In the last 24 hours I have been approached by three very different kinds of people and asked, “ok, what do we do, I am exhausted or overwhelmed by what Trump is doing and need a strategy, an idea.” I’ve received similar inquiries on Twitter and via email.
So how do we organize against Trump?
This is certainly an important question. For the sake of this country, and the world as a whole, it is best if we find a peaceful way to push Trump out of office. Barring that, we have to create a movement strong enough that it can blunt the impact of his worst policy moves and minimize the damage of others. So in the interest of starting this conversation and responding to what I felt were earnest and well intentioned inquiries about what to do, let me suggest some starting points.
1) Understand that it was a coup, not a legitimate democratic election.
First, it is important to characterize what it is that Trump’s ascension to power represents.
It is not accurate in my view to say that he was fairly elected and therefore has, as his press secretary said the other day, a right to implement his agenda. He was not fairly elected. In my view, the Russian intervention acted as a kind of digital ground game in key electoral districts. Trump lacked that ground game himself because he could not count on the traditional machinery of politics to provide that kind of on the ground door to door support. This was a problem for McCain and Romney as well and so I think the Russian intervention – with both hacking and the widespread distribution of fake news aimed at (literally) “demonizing” Hillary Clinton – made a crucial difference. It was Trump’s solution to the problem these earlier candidates could not solve – how to get the Reagan Democrats back into the Republican fold. Well, a few thousand well placed fake news stories somehow blaming Hillary for the restructuring of the global economy underway for decades alongside the suggestion that she was in league with the devil likely had a real impact.
Thus, I think Congressman John Lewis was absolutely correct to say that Trump is not a legitimate president. Instead, in my view, we are experiencing the equivalent of a coup d’etat, where a small illegitimate group with an extremist agenda has taken hold of a narrow layer of the executive branch – albeit a very powerful layer, namely the Presidency – and is now faced with the task of spreading and consolidating its hold on power.
2) Don’t be fooled – Trump’s early strategy is one of “shock and awe.”
Part of that task of spreading and consolidating power is creating “shock and awe” in order to frighten and disperse the opposition. That is what explains the kinds of bewilderment and exhaustion that many who oppose Trump are now experiencing. Clearly many of the so-called “executive orders” are falling flat on their face and are not worth the fancy paper they are written on. The very fact that Trump makes such a visible display of signing them demonstrates this. It is crystal clear that even he knows this is for show. The order banning immigrants and refugees from seven overwhelmingly Muslim countries barely survived an afternoon before it was being torn apart by demonstrators and lawyers in airports and courtrooms across the country, including in “flyover land.”
In other cases there are rumors of radical changes emanating from the White House that appear and then disappear, such as the order that apparently would have once again legalized discrimination in federal employment against the LGBTQ community. As my young son might say, this is an effort to sow “confusion and delay.” (Apologies to Thomas Train.)
3) Trust the resistance.
While it is natural for individuals caught up in the chaos and disarray that is the reality of this new Administration to despair that they seem powerless in the face of its onslaught, it is important to remember that all social movements have a kind of mind of their own. Individual contributions do add up and in unexpected ways. While leadership and strategy and planning is important it is even more important (and thus this comment precedes discussion of strategy) to trust the momentum of the resistance as it unfolds. My argument for trusting the resistance is linked to my view that Trump did not in fact win the election in a fair and legitimate fashion. And I think he knows that – probably better than we do because he knows more about the Russian connection than we do. But because of that fact we should realize that we in fact are the majority and that is a powerful force.
One example is the phenomenally important massive Women’s Marches that took place the day after the Inauguration. I was fairly certain the DC March would be big – and even held out hope that it would be somewhat larger than the Inauguration itself – but any honest person, including its organizers, would have to admit that the event exceeded all expectations across the political spectrum. It sent a very important message to the White House and I am certain that it forced them to rethink their strategy, either by carving back on several actions they intended to take or by forcing their hand on several that is now leading them into their own chaos and disarray.
4) Local is national – how to build a movement against Trump.
Although we can count on massive social opposition to Trump as evidenced by the Women’s Marches, nonetheless any spontaneous social movement needs ideas, guidance and strategy. Developing these is risky business, though.
Inevitably there are very significant differences within this, as any, emerging social movement. The most important point is to not place demands on that movement that are likely to exacerbate those divisions. The importance of this is most easily demonstrated by the disastrous recent demonstrations against right wing provocateur and Steve Bannon ally Milo Yiannopoulos at U.C. Berkeley. There the very large and vocal and important Berkeley student left once again allowed the small authoritarian anarchist movement to hijack what should have been an important contribution to the anti-Trump movement.
Instead, the effect was to hand the Trump crowd a significant public relations victory so important that even Trump himself used it to attack federal funding for the campus. This allowed him to implicitly invoke the Republican Ronald Reagan who infamously confronted a much earlier Berkeley movement when he was governor of California. Now the Berkeley students are not wholly to blame for the problems caused by authoritarian and violent anarchists as this element has been allowed for too long a place in and around the left (going back at least to the anti-WTO demonstrations in Seattle in 1999). But the violence, tension and bad publicity the actions caused highlight the problem with forcing otherwise healthy and democratic movements to adopt narrow, sectarian or even extreme views.
I think the most important single goal has to be to force Trump out of office peacefully – by demonstrating overwhelming political opposition to his reactionary and unstable politics. I would be very cautious about insisting on more radical demands if it interferes with that goal. I am not against raising them – I am major supporter of reproductive health rights for women and of workers rights but I am willing to work with sensible Republicans who might not share those views if we can find a way to work together to force Trump to resign. I trust the resistance to provide an arena for the airing of a wide range of alternative ideas about the future of the country. But if we can succeed in the revival of a genuine democratic movement that ousts Trump then I think that alone will be tremendously helpful to the cause of women’s and workers rights here and around the world, even if the short term result is a moderate Republican as President.
Thus, my approach to strategy is simple: ask yourself what your particular context or situation is – are you a student, a professor, an industrial worker, a tech sector worker, a recent immigrant? Or ask yourself what you are personally trained to do in life or what your most important social or intellectual interests are. Pick one of these areas and ask how could a group of people with a similar background make a constructive and visible contribution to the debate or demonstrations or legal actions that are taking place.
For example, I am a law professor. If I was approached (as I was the other day) by a fellow member of my AAUP chapter on campus about what to do about Trump, I would consider the fact that this person is very concerned about academic freedom and shared governance on our campus. Much of what Trump threatens is related to those very same principles. So organizing a public forum on those issues for the campus community could make a terrific contribution. The key is that it would be naturally organized by the kinds of people who are genuinely motivated – even before Trump – by those issues. This improves the likely quality and credibility of the event and that kind of event is likely to have a wider impact on its audience. Similarly, a recent immigrant to this country who is a tech worker also asked me for suggestions about what to do. I think he could make good use of his contacts in his industry to gather together a small affinity group of other immigrant tech workers to share stories, concerns, contacts, to insure that they are protected and informed. They could, potentially, organize similar events for less well paid immigrants or reach out to NGOs for advice or if possible sponsor public events.
These steps might seem small but if they are reproduced in the thousands and tens of thousands then they serve two purposes: one, they provide a natural focus for people and help them choose among things to focus on which is far more sustainable than simply absorbing hours of TV and social media and worrying about what to do; and two, they provide a natural building block to larger forums, organizations, movements, and even political parties that can be used in wider protests which will, inevitably, emerge in the next couple of years.
I will close with apologies to the heroic union organizer Joe Hill with a slightly edited version of his famous last testament: “Don’t waste any time panicking, organize!”