On Friday, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. Every single thing he has done since the election indicates that his narcissism is at risk of becoming megalomania, and he is intent on wielding power as ruthlessly as possible. His appointments to date have been an unprecedented circus of oligarchs, ideological zealots, and incompetents. (And fans of Vladimir Putin.) These are not people much concerned about democracy.
Trump’s party also controls Congress, and in both the House and the Senate, the Republican Caucus is in turn controlled by far-right extremists. Moreover, Trump has stated clearly that he intends to appoint federal judges, including to the Supreme Court, only if they share the ideological extremism he has also favored in his Cabinet nominations.
A majority of state governorships and legislatures are also controlled by the same types of people. They share a hatred of government – except when it can be used to kill or shame people – and a love of punching down. It is reasonable to expect, based on the firehose of WTF the Trump transition team and the first days of this Congress have already let loose with, that there will be so many crises, large and small, that it will be impossible for opponents to keep up with it all, let alone fight it all. A lot of laws are going to be passed, a lot of regulations changed or abolished, and a lot of budgets rewritten in ways that will lead to the unnecessary deaths of a lot of people, and serious negative impacts for many of us. That’s the inescapable reality.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that these people are not omnipotent, they’re not a majority by any stretch, and they’re not invincible. They can be beaten back – in ways that initially prevent a lot of misery, and in the longer run swing the political pendulum back to something resembling sanity. And if we’re lucky and smart, more than that.
So what do we do?
As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, massive protests, of the type we’ll see this weekend and (I suspect) a lot more in the future, can be useful. But they’re not sufficient. I want to start a conversation about what it will take to beat Trump – and by “Trump,” I’m just using The Donald as shorthand for the entire constellation of politics of ignorance and hatred that will still control our federal government even if Trump were to drop dead on Monday. Trump himself is both a problem and a symptom of a much larger and deeper problem.
It’s easy to print posters or generate memes that say “Resist Trump.” It’s much harder to translate that into actual policy victories. It’s not as though these are people who will see millions in the streets, shrug their shoulders because they know they’re illegitimate, and go home. The people now ascending to power are ruthless. They do not care about mandates, they will act to protect and expand their power in whatever ways they can and they will not care in the least what you think about them unless they are forced to.
How do we get from millions of pissed off people to policy victories in a political system where even the remaining trappings of popular democracy are being relentlessly stripped away by our opponents – because they know they’re illegitimate?
I would like to propose that any broad, heterogeneous movement to resist Trump should prioritize exploiting two major Trump weaknesses, and on building positive infrastructure – the better alternative – in three major ways.
The first major weakness of the Trump phenomenon is that it’s not a monolith. “Divide and conquer” has been a political strategy for all of recorded human history for a reason: it works. And even though they’re all acting like they’re batshit crazy, many of the people in the Trump/Republican coalition have conflicting priorities and genuinely loathe each other. This is an opportunity.
What do billionaires like Trump and several of his Cabinet picks, Christian jihadists like Mike Pence and Ben Carson, white nationalists like Stephen Bannon, and ordinary suburban white grandparents who didn’t trust Hillary Clinton have in common? Almost nothing – except that all of them don’t have any use for people like you and me.
That’s not glib rhetoric; I phrased it very precisely. The only thing holding Trump’s coalition together is tribalism. Republicans have been building this frame for 30 years, convincing people to vote in many cases against their logical self-interest because they identify with the tribe, and the tribe is almost entirely defined by abstract notions of who it isn’t. They don’t resent you and me personally – just people like us. And people like them, fellow members of the tribe? They’re OK, pretty much by definition. That’s how tribal identity works. And for Republicans, over the last half-century it’s evolved from “my country right or wrong” to “my tribe right or wrong.”
They’re not at all the same thing any longer. For decades figures like Rush Limbaugh have cultivated audiences by demonizing women, blacks, Mexicans, Muslims, gays, Latinos, the disabled, the young, the old, pretty much everyone, because it’s all an abstraction: The Other. The scary, threatening, sinful Other. But Joe Bob, in Congress? He’s one of us.
Donald Trump is the logical extension of this intentional long-term Republican strategy. The first in his long litany of targets for insult and contempt was establishment Republicans, and, as with the Tea Party, they were targets precisely because they hadn’t followed through enough on their promises to punish people not in the tribe. So they were banished. Immigrants are still coming in, abortion is still legal (kind of), gays can even get married now. These are issues that establishment Republicans used for decades to fire up voters, but that they didn’t really care much about themselves – generally speaking, they were all about the plutocracy. And Trump’s genius was to hammer them as no longer being worthy members of the tribe.
