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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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Commons Confidential: Dave's picnic with Dacre

Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

Sulking David Cameron can’t forgive the Daily Mail editor, Paul Dacre, for his role in his downfall. The unrelenting hostility of the self-appointed voice of Middle England to the Remain cause felt pivotal to the defeat. So, what a glorious coincidence it was that they found themselves picnicking a couple of motors apart before England beat Scotland at Twickenham. My snout recalled Cameron studiously peering in the opposite direction. On Dacre’s face was the smile of an assassin. Revenge is a dish best served cold from a wicker hamper.

The good news is that since Jeremy Corbyn let Theresa May off the Budget hook at Prime Minister’s Questions, most of his MPs no longer hate him. The bad news is that many now openly express their pity. It is whispered that Corbyn’s office made it clear that he didn’t wish to sit next to Tony Blair at the unveiling of the Iraq and Afghanistan war memorial in London. His desire for distance was probably reciprocated, as Comrade Corbyn wanted Brigadier Blair to be charged with war crimes. Fighting old battles is easier than beating the Tories.

Brexit is a ticket to travel. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is lifting its three-trip cap on funded journeys to Europe for MPs. The idea of paying for as many cross-Channel visits as a politician can enjoy reminds me of Denis MacShane. Under the old limits, he ended up in the clink for fiddling accounts to fund his Continental missionary work. If the new rule was applied retrospectively, perhaps the former Labour minister should be entitled to get his seat back and compensation?

The word in Ukip is that Paul Nuttall, OBE VC KG – the ridiculed former Premier League professional footballer and England 1966 World Cup winner – has cold feet after his Stoke mauling about standing in a by-election in Leigh (assuming that Andy Burnham is elected mayor of Greater Manchester in May). The electorate already knows his Walter Mitty act too well.

A senior Labour MP, who demanded anonymity, revealed that she had received a letter after Leicester’s Keith Vaz paid men to entertain him. Vaz had posed as Jim the washing machine man. Why, asked the complainant, wasn’t this second job listed in the register of members’ interests? She’s avoiding writing a reply.

Years ago, this column unearthed and ridiculed the early journalism of George Osborne, who must be the least qualified newspaper editor in history. The cabinet lackey Ben “Selwyn” Gummer’s feeble intervention in the Osborne debate has put him on our radar. We are now watching him and will be reporting back. My snouts are already unearthing interesting information.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution