The Civic Upswell

Eric Liu has a piece in The Atlantic that looks at the civic upswell that’s happened in response to Trump. It’s overall encouraging, celebrating that “people are exercising both power and character.” It’s optimistic in a dark time.

This line is something I might be skeptical of:

“The surge will likely outlast his presidency. Americans today are rushing to make up for decades of atrophy and neglect in civic education and engagement.”

Let’s say something – Russia, lying about what he knew, corruption, emoluments, being certifiably crazy – forces Trump from office, either with impeachment or resignation or removal under the 25th Amendment, Section 4. In that case, Mike Pence would become president. Pence is just as extreme a conservative as Trump, if not more. However Pence speaks the language of civil governance. He doesn’t tweet crazy things. He sounds like any other politician.

My fear is that even if Trump is removed from office (which I want to see happen!), the removal of the tangibly insane thread from conservative governance would quell the popular civic outpouring that is currently taking place.

Pence would feel normal, even if he still pursuit draconian immigration/deportation policies, gutted social programs and took a bellicose posture towards Iran, China or Russia. The normality, the leveling-down of extreme policies by the press because of being more normal than Trump, would be a cold splash of water on the current civic upswell.

It would be up to us as organizers to keep it going, but it would be far less self-sustaining and require even more coherent, intentional organizing.

The Hard Work of Change

In Jacobin, Alex Gourevitch has an interesting article challenging the resistance movements that are emerging in response to Trump to be sure to include a positive vision for the world we want to see.

I’m seeing frequent references on the Left to the need to do real politics; to build power through slow, hard work; to organize in impacted communities; to not attempt to take shortcuts to achieving mass actions. All of this is correct and worth noting. That’s why the start of Gourevitch’s article is frustrating to me:

Under Obama, Occupy squandered the initial hopefulness and general appeal when it let procedural squabbles sap its energy and undermine its potential for a real political intervention. No wonder there was little public support when the police showed up. The resurgence of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement marked another significant moment for the American left but, despite three years of protest and consciousness-raising, public attitudes towards the police have improved and there are few balancing accomplishments to point to.

These are valid objections to make, yet they miss that many of the things which have grown out of Occupy still exist. Mutual aid projects like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes (especially in Atlanta and Minneapolis), and Strike Debt did just the hard work we see demanded of now – and it paid off with sustained engagement and local presence.

Elements of grassroots political power that formed in the crucible of Occupy were there supporting and accelerating Black Lives Matter. Dream Defenders and the Wildfire Project immediately comes to mind, as does the persistent community-based organizing from Occupy Our Homes in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Local groups from BLM and OWS are out front in organizing the response to Trump, including through the Indivisibles and the Women’s March.

None of this necessarily amounts to sea-change in the political landscape, but it does speak to the ongoing hard work by people committed to create change through organizing in impacted communities. You can’t look at Occupy or Black Lives Matter and say that they failed to build power simply because they didn’t succeed in achieving all of their goals full-stop. It’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation that every movement that emerges in response to a major disruption be immediately capable of delivering lasting transformative change, especially when so few organic popular outbursts, let alone well resourced strategic ones, have reached this level of success in the US. This is and was what the hard work of organizing is about, these movements did it and there’s something to learn from them, and why they didn’t achieve their goals even while doing the sort of organizing that many from the Left want to see today.

I’m starting from a somewhat negative stance on Gourevitch’s piece simply because I feel these are comments worth making, not to disqualify where he goes with his evaluation of what we’ve seen from the Trump resistance so far. He writes:

The point here isn’t to bash the Left; it’s to take a sober look at the opportunities and limits we face. The truth is, this should be our moment. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are a fragile entity, whose control of the state rests less on mass support and more on the undemocratic features of our institutions.

Trump received a minority of the popular vote, the fifty-two Republican senators in Congress represent 44 percent of the population, and the eight-soon-to-be-nine ghouls in Supreme Court robes are even more insulated from actual majorities. Moreover, there are all kinds of internal divisions among Republicans on how to handle everything from health care to immigration. To the degree that Trump and the Republicans look like an unflinching, reactionary juggernaut it is because there is so little organized power to stand in their way.

This is exactly right. Admitting that moments that have felt transformative, but failed to be so, isn’t an attack, it’s the truth. There’s plenty that we should be encouraged by right now. And as I noted above, I still see much from OWS and BLM that indicates a positive direction of travel, if not outright victory.

Gourevitch raises a critical point regarding how the Left has actually tended to sit outside of the political realm, using only direct action tactics to have impact, while avoiding more traditional mechanisms.

[T]he downside of direct action is that it has often served as a tacit admission of the Left’s inability to translate social power into political control. The Left has generally been on the outside looking in and its celebration of direct action put it in static rather than dynamic opposition to the corruption and opportunism of existing parties.

