Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency poses grave threats both domestically and abroad. Trump is a racist, misogynist, xenophobic nationalistic megalomaniac whose only known commitments, in the words of a friend, are “greed and vengeance.”
We have already seen Trump and the Republican Party advance terrifying policies and proposals that aim to dismantle the progressive reforms we have won over the last century. They must be resisted.
At the same time, the consolidation and legalization of extrajudicial power poses an even deeper danger. In the last week, we have seen members of the armed state refuse to comply with direct and legally binding orders from the judicial branch despite public outcry from members of the legislative branch. Trump has repeatedly attempted to malign and undermine the legitimacy of the judicial branch as they attempt to halt his unlawful and unconstitutional executive orders. And leaders in the Republican Party have used arcane bureaucratic maneuvers to silence opposition from members of the minority party. We are witnessing nothing less than a threat on the integrity of the liberal democratic state itself.
While we must remain levelheaded and avoid exaggeration, we should also prepare for all contingencies. Whether it comes to resisting Trump’s disastrous policy proposals or guarding against a rising authoritarian regime, we must organize at a scale that is unprecedented in American history. This will require threading some tricky needles and holding a host of contradictions. Here are some thoughts about how to navigate the difficulties that lie ahead—principles for organizing in the age of Trump.
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1. The Resistance should be peaceful.
Donald Trump’s victory has stirred up strong emotions not only among a newly emboldened Right, but also among certain segments of the ultra-Left. Non-strategic segments of the ultra-Left have already participated in acts of property destruction. Acts of violence against people are not inconceivable.
In this moment, nonviolence is a matter of strategy, not of tactics. I am not a pacifist, but I believe that every act of violence or property destruction right now strengthens the pretext for an authoritarian crackdown, which will be most harshly felt by those who Trump has already attacked, especially: immigrants, Muslims and Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the disabled and women.
In the post-truth era—the era of “alternative facts”—that’s not enough. Appearances constitute reality—a terrifying fact when one considers the skill with which the Trump Administration and the rightwing media are currently manipulating those appearances. As such, we should aim to avoid even the appearance of violence, property destruction, or civil unrest, all of which play into Trump’s hands. This means that more militant direct actions will not always be the most strategic. Indeed, the meaning an action could potentially convey to the broader public is vital to determining its overall strategic efficacy. As such, we must rethink exactly what it might mean to lead a mass action, mass civil disobedience, a general strike, and so on.
We must work to resist destructive, violent, and potentially authoritarian policies, while simultaneously avoiding—to the extent possible—the perception that we are precipitating unrest. Great creativity, flexibility, and innovation will be required to plan actions that can meet these conditions.
We are already seeing The Resistance step up with grace to meet these constraints. The Women’s March, with it’s iconic pink pusshats, was one of the largest mass protests in American history, demonstrating collective power without appearing threatening. And last week, leaders with Greenpeace USA hung a flag proclaiming “RESIST” from a crane behind the White House that captured the imagination of all who saw it.
2. The Resistance should use Trump’s over-reactions to delegitimize him with the public.
Since the election, Trump and the rightwing media have attempted to portray all who oppose them as undemocratic and lawless. On Inauguration Day, the White House launched a new website that, among other things, proclaims, “Our job [as Americans] is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” We must effectively invert the perception that Trump stands for “law and order” while the Left stands for chaos and lawlessness. In short, Trump must be exposed as the extremist he is.
In organizing, we say that the action is in the reaction. In some ways, given Trump’s volatility, we could not ask for a better target. At the same time, we must be on guard against overreactions that pose a grave threat to the most vulnerable in our communities and to our world.
Our aim should be to identify and take actions that create a wedge between Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric and the reality of his rule, which is likely to use violence against vulnerable communities and anyone who participates in The Resistance. Just as the civil rights movement strategically used figures like Bull Connor we must strategically use Donald Trump as a foil to polarize the public and move people towards our side. The ultimate aim should be to delegitimize Trump’s authority and his promise to restore “law and order.”
3. The Resistance represents the best of America. We should reclaim fundamental American ideals: democracy, equality, liberty, and inalienable rights—and realize their radical potential.
Trump won in part by telling an extremely compelling story about America. Yet, for too long the Left has run from America, rather than reclaiming it. We will not win by advancing ideals that are inherently foreign to the American people. Instead, we must pick up on the good sense that is already widespread, and slowly reshape the ideals that are already part of the popular imagination.