There’s a reason Trump’s chief strategist is a white nationalist. Tactically as well as ideologically, white nationalism can go nowhere unless white people start to think of themselves as white (rather than, say, “normal.”) Promoting tribal identity is the entire white nationalist project. And it’s Trump’s project, too. Whittle away at the tribe, and he fails. That’s why someone with Bannon’s experience is so invaluable to Trump.
There are a multitude of potential fissures to exploit within this tribe, starting with the people in power. Oligarchs, bigots, generals, and soldiers in Christ have entirely different and often conflicting goals. To name some obvious examples: a lot of oligarchs like cheap immigrant labor; the bigots, not so much. ObamaCare must be repealed because it was that Kenyan dude’s idea, and he definitely wasn’t in the tribe. But throwing the country’s health care system into crisis is going to be really, really bad for business.
The Republican civil war was over before it started in terms of who has power; the radicals won, and every Republican office holder now faces an imperative to cater to The Tribe. But the fissures are still there to be widened. Skillful lobbying, messaging, and political pressuring can help.
Trump’s second major weakness is all but inevitable for authoritarians in general, and especially megalomaniacal narcissists like Trump: overreach. They have enormous power, but they always want more. They’re often fine with violating laws to get what they want, and they may or may not bother to change the laws first to legalize what they’re doing. (We’re already seeing this, for example, with the endless conflict of interest law violations by both Trump himself and many of his nominees.) Our judiciary is clearly in danger of losing its independence, but some checks and balances still do exist there.
As for popular resistance, the famous Gandhi quote -“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they crack down, then you win” – doesn’t just describe the particular tactics that he, and later Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela (among many others), used so effectively against enormously repressive opposition. It describes overreach. More recently, before the Occupy Movement died a slow, largely self-inflicted death, for a moment it held widespread public support. That came not just because Occupy targeted predatory banks (though that was an excellent target), but due to publicity from a series of widely publicized incidents of police abuse of protesters in places like New York, Davis (California), and Seattle. Overreach.
This doesn’t have to be a matter of police violence, either. Taking essential health care access away from millions of sick people is overreach, too. The effort in 2005 to privatize Medicare and Social Security was overreach then, and likely will be again. Ditto with mass immigration enforcement, criminalization of contraception, risking economic catastrophe by refusing to pay on the national debt, or any number of other voluntary crises these people are quite capable of launching. When they do – and they will – we need to be ready to take full political advantage.
What We Can Do
People are gonna do what they’re gonna do. Different people will express their fear, anger, disgust, and righteous solidarity in the era of Trump in countless different ways. But I’d like to suggest that beyond reactive protests, we’ll be best served strategically by taking the initiative in three major arenas.
Tell Our Stories
Tribal identity is a Trump strength, but it’s also a weakness – and without it, Trump is lost. Undoing more than a generation of demonizing and abstract caricatures is a long-term project, but there’s no better time to start than now. It’s perhaps the most important thing any of us can do, and everyone can do it.
The thing about the Trump tribe is that it’s largely abstract. For example, nationally Trump won a narrow majority of the votes of white women despite his widely documented (and frequently criminal) personal misogyny. Why? Trump demonizing his victims – defining them as Not In The Tribe (because, for example, she’s fat and ugly, not like you) was part of it. A much bigger part was that Trump positioned himself as being a central voice for The Tribe. Crooked Hillary clearly was not – and she never even seriously tried to be, which was tailor-made for someone like Trump.
But the personal stories of so many victims of Trump’s alleged, serial sexual assaults did more to damage him than any other single thing in a campaign that was full of revelations and incidents that would have doomed a more traditional candidate. Why? When his victims told their stories, they became real, recognizable people rather than caricatures. The women who were able and willing to imagine being in that situation after hearing such stories were the ones who were far more likely to turn away from their potential support for Trump
Now multiply that impact by the number of people in your own lives who could tell stories: of being unable to get health care or affordable housing, of having an elderly parent whose pension was stolen or whose Medicare became an unusable voucher; the neighbor who got deported or died from a botched illegal abortion; and on, and on, and on.
Tens of millions of people, minimum, will be seriously negatively impacted by what Republicans are lining up to do. The more that a Trump tribal member hears stories of people they personally know who are struggling or worse with such policies, the more humanized we abstract “Others” become, the more the whole tribal frame crumbles. We are everywhere, and you already know us. Chip away at the tribal identity. Because without the Tribe, the Trump coalition has nothing, literally nothing, to unite it. Divide and conquer, one story at a time.