Direct action is critical in terms of forcing people to think about the crises before them and respond beyond business as usual. But the whole point is that it occurs in a place of harm, at a moment when politics have failed. He goes on:

We can field thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, even occasionally hundreds of thousands, and then be safely ignored. We call it resistance, but any exercise of our agency that isn’t total cooperation with the status quo looks like resistance. It contains no internal measure of success or failure, which is why it is compatible with retreat or even resignation. And while it is “mass” politics in the sense of many people, protests do not require anything like the ongoing commitment to principle and organization that something like party politics does.

Our unwillingness to admit our own weakness is the flip side of not having a clear set of principles that can serve as the basis for a mass movement. Instead, we give ourselves the appearance of unity and purpose by resisting evil and by taking our collective “No” out into the streets. We find comfort in knowing that we are not them, that at least we are doing something. Trump is immediate and present, the evils are right in front of us, numerous, and ready-to-hand.

Being for something is the key counterpart to resistance and mass mobilization against Trump (or his corporate backers). The prescription is freedom:

The better principle is freedom. It is the interest everyone has in being free from the myriad forms of domination and oppression that most people face, and it is expressed by being part of a movement that seeks to transform society. Freedom is something everyone wants, but can only be achieved if we demand it and pursue it jointly. It is a principle that naturally bridges all those aspects of left politics that otherwise separate us. We are divided by the varieties of oppression and the proliferation of identities that are born out of that oppression, but we can be united by the desire for freedom.

Less abstractly, freedom is the principle that explains and unifies what we are for. We are more than being against Trump, racism, sexism, inequality, etc. We are also more than a list of demands, like universal health care, cheap and legal abortion, open immigration. We are only for those things to the degree that they are all the same thing: freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.

The positive vision for society, through the lens of freedom, creates a powerful way to connect to those who are in the streets resisting, just as much as it does to those who didn’t feel energized to go out and vote in November, just as much as it does to those who felt attracted to Trump.It has a strong grounding in basic human needs and desires. It’s a strong organizing principle, one that can safely nurture and grow our intersectional values of equality, fairness, safety, and health. It’s a clear lens that can be used to condemn and resist against Trump’s agenda.

What’s more, while it may not sit as an articulated list of demands on many organizational websites, I’d hazard that you can ask most people who are resisting Trump what freedom means to them and you’d find it’s strongly oriented around similar real-world applications on a range of issues.

Gourvetich’s whole piece is worth reading in full. We’ve seen a lot of criticism of mass mobilizations under Trump so far and while he does make some fundamental critiques of where past disruptive movements failed to achieve lasting change, he provides a pathway towards hope in this moment. It’s certainly a start.

The Fast Pace of Trump

It’s terrifying to think that the Trump era has only been going on for two weeks and two days. It feels like it’s been months already. A huge part of this has been due to the breakneck speed that Trump has launched himself into office. Almost every week day has brought a major new executive order or foreign policy action that shakes the country with its severity and radicalism. From a Muslim ban, to reauthorizing Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, to pulling out of TPP, to pulling back environmental regulations, every day we are regularly seeing transformational actions emerging from the Trump White House.

And that’s just the things that are definitively happening – the rumors of what could come next, from a national right-to-work (without job security) push to gutting federal LGBT protections, are pouring out just as fast. Other intended massive initiatives, like the repeal of the Affordable Care Act or building a wall on our border with Mexico, have been announced but only seen limited concrete progress.

The press isn’t prepared for the pace of action. The Democrats aren’t prepared for it. And civil society groups responding to Trump are finding themselves pulled in every direction at once by the pace of Trump’s actions.

Of course what we’re seeing Trump and his team actually do is actually exactly what he said he’d do as a candidate. He is rapidly checking off as many boxes as possible when it comes to keeping his promises from the campaign. We are just historically unprepared for this sort of directness. Obama and Bush both moved primarily through legislative actions in their early days. Their executive orders tended towards less transformational actions.

I see two potential explanations for Trump’s governing behavior, which has largely avoided anything requiring congressional action.

The first and potentially more reassuring explanation is that Trump, Bannon, and the rest of his political team are going with a realpolitik  political strategy. They want to be able to say to their base and to the country on whole: We were elected. We kept all of our promises. And when these executive orders and actions inevitably get rolled back or reduced by either legal proceedings or congressional action, they’ll be able to point a finger and say, “See, it was the corrupt judges. It was the crooked establishment. It was just like I said when I was a candidate. I kept my word and they are to blame for where we stand now.”

This explanation makes sense if the Trump team is comfortable spending a lot of time litigating their actions. They maybe don’t care about their policies being fully realized, as much as being able to tell a story that helps them win re-election. It is a cynical, yet arguably sharp, political plan.

The second explanation for the Trump executive action blitz is significantly more scary. Instead of being based on a political-electoral analysis, Trump and co. are actually governing in the manner that they see the presidency functioning. They want to act quickly because they think they are the sole decider of American policies and laws. They act without consulting Congress or even cabinet officials and staff at agencies like DOJ, DHS, DOD or State. They don’t think they need bureaucrats and experts to craft legal orders. They don’t need to consult people with deeper knowledge than that possessed by a TV entrepreneur, an editor of Breitbart, and an small-time publisher. They are in charge and they aren’t interested in waiting for others to weigh in.

