The key is activism, not persuasion

Two kids at the recent women's march in New York (photo by the Author)
Two kids at the recent women’s march in New York (photo by the Author)

I’ve been giving a lot of thought about the rise of Trump, and even though I rarely write about explicitly political matters on this blog, this will be one of the exceptions. I think it is necessary. WARNING: unusually strong language ahead, either deal with it or go somewhere else for the day, we’ll be back to normal programming later in the week.

Let me begin by giving you my unsolicited opinion about Trump personally and what is happening in Washington more broadly.

First, the man himself. I never met him, so my judgment is based on what he says and how he acts. The guy is not a political ideologue, and probably doesn’t believe in the Right anymore than he used to believe in the Left (remember, he was a friend of the Clintons and a frequent participant to Democratic events in New York). He is simply a narcissistic and pampered bully, ignorant to the point of ridiculousness. That may or may not make him more dangerous to America and the world than, say Dick Cheney. I don’t know. It’s an empirical question, and we shall find out during the next four years.

Second, the full Republican takeover of Washington, with control of the Presidency, the Senate, and the House. It is an unqualified disaster. This is not because I disagree with almost every single one of their proposed policies (disagreement is the juice of democracy), but because the current conservative movement has taken to heart the famous quip by Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them, I have others.”

(While we are on the subject of Groucho, this is a good depiction of the Republican attitude to pretty much everything Obama has tried to do during his Presidency. And no, I’m not an Obama fan, by any stretch.)

Please, don’t tell me I’m “biased.” If by that you mean I have reasoned, empirically informed opinions about values and politics that are different from yours, sure, I’m biased. And proud of it.

Also, don’t insult my intelligence by “reminding” me that “the Democrats do it too.” Yes, unsavory behavior, corruption, and incoherence have always characterized politics, of any stripe, and always will. But if you mean to imply that therefore all parties and politicians are equally bad, just go fuck yourself, you’re either an idiot or a demagogue.

Now that we’ve cleared the air from any misunderstanding about where I stand, let’s continue, assuming you are still reading.

I’ve been told that to mobilize against Trump before he had even taken office and done anything was simply the attitude of a sore loser. If that’s what you think, you simply have not been paying attention.

Our objection (I’m speaking for millions of people, at least three more millions than have actually voted for the Orange Comb Over) is that Trump and the current Republican agenda will turn the clock back on this country by decades. Many of the civil liberties and social gains that people have fought so hard to establish will be lost or greatly diminished. This doesn’t just include health care, the apparent first target, but also decent education, environmental policies (concerning global warming, endangered species, clean air, etc.), equality under the law, access to abortion and contraception, and so on and so forth. EVERYTHING.

And it’s not just what Trump and his minions (or are they his puppeteers? It isn’t clear, yet) will be able to do over the next four years. It’s also, perhaps more importantly, about his Supreme Court picks, which have the potential to shape our society for decades to come. And not in a good direction. At all.

I’ve been told many times that I need to understand and empathize with the people who have elected Trump, that I need to keep the dialogue open, otherwise I’ll show myself to be as close minded as the evangelicals who voted for him (though at least I won’t be as hypocritical: seriously, this is a guy who upholds family values and Christian morality? Fuck you too).

Now, my answer to that suggestion is going to be slightly more nuanced than the preceding part of this post. First off, yes, we need to understand how a Trump Presidency was made possible to begin with. There is no learning, and especially no countering, without understanding.

This is not the place for an in-depth analysis — of which there have been many since November — to answer that question. Let’s just say that it involves taking seriously American history (from its genocidal and racist beginnings to the rise of the so-called religious right under Reagan to the 2008 financial meltdown); the sociology of 24h-news channels, which brought us that unqualified instrument of propaganda known as Fox “News” (and, of course, scumbags like Rush Limbaugh); the corporatization of politics; globalization and its nefarious effects on the livelihood of so many people (again, refrain from insulting my intelligence, I know it’s complicated, and I know that some people are slightly better off then they were before, somewhere in the world — but you are kidding yourself if you don’t think that it is all about corporate profits); the increasingly inexplicable failure of the Left to do anything about all of this (not just in the US, but in Europe); and the far more understandable lack of competence and/or guts of the so-called Democratic elite (seriously, the first thing we do after a crashing defeat is to re-elect Nancy Pelosi to “guide” of the House minority?). And much, much more. As I said, it’s complicated. (And a very interesting take on it can be found here.)

Second, yes, all this learning and soul searching has to be accompanied by a degree of sympathy (I don’t think empathy is the right word) for the people who voted for Trump, out of their frustration, disappointment, ignorance and racism. I believe like Plato that people (at the least most people) do evil out of ignorance, not malice. (You may prefer Hanna Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, which is related, as I explain here.) Trump supporters are genuinely convinced that they did the best for America, even though what they did is likely going to fuck America and the rest of the world for a long time. It is not the case that all, or even perhaps most, of Trump voters are ignorant or racist, though it is indubitable that education levels did play a major role. And it is also clear that a good number of them are overtly racists. We have never lived in a “post-racial” America, and in fact Obama’s Presidency was, somewhat ironically, the best demonstration of just how racist America still is. The only difference with Trumpism is that it is now kosher to be racist (and bigoted, and sexist, and just plain ignorant) in public. Indeed, it is encouraged.

