How to stand up to Trump – here are some good (and some inane) suggestions

Emma Shortis reviews What We Do Now: Standing Up For Your Values in Trump’s America edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians (Brooklyn, Melville House, 2017).

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In the wash up of Donald Trump’s election and inauguration last month, there has been much agonised soul-searching on the part of American liberals and progressives. How, they ask themselves, could this happen? How could, as the editor of What We Do Now: Standing Up For Your Values in Trump’s America puts it, “the most extreme and uncouth candidate ever to run for high office in the United States” have actually won? Just like the celebrity speakers at the recent Women’s March on Washington, the contributors to the book offer very different, and often contradictory, answers to that question.

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What We Do Now, though, has a higher purpose. The book attempts to look past that initial question, and suggest “actual strategies” for opposing the Trump ascendency. It includes no less than “’twenty-seven essays by some of the best and the brightest of America’s progressive leaders”. All the contributions are well written and engaging. Perhaps inevitably, given the haste with which the book was drawn together, some burn a little brighter than others.

The pulling power of the book no doubt lies in its star power; contributions by the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Gloria Steinem, and Paul Krugman.

In the book’s opening essay, Sanders, just as he did during his campaign for the Democratic nomination, focuses on the desperate need for financial reform. As he has repeatedly observed, a great deal of Trump’s popular appeal lies in his insistence that the “insiders” of Washington have enriched themselves as the expense of “the people”. It’s unlikely, of course, that Trump will actually do anything to change this. Sanders, for his part, rightly insists that progressives must continue to pursue dramatic legislative reform to address inequality. The troubling part about Sanders’ essay – and many others in the book – is that it offers no suggestions for how to do this, and fails to acknowledge just how unlikely any kind of legislative reform is under a Republican-controlled Congress.

The best contributions note the Democratic Party’s need to return to its base; that “Only another New Deal will rescue the (it) from near oblivion.”

Gloria Steinem, no friend of Sanders, continues to insist that Hillary Clinton was the best candidate, equating her with “the smartest and best-liked girl in the school”. Part of the problem with Clinton, of course, was that by the time she ran for President, she wasn’t even close to “best-liked”. More problematically, like many other contributors to the book, Steinem goes on to insist that Trump is not just a “bully,” but a new Hitler. Such frustratingly ahistorical comparisons – and Steinem is a repeat offender in this regard – are both damaging and entirely unhelpful. They also contradict many of the contributors’ abiding faith in the institutions of American democracy – some of which may well be misplaced. Readers would do better, as one of the less well-known contributors implores, to try “to really understand fascism…to understand the history…to understand the politics.” (Here’s a good place to start).

Elizabeth Warren, the other darling of the Democratic left, offers similarly little in terms of concrete advice. Warren instead focuses on the need for progressives to “stand up to bigotry”. Many of the essays reflect this desire on the part of liberals to “observe,” “call out” and “stand up.” One in particular even goes so far as to encourage a – slightly nauseating – “multiracial movement of love.” While such sentiments are admirable, and in this time of fear and grief might offer some much-needed solace, they are hardly a strategy for actual opposition or resistance. As one of the other contributors acerbically puts it: “keep your safety pin”.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman rounds out the star power of the book. In a patronising and simplistic contribution, Krugman laments “it’s clear that almost everyone on the center-left, myself included, was clueless about what actually works in persuading voters.” Failing to understand that it was not communication that was the problem, but the message itself, Krugman represents the worst of the liberal tendency to gloss over the suffering of the rust-belt and simplistically equate all support for Trump as a reflection of ignorance and bigotry.

In contrast, the best contributions to the book are those that manage to do propose “actual strategies” to oppose Trump. That strategy, as one contributor puts it, basically boils down to “organize, organize, organize, organize”. At times, this suggestion is meaningless, such as one author’s inane insistence that progressives begin “engaging in authentic conversations to find real community-based solutions”. It’s when the suggestions are specific that they do offer real possibilities for resistance.

In this way, each thematic section has something to offer those opposed to Trump’s increasingly incoherent and dangerous agenda. In the section on Racial Justice, for example, the NAACP’s judicial action against voter suppression offers one of the few examples of concrete action that does get tangible results. In the Media section, practical advice to journalists (and others) to use end-to-end encryption makes a great deal of sense. Given the Trump administration’s already belligerent approach to the press – and more worrying total aversion to actual facts – the media section is particularly pertinent and illuminating.

In the Environment section, the executive director of the Sierra Club’s effort to recruit new members and volunteers might help to make some small environmental gains. As environmentalist Bill McKibben notes, however, under Trump “it might well be ‘game over’” for the global environment. Trump’s recent executive orders regarding oil pipelines and climate change make McKibben’s prediction seem all the more prescient.

While each section offers specific approaches to issues such as race, gender and the environment, there is an underlying theme to the book that might be summed up, Clinton-style, as “it’s the economy, stupid.” The best contributions to What We Do Now note the need for the Democratic Party to return to its base; that “Only another New Deal will rescue the Democratic Party from near oblivion.” Interestingly, though, not a single one of the contributors suggest that readers actually go out and join the Democratic Party. Without a grassroots progressive movement coming from within, and given the refusal of many of the Party elite to accept any blame for defeat, it’s unclear just how progressive economic policy might emerge.

It is this rather bleak and uncertain tone that underlies many of the contributions to What We Do Now. Trump will in all likelihood occupy the White House for the next four years (impeachment, though possible, would hardly be a win for progressive causes). While the “actual strategies” the book does offer may well slow Trump down, they won’t stop him. It seems that the main hope of most of the contributors is that they might limit him to one term. Before then, as Krugman asks, “How bad will it get? Nobody knows.”