The scary part of this is that it speaks towards an authoritarian orientation towards governance, one that is incurious and insulated. We saw inklings of what may happen when border patrol officers refused to honor judges’ decisions to suspend the Muslim ban last week. We saw it again this weekend as Trump took to twitter to blast a “so-called judge” who happened to issue a ruling against him. When this administration and their staff refuse to follow the orders of a co-equal branch of government, we enter a real constitutional crisis.

The actions of Trump, Bannon, Miller and others are truly terrifying. They have not displayed any competence in a traditional sense. However their pace of action and its extreme nature not only make up for the general incompetence of implementation, but ensure that many of the bad things they are trying to rush through will become realities in the end.

Either Trump is politically astute and positioning himself for four years of war against the establishment or he’s a genuine authoritarian who will govern through constitutional crisis. In either regard, he is and will continue to implement terribly destructive policies that cause real human suffering.

I’m not sure if Trump’s strategy is particularly relevant to how Democrats or the Left respond to him right now, at least not on a case-by-case basis. But as we get greater clarity on the direction of travel he’s moving down, the more relevant it becomes. A politically expedient desire to keep campaign promises quickly then spend four years pointing fingers at the establishment stopping them from being fully realized would suggest we just have to weather the storm now.  In contrast, a strong turn towards authoritarian, ignorant rule from the White House would suggest a real risk for the 2020 election being something Trump would accept if he lost. And that should be enough to make one’s blood run cold.

Supporting resistance

resist

I’ve been an activist for half my life at this point. When I was in high school and college, going to marches and protests really fired me up. It was the realization of grassroots, campus-based organizing I was doing. It felt awesome and empowering. But once I because a full-time activist and organizer, I got over it. It got old. I don’t get excited about protests. I don’t go to them unless I really have to, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get enough from my day to day organizing work to feel like I’m making a contribution without having to be physically present at a protest or rally.

But marches and protests aren’t actually for me, not the me of today. They’re for the high school and college me, the one who may only have one afternoon a week or one day a month to be able to make a full political statement with my body, my time, my voice. I get it if you are cynical about mass mobilizations. I get it if you don’t see the value of marches from your perspective as a professional activist or organizer, as this is often a hub of cynicism when it comes to physical action. But they’re not for you, they’re for the people who don’t have jobs dedicated to change-making in a full time way (which is to say, they’re for almost everyone else in the country).

Last weekend’s women’s marches were big and bold and inspiring. People came out because they care about what is happening in America and want to resist against it. It was a loud statement of our values and such a needed one. These marches are helping people struggle through dark times. They are creating a vibrant, visual resistance to Trump. They are bringing millions of people into political engagement. They are 100% exactly what we need right now, because they will make so much of what comes next possible.

Senate Democrats aren’t going to save us. House Democrats aren’t going to save us. MSNBC isn’t going to save us. None of our tweets are going to save us. We are going to save us and the people showing up at these marches and protests are the “we” I’m talking about.

Let’s find was to build, inspire, grow these marches. For professionals like me, let’s lend our professional talents and tools to empower and enable the people in the streets. Let’s do that even more as people move from attending marches and protests towards building new organizations, local organizations dedicated to resisting against Trump and defending our values.

Charles Pierce on Sanders, Clinton & Trump

Charles Pierce is on point here about the why and the how Sanders has made the primary race with Clinton a close fight:

The simple fact is that, if HRC has lost her lead at the moment, she has lost it to a superior campaign.

And it’s not as simple as the “populist anger” narrative would have you believe. Sanders has been running a 50-state campaign since before he formally declared his candidacy. He went to South Carolina. He went to Mississippi. He drew large and approving crowds in both places. He has stayed doggedly on message, directly refusing to help the elite political class in its pursuit of shiny objects. He repeatedly has emphasized that the pursuit of his policy goals, which all have to do with breaking the power of impending oligarchy and its threat to self-government, cannot be limited simply to electing him. And that’s where the easy narrative falls apart.

Pierce goes on to explain how Sanders’ populism is distinct from Trump, a meaningful difference in a media environment seeking easy answers for what the Beltway press finds to be two inexplicable campaigns:

Sanders punches up at the elites that, frankly, have more power in our politics than he does, or than you do, or than any politician does. He tells his audiences that he can’t do it alone, that the money power has grown too great for any one person to combat. He needs them more than they need him. He is not Napoleon, he is a democratic politician. And that makes all the difference and that’s why the “populist anger” narrative is a shuck. Anyone who says they could vote for either Bernie Sanders or He, Trump has been living for the last nine months with their head in a laundry bag.

The respective appeals of the two men are similar only on the simplest and least consequential levels. On the most profound levels, the two campaigns couldn’t be more different. Bernie Sanders is where he is because the positions and the policies he has been championing all his career have come back somewhat into favor ever since some grifters broke the world economy and then made off with the rubble. That is why he’s different from Donald Trump and that is why Hillary Rodham Clinton is noticing that things in the rear-view window are closer than they appear.