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The anti-Trump toolkit: the new books on how to resist authoritarian rule

What We Do Now and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.

After the shock of Donald Trump’s victory, the question for liberals is: what now? Two new books are offering answers.

The US president’s first weeks in power have been marked by resistance both on the streets and in the courts. The Women’s March on Washington, DC was one of the largest demonstrations in American history and was followed by protests against the “Muslim ban” executive order. The ban was challenged in more than 50 lawsuits.

The problem with using the law to constrain those in power is that those in power are able to define the law. Understanding how far Trump intends to reshape the state is crucial in deciding how to oppose him. The positive outlook is to see him as just a bad president: ignorant and hateful, but part of the system and therefore susceptible to being constrained by it. The pessimist’s take is that Trump is a strongman leader who will bend or break democratic institutions to serve his ends.

The latter view is extreme, apocalyptic and – based on the evidence so far – correct. But not all thinkers on the US left have grasped the point. That, at any rate, is the lesson of What We Do Now, a collection of essays published in response to the election result.

In his introduction, its co-editor Dennis Johnson argues that Trump is a catastrophe beyond all norms. “It has happened here,” he writes, riffing on the title of Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, in which a populist demagogue ascends to the White House. But some contributions in the book seem oblivious to the disaster.

That is because, in certain cases, they were written before anything had happened. The opening essay, by Bernie Sanders, is an extract from his 2016 book. It is a rallying cry for “real financial reform” and suggests: “It is our job to make sure the next president and Congress turn that platform statement into a reality.”

Although that “next president” goes unnamed, the context suggests that Sanders was either confident that it would be Hillary Clinton, or under a deep misapprehension about Trump. Either way, his programme is of little use when what is now at stake is not a choice of policies but the existence of a political system.

Other contributions to What We Do Now have the urgency and emptiness of the recently traumatised. There are many commands to organise, connect and strategise, yet little detail about what this would require in practice. One essay suggests taking time to deal with your grief: wise advice in November but edging towards self-indulgence today.

Unsurprisingly, some of the most pragmatic responses come from those with roots in resistance movements. Cornell William Brooks, the president and chief executive of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, focuses on the legal battle to re-enfranchise
black voters. The feminist campaigner Gloria Steinem urges consumer boycotts, co-operation with centrist Republicans and an income-tax protest, with the withheld sum donated to Planned Parenthood.

Knowledge of the past can offer great protection against immobilising horror. This explains why a historian of the Holocaust has offered the most coherent manifesto on confronting Trump. Timothy Snyder’s brief and powerful On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century starts by denying two comforts: the temptation to luxuriate in disbelief and the seduction of acceptance. It can happen here because it has already happened in places very like here – and you are responsible for how you respond.

Snyder writes: “Societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.” That moral framing is important, because while What We Do Now focuses on how to avoid becoming a victim of Trump, On Tyranny also addresses the less flattering but equally urgent matter of how to avoid becoming a collaborator.

Snyder offers 20 practical suggestions for resistance. Some are attractively doable, such as “take responsibility for the face of the world”. Others are intimidating but essential: for instance, “be reflective if you must be armed” (“be ready to say no” if asked to do “irregular things”).

The recommendations are often unglamorous, requiring rags and cleaning products as well as banners and speeches. Snyder has slogans but they are calls for specific actions rather than assertions of outrage. This is what it takes to preserve a country – and yourself – from a ruler such as Donald Trump: constant, personally costly application to the hard way. 

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit

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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.