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

What We Do Now and On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder.

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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