This means telling a new story about America and what it means to be an American, it part by returning to the ideals that are contained in our founding documents. For instance, the Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal,” a proposition that at once reveals both the promise and contradiction of our nation. In addition to equality, other important American ideals include: democracy, freedom, and the notion of inalienable rights.
American history is both the history of the betrayal of the very ideals on which this country was founded and the history of the movements and people who have sought to realize the radical egalitarian potential of those ideals. Instead of abandoning these ideals—and the concept of patriotism itself—to the Right, the Left should wage a battle for their meaning. To abandon them would be to abdicate an important field of ideological struggle.
4. The Resistance should work to protect the free press.
Since Trump has taken office, we have already seen an unprecedented attack on the free press. This goes beyond blatant lies to an effort to manipulate the press itself and to make it an organ of state propaganda. In addition to packing the White House press briefing room with conservative news outlets, Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Counselor Kellyanne Conway have repeatedly attempted to dictate what is the media’s “job” to say and write.
But the lead propagandist is without a doubt chief White House strategist Steven Bannon. On January 26, Bannon designated the press “the opposition party” and said the media should “keep it’s mouth shut.” He also attempt to bully the press into firing reporters who were unfriendly to the Administration by saying, “The mainstream media has not fired or terminated anyone associated with following our campaign [for being biased].”
Such comments pave the way for a full-scale assault on the First Amendment. Indeed, the fact that six reporters have been slapped with felony charges for covering inauguration protest shows that we are heading in that direction.
Responsible journalists, public intellectuals, and other influencers of public opinion provide an important bulwark against authoritarian rule. The Resistance must work to protect the free press and the function of truth-tellers in society at large.
At the same time, we must encourage the corporate media to do a better job of exposing Trump’s lies and the way in which they serve his underlying political agenda. The press, including the corporate media, must embrace its moral responsibility to tell the truth rather than simply generate revenue with attention catching headlines and sensational stories. Additionally, in a post-facts world, it is important that the media move away from an over-reliance on data to more fully embrace forms of storytelling that communicate interpret the significance of facts and communicate them in an emotionally resonant way. Simply giving the facts without interpretation may appear objective, but it is simply insufficient. The American press must decide which side it stands on. There are only two options. The press can stand with Administration or it can stand with a rising authoritarian regime. Those are the options.
5. The Resistance should, as possible, actively recruit Trump supporters to our side, while simultaneously protecting those Trump will attack.
We cannot ultimately win bold change without the consent of a broad cross-section of the American people, including some of Trump’s supporters. Indeed, there is reason to believe that a significant number of Trump supporters share our values when it comes to things like: the hijacking of American life by Wall Street and big corporations; the corrosive influence of money in politics; and the moral bankruptcy of the Washington elite, among other things.
As such, our goal must be two-fold.
We should aim to win over as large a cross-section of the American people as possible to a bold, change-based ideology and establish a strong majority to stand against authoritarianism and for liberal democratic principles.
This task is complicated by the identification that exists between Trump and some of his supporters. When Trump speaks to his supporters, he makes them feel seen and heard. Trump is indeed their “voice” in the sense that he is listening to and expressing their very real economic pain and suffering. As such, we should find ways to challenge Trump’s racism, sexist, and xenophobia without simultaneously calling everyone who voted for him a racist, sexist, and xenophobe.
At the same time, we must also prevent new norms around racism, sexism, and xenophobia from taking hold. Immigrants, refugees, and Muslims are already under attack. Others will follow. We must stand protect and care for one another as Trump attacks us.
This is an organizing project. We must do a better job of meeting people where they are at—feeling scared, forgotten, and downwardly mobile—and redirecting their anger away from each other and toward the ruling class.
Revealing the contradiction between what Trump has said and what he does, ideally in a way that people can feel as well as see, will be key to weakening his standing among his supporters.
In particular, we should start with and focus on Trump’s false economic populism. For instance, while Trump promised to “drain the swamp” in Washington, he is already trying to fill his cabinet with the same Wall Street banksters, billionaires, and Big Oil CEOs who have been running the show for years. We should bring attention to such contradictions, as many within The Resistance are already doing.
Importantly, exposing Trump’s fake economic populism need not be at odds with centering race. Racism is the single most important tool that enables Trump and the ruling class to divide the working class. We must confront racism head on and we must do so strategically. That means starting from shared values and working to challenge the assumptions, attitudes and biases that prevent broad, working class solidarity.
