Millions of people marched throughout the United States and abroad last Saturday to protest Donald Trump’s first day in office and to affirm women’s rights and human rights. The demonstrations were inspiring—full of energy, witty signs, slogans and chants—and brought into the streets a diverse multitude, many of whom were not normally politically active. But a demonstration is not a movement. The key question for many is how does all this energy, outrage and action get channeled into a movement not simply against the Trump Presidency, not only to defend our rights, but for basic societal change.
The mobilization of large—in this case extraordinarily large—numbers of people for political action is atypical and episodic throughout American history, normally reserved for such social crises as depressions, unjust wars or moral crusades. The current upsurge in political activism among ordinary people stems from the perceived danger that Trump presents: to democracy, decency, progress, rights, women, immigrants, minorities and generally civilized values. The very danger causing the consternation, outrage and grief which moved people to action presents an enormous opportunity to change the country’s political dynamic. But that takes translating the protest against Trump and those who empower him into a positive vision of social change. Here are a few ideas of how we might do that.
Unite around a populist message to combat Trumpism
"Our narrative must be that corporate, wealthy greed and the obscene inequality between rich and poor are our main problem."
While inclusion, diversity, respect for rights are basic principles and starting points, they are insufficient. We must both protect the most marginalized, defenseless amongst us who will bear the brunt of the Trump attacks, and also challenge the corporatist, rich, elitist vision of the Administration. The Tea Party rise was based on the narrative that big government was the evil; our narrative must be that corporate, wealthy greed and the obscene inequality between rich and poor are our main problem. The Trump Administration and the right wing attack liberalism’s aiding the “undeserving” – welfare moms, immigrants, communities of color. We must counter that the main problem is that the government is dominated by a rich, corporate elite, which makes rules benefitting themselves at the expense of the vast majority of people and the planet. Trump, for all his populist rhetoric, has staffed his Administration with wealthy, corporate whites who encapsulate the inequality underlying American society. A populist economic message as set forth most prominently by Bernie Sanders can win over many of the working class and rural folks who supported Trump, opposed Clinton, or simply did not vote, and can form the basis of a program for real change. At the wonderful Washington demonstration that my wife and I attended there were very few signs and slogans challenging economic inequality, which will only get worse under Trump.
Combine electoral and grassroots activist work in local communities
Electoral campaigns in the United States have been divided and separated from political activism on concrete issues such as women’s rights, housing, immigration. Even the first Obama campaign, which created an activist network, disbanded that network once Obama became President. Indeed, the Constitution was designed to create a yawning gap between the elected representatives and the people. As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an important voice for ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, put it: "all power is derived from the people, they possess it only on the days of their elections. After this it is the property of their rulers." Roger Sherman, a participant at the Constitutional Convention from Connecticut expressed the same sentiment when he hoped that "the people….have as little to do as may be about the government."
"One critical task over the next four years is to develop local organizations and coalitions which organically combine electoral and grass root activist campaigns."
Of course, as Professor David Cole and others have pointed out, we have a vibrant civil society with numerous activist organizations on the left and the right which do play a profound role in affecting government policy and constitutional interpretation. But those activist organizations are generally separate from the electoral campaigns of the two parties. There is no organic link between the election of representatives on all levels and an activist movement. Starting on a local level, we must forge that link. Election campaigns should serve to help develop the activist movement and to elect people who are tied to those activists. We don’t want to simply continue to work for politicians who may be progressive but are not part of a local or national activist movement. Rather, one critical task over the next four years is to develop local organizations and coalitions which organically combine electoral and grass root activist campaigns. For example, in many major urban areas, conditions are ripe to develop independent organizations or coalitions which both engage in activist campaigns around issues such as housing, education, environmental, liveable wages, race and gender discrimination, and also run a slate of activist candidates who come out of those campaigns and support a common, progressive program. Indeed, this is what Bernie Sanders did in Burlington, Vermont years ago.
Dialogue with working class and rural people
The divide between urban centers and the rural sections of the country is bitter, but we must make an effort to bridge that divide. Many of the people who will be most hurt by Trump’s policies will be in the red zones of the country, and progressive activists have done far too little outreach and listening to their concerns and issues. While racial and male supremacy attitudes run deep, we cannot abandon these areas and can begin to find common ground in opposition to policies which are not in their interest. In my experience in rural Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where Trump won over 75% of the vote, a number of people I spoke to wanted radical change and were sympathetic to Bernie’s message but voted for Trump because they perceived that he might shake things up. There is a deep and growing feeling amongst these people that the government has failed them and that some radical change must occur. On that, many activists would agree; the task is to present an alternative to the false Trump mantra of shaking up the government, draining the swamp.
Welcome new energy
The Women’s March brought out many people who had not previously engaged in activist work. In fact, it brought out many people who had never been to a demonstration. Seasoned organizers need to mobilize the energy of these new people, welcoming them into the movement, sharing their experience and their skills, and making them understand how crucial they are to the resistance against Trumpism. There are millions of people in this country who currently feel lost and alone and would like to contribute to movements that envision a more just society. It is the responsibility of those who have been involved in activist work to ensure that they find a place within those movements. Indeed, we need to support and nurture new, local and national political leadership as it emerges from grass roots activism.
Substitute community cooperation and the common good for rampant individualism
"While the progressive movement has and must continue to fight for individual liberty and rights in such areas as abortion rights, free speech, marriage equality, it must also make community cooperation on an egalitarian basis central to a movement for social change."
The ascendant right wing ideology is libertarian—get the government off our backs—no gun control, no economic regulations, get rid of Obamacare, preserve individual liberty. This libertarian ideology is inconsistent in that religious libertarians want more intrusive government regulation of women’s right to choose, to deny homosexuals the right to marry and the like. But as Professor Mark Lilla has aptly critiqued, the emphasis on individualism, the self, and private autonomy has been endemic on both the left and right. While the progressive movement has and must continue to fight for individual liberty and rights in such areas as abortion rights, free speech, marriage equality, it must also make community cooperation on an egalitarian basis central to a movement for social change. Individual liberty is a key component of our constitutional democracy, but so too should be a spirit of social cooperation, the common good, equality and community organization. We are not isolated in our own liberty, but joined together in helping our neighbors, working together to solve problems, giving aid to others, and creating a better life for all in the community, not just a few. A key aspect of that unity must be to preserve and extend the cross movement cooperation that has developed over recent years, where diverse groups such as Black Lives Matter or LGBTQ communities work together and support each other.
In response to the You Are on Your Own philosophy of the Trump Administration and its right wing allies, we must substitute the idea that We Are All in This Together. While competitive individualism is a foundational cultural norm in American history and contemporary society, community spirit and cooperation is also an important part of the American culture. While the current constitutional framework permitting Congress to regulate for the common good in order to solve national problems must be preserved against the right wing assault, the idea that local communities must band together to help their neighbors and solve common problems ought to be play a central role in any movement against the Trump Administration’s policies.
Hundreds of thousands of people have now been newly activated by the Trump Presidency. Meetings which used to attract dozens of people are now being attended by hundreds. This renewal is wonderful, and hopefully the thousands of local and national organizations and groups that have been doing excellent organizing work will grow, expand and benefit from this new energy. But organization alone is insufficient—what is necessary at this historical juncture is a coherent strategy and vision of how to utilize the new energy to build a broad movement for fundamental and radical change.