote that throws the election to the Senate (where Republicans would likely vote for Trump anyway). It is still not going to happen.
Further to the left and in academic circles there is talk of delegitimizing Trump. Legitimacy is a big topic in political science, but boiling it down to brass tacks: The right of a person to rule isn’t a given, it has to be substantiated by might or right. In the United States, we substantiate the right of the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Surpreme Court, and the President to rule over us both by voting and popular assent (including the not breaking of laws thing you find yourself doing on a daily basis).
The idea behind delegitimation is that by using massive strikes (this is where I giggle), civil unrest, and a refusal to engage the government as a rightful law giving force, we can make Trump step down or apply leverage to numerous other institutions that have the power to make Trump step down. Some extend this idea out to a plan to essentially overthrow the government in its entirety.
Remember when I giggled? Americans won’t strike even when it benefits them directly. Call it a cultural disinclination. Again, I’m talking about what is, not what ought to be. We think of strikes as something those filthy Europeans do, and what are we anyways? COMMUNISTS? Talking about instigating a general strike is like talking about getting people to like Rob Schnieder’s movies: It’s not going to happen. Formal institutions on the left have already granted him legitimacy, and it’s hard to see more than a small minority interested in this tactic, much less aware of it. Don’t ever stand too far left of the American people and expect them to follow you. Better people than you have tried and they failed miserably.
Any strategy that takes on Trump, must acknowledge that on January 21st, Americans will largely accept him as the President of the United States. I have not stopped saying that the Friday of his inauguration should be met with both street protests and a stay-away from work. The protests should happen no matter what, and the stay-away should be in direct protest of Trump’s most alarming proposal, namely Muslim registration. The stay-away should also call for the firing of Bannon from his transition team/cabinet. Trump has assembled a true basket of very deplorable nominees for various positions, but Bannon is a good figurehead target.
Truth Number Two: One is the Loneliest Number, Two Is Not Much Better: We need a Unified Approach.
People spend a lot of time building consensus. Or rather, waste a lot of time. The consensus view of activism is flawed. Consensus buries or flattens minority opinions. Aggregation of effort is more important than uniformity, but aggregation of effort should also flow in the same direction at the same time. Coordination is still important, as is having shared goals to coordinate on. Because there will be so many things to protest during a Trump presidency, it is important to work with the best ammunition you have over issues with the greatest importance and consensus behind them. Focusing on twenty different smaller issues that few people care about is less important than raising a handful of issues salient to more people. To the best of our ability, people should concentrate their efforts on a few big things at a time, rather than trying to attack every single thing wrong with Trump, no matter how small. This leads to discordant messages and an overall dilution of effort.
The amount of energy devoted to attacking Republican policies should be in direct proportion to the harm they will cause. Deciding which policies deserve the bulk of our effort is relatively easy. We can achieve that uniformity of effort without having some grandiose meeting of The American Left. Everybody’s priority listing will look pretty much the same, give or take. Institutions that serve particular communities will obviously place their interests on top, but then the priorities will flow back into something pretty much in line with everyone else, naturally.
This also means is that we will have to criticize Trump for the things he does rather than what he is. His supporters should be asked to answer to the effects of his policies, rather than his character. This is if you have any interest in conversion, which is a duty that requires skill and patience. If you can tell me a glorious conversion story where a Trump supporter or fence sitter came over to the left because you called them a racist, I’d love to hear it. But the reality is that people don’t respond well to that, and while racism may exist in the peripheries of everyone’s minds, we are not always conscious of it. Accusations of racism hurled at people who wouldn’t vote Democrat if you put a gun to their heads don’t come across as genuine to them. Maybe people should be thoughtful, logical, and knowledgeable at all times. But, they aren’t. Again, “is” versus “ought to be.” Engaging the willing in discussions and dialogues about race is productive, but you shouldn’t waste your time on either the converted or the obstinate with whom you have no common ground.
Truth Number Three: Trump Is Not Hitler, Expect the Unexpected.
Many have talked about fascism and the rise of fascism. I am going to save my more general criticism of how we use the F-word for another time, suffice it to say that I think we use it too often and it is really not that useful. This one is perhaps going to be the most bitter pill I am expecting the left to swallow, but Trump cannot be Hitler, it’s the 21st century and we live in America. I am not arguing exceptionalism, nor am I arguing that we are more civilized in our time than in previous times. I am arguing that the blend of circumstances and history that led to the rise of the Nazis in Germany do not exist in out context, and that whatever evils we see from the Trump administration, they won’t look the same. Human beings are great at finding things that fit a pattern and ignoring everything that doesn’t fit the pattern. Do not fool yourself.
Consider Trump’s most fascistic policy so far: Muslim registration. Already people are pledging to falsely register as Muslim, if a Muslim registry is created. This is because we know the history of the Holocaust. This itself to some extent precludes the repetition of certain events. This pledge by many to engage in civil disobedience also points to the existence of a factor that was not an obstacle to the Nazis in 1930s Germany: Mass participation in resistance. Even if only 15-25% of the population resists, it will represent staggering numbers of people. There are also international and economic institutions that will apply considerable pressure against such action. Disruptions are bad for business. Very few countries, including the United States can afford to ignore consequences to business. We all know who really owns Congress. International trade and finance will be negatively affected overnight. This is completely ignoring extant legal structures and institutions that would also present a barrier to such policies.
