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).
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.
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.