6. The Resistance should force political realignment of the major parties.
As neoliberalism collapses, establishment political parties throughout the western world are struggling to retain power. The same is true here. The success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump is symptomatic of a deeper shift in American politics, and suggests the potential realignment of both major political parties.
In the near-term, populism is the driving force behind this realignment. As people like John Judis and Jonathan Matthew Smucker have noted, leftwing populism pits the “people” against a “ruling class,” whereas rightwing populism pits the “people” against a “ruling class” that is portrayed as aligned with or catering to an “Other” (Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and so on). I would only add to their distinction that these populist currents do not always neatly line up with traditional categories of “Left” and “Right.” Some parts of organized labor (and even Bernie Sanders), for example, make use of a rightwing populist frame that implicitly or explicitly pits American workers against workers in China. In the more extreme cases, we’re already seeing parts of organized labor lining up behind Trump’s agenda.
While Donald Trump’s election represents the ascendency of rightwing populism, it remains unclear which populist uprising will win out and how populist forces will reshape the ideology and governing coalitions of both major parties.
Unless we can rapidly win reforms to our electoral system that make third parties a viable force in our political system—reforms that seem highly unlikely to succeed—the path forward requires us to take over the Democratic Party wholesale and rebuild an expanded Democratic coalition around a leftwing populist agenda. I do not see a viable path forward for third parties, unless the disintegration of the party structures becomes even more pronounced. For this reason, we should avoid casting blame on all members of the party elite, some of whose knowledge could be politically valuable.
At the same time, we must forcefully demand that the Democratic Party become a vehicle of The Resistance, that puts forward a strong anti-establishment, anti-ruling class message and a new vision of what America (and the world) could be. Any and all leaders within the Democratic elite who collaborate with the new regime or who refuse to adopt our agenda should be removed.
7. The Resistance must fracture Trump’s right-populist-corporate coalition.
There are clear signs of potential fracture in the Trump-Republican coalition. Indeed, its unity is weak. This is true even within Trump’s inner circle where there is a fault line between people like Rince Priebus, who represents the Republican establishment, and Steven Bannon, who represents the populist Right, despite having worked for Goldman Sachs. While Trump has done an incredible job bringing together various factions of the ruling class in his cabinet nominations, there are still deep fault lines that can be used to our advantage.
That said, we should not underestimate the potential of corporate authoritarianism, which would fuse authoritarian rule with corporate power. Something along these lines certainly wouldn’t be without precedent. Milton Freedman, a chief architect of neoliberalism, worked closely with Chile’s military dictator Augusto Pinochet to make Chile into a “free-market” laboratory. Given Trump’s significant popular following, such a program might, at least at the beginning, enjoy broad popular support. We are already seeing unlikely titans of capital, such as Elon Musk, line up behind Trump.
Corporate conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (and his corporate backers) continue to downplay Trump’s threats, e.g. to immigrants, while seeing the opportunity to push a corporate agenda on things like tax reform, the privatization of Medicare and Social Security, right-to-work, and so on.
To prevent the rise of corporate authoritarianism, we should not rule out odd bedfellows in coming years. It may be necessary to work with moderate or even corporate Republicans. While this could involve moral appeals, such as demands that Ryan and others oppose Trump’s horrifying immigration proposals, we should also consider how to exploit material divisions between different factions within the Trump coalition. For instance, there are significant opportunities right now to form alliances with large healthcare providers, who stand to lose from the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or with certain segments of the tech sector, whose tend to embrace cosmopolitanism and whose outlook is global in scope. Undoubtedly, it will be challenging to make such alliances without undermining our own vision.
8. We should build relationships with people within the police and war state.
Depending on how grave the situation becomes, allies within the armed state may play a vital in preventing domestic authoritarian violence or even global war. This may be disturbing to those who have participated in the anti-war movement, but it is the reality we face today. We have already seen government servants and elected officials participate in high-risk acts of resistance. It is likely that members of the armed state (including both the police, the intelligence community, and the armed services) recognize the security threats Trump poses to the post-World War II global order.
We should not wait to begin forming necessary relationships in such sectors. While police unions supported Trump and he had support from significant segments of the armed forces, we will lose in the worst-case scenarios if we fail to organize support within the armed state. The chain of command and basic financial incentives provide strong reasons for obedience, even in the case of clearly immoral action. Counteracting such incentives among top leadership will require dedicated resources and should not be taken for granted. Yet the signs of resistance we’ve seen within other government agencies would suggest that such alliances can be forged. Indeed, some local members of the armed state have already signaled their willingness to break with the Trump administration.