Emma Shortis is a Lecturer in American History and PhD Candidate in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at The University of Melbourne.

6 responses to “How to stand up to Trump – here are some good (and some inane) suggestions

  1. a friend pointed me to this last night – https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-autocracy/513872/

    The ending has a few thoughts on what ordinary people can do, but it’s pretty terrifying on the whole.

    Also, re. the likening of Trump to fascism:

    “Outside the Islamic world, the 21st century is not an era of ideology. The grand utopian visions of the 19th century have passed out of fashion. The nightmare totalitarian projects of the 20th have been overthrown or have disintegrated, leaving behind only outdated remnants: North Korea, Cuba. What is spreading today is repressive kleptocracy, led by rulers motivated by greed rather than by the deranged idealism of Hitler or Stalin or Mao. Such rulers rely less on terror and more on rule-twisting, the manipulation of information, and the co-optation of elites.”

    1. Thanks for the link, Annie. Really interesting. I’m not sure about the idea of Trump not having an ideology–I suppose he may not, but his closest advisers (Bannon et al) certainly do. The description of the slow creep to autocracy rings very true though. I’m just not convinced by the argument that ordinary people can do all that much (which is certainly not to suggest that they shouldn’t try, quite the opposite). It’s just that these narratives assume Trump will adhere to some basic rules (the rule of law, respecting the separation of powers) and he hasn’t really given any indication that he will do that.

  2. It is interesting that a book from the calibre of these people has come out so quickly.

    Though they may be sparing of solutions, it is still very hard to work out why, and how Trump’s organisation really got to take over the most influential & powerful government in the Western world.
    The comment around understanding fascism in all its ugliness, is a glimmer of hope for those American’s who are sadly going to be the first hand recipients of Trump’s politics & economics agenda (whatever they may look like) and his increasing desire to rule the world.
    This may be a time for all American’s to reflect on how they have ended up in this situation.
    A need to recognise and build a more inclusive understanding of not only how dangerous the oversimplification, of how government functions, which was part and parcel of Trump’s campaign, along with the very dangerous game of personal politicking, which was not only disingenuous but misrepresented as the truth to the voters.
    It seems that lawmakers need to rebuild and re-engineer the whole structure around government, work out the weakness’ and do as much as they can to prevent this from happening in the future. (I suggest psych testing for future presidential hopefuls, and no nepotism whatsoever be allowed, no matter how angry it makes them)
    I find it a little sad that they didn’t recognise and fix these issues when George W was in power, they let him like Trump walk all over them, and then spent 8 years in the wilderness.
    Now to have a president that is not only an egomaniac, with narcissistic personality disorder, but in the first blush of power, looks far more dangerous than George W could have ever been, at least he just wasn’t very bright or particularly effective, with Cyclone Katrina, & 9/11 and the GFC as his particular low points.
    American’s need to put their political differences to the side, and work together to build a better understanding of how other people, and countries are going to experience this particularly terrifying new order, and try to help as much as they can, and try to support those that are being labelled as “the enemy, “and show those in the outside world that “Trumpism” is not about how ordinary American’s want to be represented.
    Whether this is through supporting refugee causes, or lending a hand to help those in need, this shows the outside world that he will not dominate people’s lives or completely destroy America’s Constitutional sense of itself.
    America has got to a point, that all the navel gazing and Nationalistic, populistic culture, has lost its way, and has fallen off the cliff into dangerous territory. (this might have been why this has happened, but I’m no political expert)

    Practically may be those shows where they prepare for the end of the world, stocking up on food etc, ala Doomsday Preppers may be something that can be done to protect shoppers from the shock that they may experience in the next few months, while Mexico’s very likely trade embargo kicks in.
    The average American needs to take care of themselves, their families , loved ones, neighbour’s and communities, and try as best they can to prepare for the unknown. (therein lies a conundrum)
    Meanwhile trying to protect their integrity and their sense of fair play, along with their humanity, this may be the only real solution for this particularly terrifying prospect.

    1. Thanks, Lesley. I certainly agree that Trump poses a much bigger danger than W ever did. If you’re interested in reflections on how Trump got to power in the first place, the book is a really interesting read. To your other point – I just can’t imagine Americans putting their political differences aside, unfortunately. I think Trump will continue to make every effort to deepen divisions, because it suits his purposes.

  3. Thank you for your review — if I had not read it, I might well have bought the book, and clearly it would have left me just as frustrated, angry, and scared as I already am, plus discouraged that a lot of smart, experienced, dedicated people apparently don’t have many good ideas about what could be done to limit the damage done by Trump and his lackeys. I don’t see in your review, and maybe it isn’t in the book, any advice to Democrats about the danger of collaborating with Trump. Democrats need to do to Trump what the Republicans did to them, even if government becomes deadlocked — which considering what Trump plans to do, would probably be a good thing anyway. Any collaboration, any attempt to find “common ground,” would in my opinion be used by Trump as a personal endorsement, and further encourage his grandiose delusions.

    1. Thanks, Michael. I still think it’s worth reading–there are some interesting ideas in there and some really reflective explorations of how progressives failed to stop Trump at the ballot box. The book doesn’t really cover the issue of collaboration directly, although many of the essays suggest they would be against it (by advocating constant litigation, for example). Many Democrats seem to be really struggling with the question. Political pressure seems to be encouraging them to fight hard, and I think the Supreme Court nominee will be a big battleground. I have to agree that Democrats don’t have much choice but to oppose Trump on all fronts. His apparent disregard for history and disdain for the rule of law means that Democrats (and, hopefully, some Republicans) will have to play a very different game than the one they are used to.

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