Donald Trump’s election has precipitated an extraordinary crisis of identity among progressives in America. Can, or should, the left acknowledge his programme as legitimate? This is the programme of a man who ran the most bigoted and demagogic political campaign in US presidential history, who won the presidency not through securing more votes than his opponent but because of the quirks of the electoral college system, and whose early appointees suggest that he will govern according to an alt-right, white nationalist philosophy.
Reject his legitimacy, and those progressives are, inexorably, embracing a logic of revolt. Accept the legitimacy of this loutish hate-monger and the motley crew of sadists, sociopaths, Islamophobes, racists, sexists, and homophobes who support him, and we have to swallow not just our pride but our political and moral dignity.
This has always and everywhere been the challenge that confronts progressives when old orders disintegrate and are replaced by strongman, caudillo politics.
Most of us on the left have, these last few months, been in a state of shellshock. We knew the potential for such an electoral, and historical, calamity was on the cards. We knew that a derelict Democratic Party, which had failed to address the concerns of the working poor during an age of globalisation, was vulnerable to right-wing populism. We knew, too, that an utterly craven GOP elite had, in the main, chosen to ride the tiger unleashed by their destructive dogwhistle politics rather than confront the racist beast supported by much of the party’s base.
In that sense, Trump’s hostile takeover of the most powerful political apparatus on earth was anything but a surprise.
Yet, the visceral impact remains enormous. Seeing a country that, for more than 50 years, has moved toward a more multiracial, multireligious, multicultural vision of itself turn back toward naked tribal politics, marked by violence and corralled by a master of dishonesty produces a truly vertiginous sensation.
It is an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole, nothing-is-as-it-should-be realisation. One day we were in the second decade of the twenty-first century – the next we had one foot in the 1870s, in an age of venomous white redemption politics, and the other foot in an isolationist, parochial, 1920s.
Reading the headlines produces a sensation of physical disarray, dizziness, nausea. But, now, as the dust settles, we look at the wreckage, and we must start planning resistance.
We can assume that over the coming months federal politics will take a sharp turn away from the idea, however nebulous, that government agencies are there to equally represent and protect all Americans, regardless of colour or creed. We can expect that the very definition of “American” will become more synonymous, once again, with whiteness.
Demagogue-Trump has promised the biggest round-up and deportation of undocumented immigrants – many of whom have lived almost their entire lives in the US – in history. He has talked about banning all Muslims from visiting or migrating to the country, and of registering all Muslims already living here. He is likely to appoint the Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, who has a history of racist comments, to his cabinet. He has already announced that he will withdraw the country from the Paris climate accords and put a wrecking ball to Barack Obama’s domestic climate change and clean air initiatives. His vice president, Mike Pence, is one of the characters in American politics most opposed to gay rights. And some of his advisers, including Newt Gingrich, have expressed interest in resurrecting a version of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee, used to brutal effect in the late 1940s and 1950s to eliminate “subversive” voices from positions of influence in academia, diplomacy, politics, and in the culture industries.
Can this vile programme be opposed legislatively? To a point. Certainly the minority Democrats in the Senate will have some ability to filibuster and otherwise slow down parts of the Trumpian programme. But, federally, the GOP – Trump’s GOP – is in an extraordinarily strong position now, controlling both houses of Congress, the presidency, and, now, the Supreme Court.
Realistically, much of the resistance will have to come from the big cities – many of which are now “sanctuary cities”, meaning they already do not cooperate with federal agencies in an array of deportation activities – and from large, liberal states such as California and New York, as well as nearby states in the Pacific Northwest and up the Northeastern corridor to Boston. Those states, the embodiment of multi-cultural success stories, have no truck with Trump’s xenophobic, bullying agenda. Nor, on the ground, do their political leaders have much incentive to cooperate with policies that their populations abhor.
But if they refuse cooperation, they will, inevitably, face grave consequences, including the withholding of federal funds. It will take both stamina and courage to stand up to the thuggery of Trumpism over the coming years. And it will take the active, engaged, fully committed, involvement of a grassroots movement larger and more radicalised than any seen in this country since at least the 1960s.
Grassroots groups that, for decades, have been preoccupied with their particular, micro-focused issues and identity themes will now have to put aside their differences and campaign en masse, protest in vast and sustained numbers on the streets, and, if necessary, engage in ongoing civil disobedience, to counter the unleashed assault against the progressive values that we hold dear.
This resistance will have to emanate from universities, from faith communities, from networks of social justice campaigners, from environmentalists, and from anti-police brutality organisers. It will have to be so large, so loud, so uncompromising, that it will render impossible the implementation of Trumpism.
If Trump orders the creation of a registry of Muslims, that grassroots movement will have to organise millions of non-Muslim Americans to immediately register as well, thus rendering it useless. If Trump orders roving deportation squads into the big cities and campuses, men and women of good conscience will have to provide sanctuary spaces, protected by pickets of concerned citizens, for families at risk.
If Trump really does remove all climate change mandates from American industry, consumers who care about the environment will have to launch the biggest, most effective consumer boycotts in history against companies who abandon their cleaner, greener, technological commitments. If Trump’s team starts dismantling federal legal protections for the LGBT community, cities from coast to coast will have a moral imperative to recreate these protections at a local level.
We can’t stop all of the horrors of Trumpism. But we can work tirelessly to stymie as much as possible in as many creative ways as possible. The time for compromise is over. Now is the time for an outpouring of creative, marvelous, non-violent protest.
We will resist, because to be able to hold our heads high for the rest of our lives we have no choice but to resist. As the crusading Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote, of the imperative for resisting Pinochet’s regime in Chile: “We Say No.”
We will say no to Trumpism, again and again and again over the coming years. And we will win. Because our vision is bigger than Trump’s, and because the world that we imagine is fairer, more just, and more humane than the vicious one he seeks to create.