Create Our Own Institutions
As a generalization, communities and nations create government institutions to collectively do the kinds of things that can’t easily be done individually or in small groups. That can mean anything from national defense to building highways to funding public schools to running the power grid.
When our elected representatives are all about taking away funding for some of the things we’ve taken for granted as collective responsibilities – whether it’s our social safety net, or access (however flawed) to health care, or enforcement of laws that keep our water and air clean, whatever it might be, we have three choices. We can go along with it, or we can elect new representatives that will reverse the actions, or we can create other institutions – preferably ones safe from Trumpian interference – to accomplish the lost tasks.
A lot of pressure is going to fall on state and local governments to do what the feds stop doing. Where possible, we need to work to ensure that they act accordingly, and work to ensure that they have the necessary resources. But whether it’s large-scale projects like public banks or community clinics, or essential social safety net work like food banks, housing co-ops and land trusts, or homelessness services, there are plenty of things individuals, nonprofits, and conscientious businesses can do to help. We’ll need activism – and money – on all of those fronts in the next few years. Get busy. While we work to change policies, there will also the immediate need to triage the coming damage.
More and Better Democrats
And then there’s that bit about elected representation.
The surge of activism in 2005-06, around the Iraq War, the New Orleans diaspora, and a host of other Bush administration failures, used the phrase “more and better Democrats” to describe the need to take power back from the Bush cabal in DC. For a time, it worked – until Obama won and people (mistakenly) got complacent. But it’s still the bottom line.
They don’t have to be Democrats, of course. If the Greens or some socialist party or FSM-loving group can position itself to gain power at Republican expense, awesome. But right now, the Democratic Party is the best vehicle for combating the Trump coalition in DC. That’s why Bernie Sanders, lifelong independent socialist, ran for that party’s presidential nomination. The party is just a vehicle. The Democratic vehicle can be effective, but it needs much better drivers. Long-term? The future is unwritten.
Short-term, however, we’re stuck with the Dems, and any party establishment that can unite behind a fatally flawed candidate like Hillary Clinton, simply put, needs to go, from DC to the state and local level. Clinton’s campaign in 2008, when she started as an overwhelming favorite and wound up losing the nomination to some black dude with a funny name, should have warned away any sentient politico. HRC has a lot of skills, but she doesn’t inspire people. Nobody outside, maybe, Lower Manhattan wants to be in her tribe. Even the one enthusiastic base she did have in 2008, older feminists, largely disappeared in 2016.
Clinton was uniquely poorly suited to competing with the sort of tribal politics Trump represents. Obama, in 2008, inspired people. In 2016, Sanders inspired people. Politics has changed, media has changed, and how we get our information has changed since the Clintons left Arkansas for the big city in 1992. Business as usual will no longer cut it, dry policy recommendations will no longer cut it, and at every level Democrats who don’t understand this emotional imperative need to move or be moved out of the way. Evolve or die.
This is already happening. At the grass roots, across the country, people energized by the Sanders campaign are starting to run for office themselves. New leaders like Pramila Jayapal – who rose to prominence by telling the stories of demonized “Others” and by being fierce advocates for them – will be far more effective in resisting Trump than the sorts of sclerotic party hacks who may do great work behind the scenes, but are no longer appropriate to lead the party even if it’s “their turn.”
One of the great benefits of getting involved in local politics is that at the state and especially county and city level, some of the battles are winnable – and given the massive changes coming down the political food chain from DC in everything from health care to education to housing to labor and environmental protection, there will be massive battles over how to prioritize resources among multiple pressing needs; how to raise more resources; and how to create the kinds of community institutions that can help when the programs we’ve come to take for granted fall victim to hatred, ignorance, or short-sighted greed. At the end of the day, community is our best security. We take care of each other. Tribes built on love, and mutual help, are more powerful and lasting than the ones built on hatred and fear.
Love doesn’t always win. Our opponents, generally speaking, could not care less about moral witness. They understand and respect power, and little else. But power comes in many forms, and a movement that is both humane and sympathetic, and at the same time unapologetically fierce and willing to take risks – that’s a very powerful movement.
Love’s failures notwithstanding, politicians sell hope for a reason. People want love to win. They want a better future for the people they care about. If we model that, and tell our stories, and elect as our decision-making representatives people who understand the need to fight fiercely for what we all need, our odds get a lot better. We won’t win every battle, but we won’t lose them all, either, and over time we’ll win more, and then more. And even dictatorships crumble when it becomes clear that they’ve lost legitimacy. Speaking truth to power isn’t just about feeling good about our own moral clarity.
Tell your stories, and get organized.