Still, I do sympathize with the many people in middle America (and in Britain, and across Europe) who have lost their jobs or are woefully underemployed, who have no health care, who can’t send their kids to a good school, who don’t have a pension (remember those?), and who plainly see no better future ahead, at all.

Then again, as one of my favorite philosophers, George Carlin, famously put it, it’s called the American dream because you have to be asleep to believe it. And we have tens of millions of people in America who are asleep, and many hundreds of million more across the world who are being sold the same dream that benefits the same few people — people like Donal J. Trump, for instance.

So yes, understanding and sympathizing we must. Dialogue? Not so much. This is not because I don’t think dialogue is a good thing for a vibrant democracy. It’s because I don’t think we have a vibrant democracy. You see, dialogue, to be effective, has to build on certain shared assumptions, for instance that we agree on the facts (global warming!) and then reasonably disagree on what to do about them. Dialogue is also based on a minimal commonality of values, as in when we say — and truly believe — that every citizen has the same right as every other one.

The problem is that we increasingly live in an Orwellian society, a strange combination of Big Brother a la 1984 (one caveat, George: BB is not just the government, it’s increasingly also international corporations), and Animal Farm (where some animals — the pigs, of course — are “more equal” than others).

The thing that pundits and well meaning commentators all over just don’t seem to have gotten is that dialogue, in the current political climate in both the US and Europe, simply doesn’t work. (For a micro-example of that, see this recent post, and don’t neglect the comments, where conspiracy theorists have amusingly and ironically come out of the woodworks.)

What then, revolution? Well, that’s what the Right was talking about, quite openly, throughout the Obama Presidency, and even up to a few hours before the election of Trump, in case things didn’t go their way. The problem with revolutions is that they rarely bring about positive change, even when they start out with the best of intentions. Just look up the history of the most famous one, the French Revolution of 1789, followed by the Reign of Terror and by the Napoleon’s empire. (Right, you are thinking of the American one, which — despite a lot of patriotic claptrap — was started because people didn’t want to pay higher taxes. Yes, the outcome was good for us white men. Not so good for Native Americans and Blacks, and it took almost 150 years for it to begin to be okay for women.)

Okay, so revolution is out. So is dialogue, for a bit. Education takes generations, and at any rate the little that is left of public education in the US will soon be destroyed by Trump & co.. Then what?

Organizing, that’s what. Resistance. There is a reason why many of the advances in social rights and civil liberties in the US (and, again, in Europe) have been made during the time when labor unions were strong, or when oppressed minorities were capable of organizing themselves while nurturing ties with political allies in the majority (the MLK-LBJ relationship is the obvious example). And there is a reason why Republicans ever since Reagan have systematically demolished labor unions and made organizing increasingly difficult (to the point that some Republicans are now suggesting that peaceful protests should be illegal).

But of course, two can play that game. In the same way in which the Tea “Party” learned from progressive activism of the early part of the century, so we can learn from the Tea Party (and our forerunners, the people who, by way of their sweat and blood, brought us things like women’s vote, labor laws, social security, medicare, bans on racial and gender discrimination — and the weekend!).

So I invite you to download, read, annotate, and widely share the Practical Guide to Resisting The Trump Agenda, put together by former congressional staffers who have actually seen (indeed, have been the target of) conservative activism over the past several years. I have already joined a local NYC chapter, and I may start my own informal group soon.

Also, I urge you to donate money to organizations that work hard to improve the very things that Trump wants to undermine. There are many organizations and many causes, but, just as an initial suggestion, I donate to the following:

The American Civil Liberties Union, for the work they do on behalf of freedom of speech and other civil rights.

The International Rescue Committee, for the outstanding job they do on refugees issues.

Planned Parenthood, for their work on women’s reproductive health and rights.

While you are at it, support some decent (they don’t have to be perfect!) news outlets, from the New York Times to the Guardian, from your local NPR station to the BBC. We sure are going to need a strong press over the next few years.

This is America, put your money were your mouth is. Skip a cappuccino or a kale salad and vote with your dollars. Get your ass out there, organize, and resist!

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277 thoughts on “The key is activism, not persuasion

  1. I’m not sure what the deal is with people rejecting the value of sources because of alleged bias. There are very few sources that don’t write from some sort of political view because there are normative sources involved, and no one is saying that one should read only those sources. Of course you learn best by reading a variety and making your own judgment. People who complain about political bias are full of themselves because they have their own inclinations of the type of sources that they read, either within or outside of politics.

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  2. “All sides? Not possible! You have to apply some ‘bias’? Like ignoring people with a history of making shit up.”

    And, for purposes of efficiency, skimming those who have become fairly predictable.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Db,

    I hope you realize that a) I can’t share the full article I referred to, for reasons of both space and copyright; and b) that this whole sub-discussion is a somewhat minor thread with respect to the OP. Again, when peer reviewed research is available on a topic, that prima facie takes precedence on blog posts, unless there is reason to think the academic paper is deeply flawed, or other unusual circumstances. Your comments to the effect that peer reviewed articles aren’t perfect is yet another insult to my intelligence, but this has been an unusual discussion, so back to normal programming from the next post!

    Albert,

    As I said before, profanities are usually not allowed on this forum. But since I set the tone in the OP, we are good. If you stick around to comment on future posts, though, it will be, as I just wrote, back to normal programming — and behavior.

    Liked by 1 person

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