9. The Resistance must consolidate a multiracial popular front around an anti-establishment ideology.
There is widespread agreement on the need for building the most vibrant, dynamic, and powerful multiracial social movement in American history. Doing this will require the Left to collaborate on an unprecedented scale. While organizational boundaries have loosened since the election, we must further towards dissolving barriers to collaboration.
Simply put, it is unclear whether the entire organized Left currently has the capacity to absorb all those who want to join The Resistance right now. And yet, we know that social activism is most effective when individuals join together as part of larger organizations. Right now, every organization stands to grow and there are more than enough people who want to be involved. As such, existing organizations would do well to drop turf wars and encourage individuals to join or start organizations in their local communities whether or not those organizations are “theirs.” In the face of corporate authoritarianism, what is important is that The Resistance grows our base of members as a whole.
Ultimately, The Resistance must create a multiracial popular front capable of shifting the trajectory of world history. Here are some further thoughts on what that would require.
First, the popular front must include substantial portions of the “middle classes,” broadly construed to include many top income brackets, but with a particular focus on those people who feel themselves slipping out of the middle class.
Second, while we must take over the Democratic Party, the possibility of corporate authoritarianism is too great for us to exclude liberals from our coalition. Indeed, we must work with liberals to form a popular front against Trump’s agenda and the new rightwing populist-corporate coalition. This must be done without negating the need to take over and fundamentally transform the nature of the Democratic Party.
Third, I think the popular front must align with some segments of the elite who retain necessary institutional power, institutional knowledge, and resources for resistance. Simply put, we are unlikely to win unless we have some of them on our side. There are members of the ruling class who share our values, despite the fact that those values are in significant tension with their class position. To the extent possible, they must be organized to support The Resistance. Given their power, the need to include elements of the elite in our popular front becomes more important the further we move towards an corporate authoritarianism.
10. We must create a global movement and—and at a minimum—we must expand and empower the existing system of international law, regulation, and governance.
Rightwing populism is on the rise across the western world and regimes are moving towards authoritarianism in other countries as well. America’s centrality to the global system, and Trump’s “America First” protectionism-nationalism is already unraveling the post-World War II global order and heightens the risk of global war.
At the same time, the power of the nation-state has weakened relative to multinational corporate power, which poses a threat in the scenario of a long-term corporate-authoritarian alliance.
We should work with allies around the world to strengthen and take control of international institutions such as the United Nations that, at minimum, serve as a (weak) bulwark against national conflict and strengthen them to create an expanded and empowered system of legal checks and balances that ideally constrain both nation-states and features of the global corporate infrastructure that have created widespread economic crisis, instability, and suffering. Establishing a stronger position would entail the takeover of institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
To achieve these ends, we must find ways of building a global movement infrastructure. We have natural allies around the world: from leftwing parties in Europe and Latin America to growing labor movements in India, China, and Asia, just to name a few. We must find ways to organize with our comrades around the world against the global ruling class.
11. We must present a political-economic alternative to neoliberalism and rightwing populism-corporate authoritarianism.
The neoliberal regime is disintegrating, but unless a viable alternative can be put in place, rightwing populism and corporate authoritarianism may well determine what the next regime of accumulation will look like. It is difficult to know what alternative regimes may be viable and, of course, the ultimate outcome rests on a balance of forces that do not fully control.
But we know that ideas matter. Part of the failure of the Left has been to imagine, much less implement in the real-world, alternatives to the existing political-economic system. We must enlist the best thinkers in political economy and theory and enable them to devote themselves to working on advancing radical ideas about what characteristics a viable alternative regime might have; certainly many already are thinking about these question. And we should organize to build the alignment of forces necessary for realizing our vision.
Our goal for the next decade, it seems to me, must be to reduce the power of capital and the role of markets; strengthen and democratize governments; and form a global system of governance and deep redistribution that is committed to addressing the global climate crisis. The challenge is to strike a balance between political-economic viability and the need for fundamental system change.
Realistically, very little of this can be achieved under a Trump administration. Our aim must be to lay the ideological groundwork that makes a new world order politically possible and align the forces that can make that order a reality.
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The threats we face are many. In the coming years, it is likely that we will face crises of an unprecedented scale and gravity. But from crisis also springs opportunity. As the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci famously wrote:
The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
We are witnessing the emergence of a host of morbid symptoms. Our task is to birth the new.
Note: An earlier version of this article appeared at Medium.com. Photo Credit: Ted Eytan, Wikimedia Commons.