Even the most Trump-sympathetic Supreme Court Justice cannot override the majority of votes that will be against such a measure. This isn’t speculation. The Supreme Court does not always divide along partisan ideological lines, and it’s difficult to see how even the conservative justices could justify such a measure even within their own minds. Still, I am reticent to bring up the Supreme Court because the common objection to this line of reasoning is that it’s an argument for exceptionalism. In other words, that I am arguing for faith in the American system of “checks and balances.” So I am going to try and keep my analysis down to other institutional and situational reasons Trump will not succeed at being Hitler. However, I will state that the particulars of American government are not negligible considerations. It is absurd to treat them as such.
Trump is also personally much more sympathetic to the LGBT community than even his colleagues on the right realize. At very least he does not have any intrinsic motivation to show malice unless it benefits him. This is not to say that Trump will not be bad for LGBT rights. Even if his administration only plans on using LGBT rights to scapegoat the Muslim community, the Republican legislature can expect him to rubber stamp every homophobic bill that crosses his desk. Still, Trump is unpredictable, and may move to create an illusion of normality by refusing to disrupt LGBT rights as they currently stand. There is a distinct possibility he will use atrocities committed against the LGBT community abroad to drive a wedge in the left between those who are more susceptible to intolerance towards Muslims, and those who are not.
We already see this to some extent, and I would not be surprised to see it get worse. Mainly because no one is expecting it. Everyone is too busy preparing and looking for Hitler to pay attention to the current conditions of 21st century America. Everyone expects Muslim registration and is gearing up for it, which is precisely why it will fail. My concern is all the the things Trump and the Republican legislature will do that no one is prepared for because they’re locked into a 1930s European paradigm… for basically no reason.
There is no good reason for this because Trump is not the first 21st century or late 20th century leader to threaten a minority in his country. Nor is he the first to scapegoat refugees. The more relevant historical examples come closer to the present: Idi Amin, Berlusconi, Putin, etc. These are the autocrats you are looking for. Please pay attention to the here and the now. Even if you believe Trump is ideologically not far from Hitler, remember that Hitler controlled a relatively small country without nuclear weapons. So even a very Hitler-like Trump will respond to events differently, again because of the specific circumstances and the context of our time and place.
Truth Number Four: All Racism is Local. Combat Phobia and othering in your community directly.
There has been a rise in homophobic, Islamophobic, and racist attacks recently. Often it’s vandalism featuring swastikas and “Heil Trump” but there have been more serious incidents. While the temptation to attack Trump for this is reasonable and he does bear responsibility, it’s a waste of time. Mainly because in the moments that you are choosing to assail Trump on Facebook, you are not working to make people in your community safe. Support efforts to make your community safe for people of color, members of the LGBT community, and any other targets I have forgotten at the moment.
This entails direct action in the form of street patrols. I believe these have two positive effects, they act as physical demonstrations that the area does not support the victimization of vulnerable, and it makes the streets safer for them. I do not advise carrying weapons and looking for fights. A few flashlights and numbers is all you need. Think neighborhood watch. Be sure to inform everyone ahead of time it is boring work, and if you’re successful, not very exciting. Make sure to round on mosques, synagouges, and places strongly associated with the LGBT community like gay bars and LGBT student centers. My concern here is less threats like gunmen and more people leaving a pipe bomb or trap. They’re easy to keep an eye out for.
Other things you can do is take down hateful posters and handbills as they appear. It is usually very legal to remove them from public property, since technically it’s illegal to put so much as a yard sale sign on a lamppost. In universities tearing them down can be a problem depending on specific policies, but not if you don’t get caught doing it. No one will investigate, since usually there are far bigger fish to fry. Ripping down and removing hateful material does two things: It forces the enemy to expend more materiel and resources to less effect, and it demonstrates to the enemy that they are in hostile territory. Make no mistake, I regard these people as the enemies of humanity.
There have been some people who essentially advocate for taking the fight to the racists and using violent action. My concern is reprisals, the burden of which will disproportionately fall on vulnerable communities. Trusting local authorities carries its own problems, and the best course of action is highly context sensitive, but violence is often a less than ideal solution for a variety of reasons. By the time violence is necessary or useful, other efforts have already failed and thing are very, very bad.
This is what I have to get you started. In the coming weeks and months, you will see that I tend to strongly advocate for a combination of electoral efforts, direct action, and the effective use of media. This is a trident approach to killing the snake. There are those who strongly dislike the idea of involving themselves in the state apparatus and electoral politics. I think this is short-sighted. There are those who feel that direct action is counterproductive. They are equally short-sighted.
Finally there are those who feel that “the media” is enthralled to special interests such that time and effort is wasted on it. But, the reality is that “the media” are more concerned with money and this desire can always be manipulated. Even in our time of media monopolization other media (it’s a plural) exist. The Internet not being the least of them, but people still managed to organize and assemble long before the Internet. Media is about making sure your message gets out and appeals to the largest number of people. Without numbers, you have nothing.
Here is the takeaway for people who don’t want to plow through the entirety of this essay:
- This is really happening.
- Be smart.
- Have specific unifying goals.
- Do not rely on history to repeat itself.
- Expect the unexpected.
- Defend your local community.
- Use all proper means you have at your disposal to achieve your objectives.
And above all, remember: You cannot help others if you do not take care of yourself first.