A Democracy in Exile Fights Against Fascism

While Trumpism attempts to expand its alt-right social base under its authoritarian hierarchy, forces of grassroots resistance are mobilizing around a renewed sense of ethical courage, social solidarity, and a revival of the political imagination. We see this happening in the increasing number of mass demonstrations in which individuals are putting their bodies on the line, refusing the fascist machinery of misogyny, nativism, and white supremacy. Airports are being occupied, people are demonstrating in the streets of major cities, town halls have become sites of resistance, campuses are being transformed into sanctuaries to protect undocumented students, scientists are marching en masse against climate change deniers, and progressive cultural workers, public intellectuals, and politicians are speaking out against the emerging authoritarianism. In a number of red states, middle-aged women are engaged in the “grinding scutwork of grassroots organizing” while addressing big issues such as “health care and gerrymandering, followed by dark money in politics, education, and the environment.” Democracy may be in exile in the United States, and imperiled in Europe and other parts of the globe, but the spirit that animates it remains resilient. Once again the public memory of an educated and prophetic hope is in the air, echoing Martin Luther King Jr.’s call “to make real the promise of democracy.

In today’s historical moment, such a promise finds sanctuary in the notion of “democracy in exile.” This concept is meant as a counterforce and remedy to the Jacksonian intolerance, violence, expulsion, and racism of Donald Trump, Stephen Miller, and Trumpism as a nationalist movement drifting in plain sight from plutocracy and authoritarian nepotism to fascism. Democracy in exile is the space in which people, families, networks, and communities fight back. It unites the promise of insurrectional political engagement with the creation of expansive new manifestations of justice — social, economic, environmental. The concept speaks to the rise of innumerable marches, protests, and acts of political resistance that form a growing challenge to existing power relations and the expanding forces of authoritarianism and tyranny consolidated under Trump’s rule. It argues for a model of critical consciousness and an “ethical space where we encounter the pain of others and truly reflect on its significance to a shared human community.” Such sanctuaries function as alternative spheres of a democracy in exile and do more than offer refugees protection and services such “as emergency shelters, recreation, public transit, libraries, food banks, and police and fire services without asking questions about their status.” They also point toward and beyond the identification of structures of domination and repression in search of new understanding and imaginative response to the need to live well together in diverse communities. In part, this means responding to the ominous forces at work in US society, now marked by a collapse of civic culture, shared literacy, and meaningful citizenship. Such spaces call for new apparatuses enabling people to learn together, to engage in extended dialogue, and to develop new social formations in the service of advancing political, economic, and environmental justice and transformation. As democracy cannot survive without informed and socially responsible citizens, such spaces are driven by community-centered education, culture, and family.

What might it mean for educators to create sanctuaries that preserve the ideals, values, and experiences of an insurrectional democracy? What might it mean to imagine a landscape of resistance in which the metaphor of democracy in exile inspires and energizes young people, educators, workers, artists, and others to engage in political and pedagogical forms of resistance that are disruptive, transformative, resilient, and emancipatory? What might it mean to create multiple protective spaces of resistance that would allow us to think critically, ask troubling questions, take risks, transgress established norms, and fill the spaces of everyday life with ongoing acts of nonviolent organizing resistance? What might it mean to create cities, states, and other public spheres defined as sanctuaries for a democracy in exile? Cities such as Boston and Hamilton, Ontario, have declared themselves sanctuaries, or what I am calling democracies in exile. Brit McCandless recently reported that “more than 800 places of worship have volunteered to shelter undocumented immigrants who face deportation and their families — double the number since the 2016 election. They join the more than 600 cities and counties that have declared themselves sanctuaries — ordering their police not to detain people solely because of their immigration status.”

These cities and counties have not only refused to comply with Trump’s repressive policies on climate change and travel bans, but they have also defined themselves, in part, as public spaces designed to protect those who fear expulsion and state terrorism. In many respects, cities have become front lines in the fight against Trump’s repressive immigration policies and disastrous attack on climate change reform. As of February 2017, more than sixty-eight mayors have signed an open letter protesting Trump’s opposition to limiting greenhouse gases. Cities such as Seattle and Burlington, Vermont, are on the cutting edge, enacting radical legislation while promoting broad-based progressive political formations heavily indebted to the values and policies of democratic socialism. In fact, an avowed socialist, Kshama Sawant, sits on the city council in Seattle, one of America’s most insurgent cities.

In the face of Trump’s January 25, 2017, executive order in which he called for stripping federal funds from cities that defy his border enforcement and immigration policies, many cities have chosen to resist Trump anyway, because of his attacks on environmental protections and public schools. In the face of such attacks, new coalitions are emerging between labor groups, young people, immigrant rights groups, evangelicals, church groups, and others that Adriana Cadena, coordinator for Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, points to as a reservoir of “untapped voices.” At the same time, such struggles will not be easy. Not only is the threat of repression by the federal government a looming reality, but a similar threat is posed by Republican-controlled state legislatures, which now number thirty-two. Yet many progressive states such as California are finding new ways to pass laws “that grant undocumented immigrants access to state driver’s licenses, in-state tuition, financial aid, health care and professional licenses, and that shield them by limiting state participation in enforcing federal law.”

Such cities and counties, and a host of diverse public spheres, function as parallel structures that create alternative modes of communication, social relations, education, health care, and cultural work, including popular music, social media, the performing arts, and literature. These spaces are what Vaclav Benda has called a “parallel polis,” which brings pressure on official structures, implements new modes of pedagogical resistance, and provides the basis for organizing larger day-to-day protests and more organized and sustainable social movements. Just as dissidents in Eastern Europe developed the concept of a parallel polis, there is a need in the current historical moment to create new modes of organizing, community, and resistance: democracies in exile.

The concept of democracy in exile is grounded in community building, economic justice, and a discourse of critique, hope, social justice, and self-reflection. As a mode of critique, it models the call for diverse forms of resistance, critical dialogue, collaboration, and a rethinking of political processes and the kinds of public spaces where they can take place. As a discourse of hope, it offers the possibility of organizing new forms of social networking designed to dismantle proto-fascist formations from consolidating further. As a model for a new progressive politics, democracies in exile are open communities and collectivities joined in the spirit of mutual aid and justice; they mark the antithesis of Trumpism’s falsehoods, walls, guns, white supremacy, and menacing intolerance. These models for democracy signal a mode of witnessing and organized resistance inspired by a renewed commitment to justice and equality. This is a spirit of redemption matched by mass protests such as the “Day Without Immigrants” strike, the 4.2 million people who took to the streets in protest on Trump’s second day in office, and the thousands of scientists and their supporters who participated in the 2017 March for Science. In all of these cases, the aim was “to demonstrate the productive power of the people” in the struggle to take back democracy.

Democracy in exile offers the opportunity to fuse popular movements and reinvigorate educational spheres that include traditional sites of struggle such as unions, churches, and synagogues. For example, churches throughout the United States are using private homes in their parishes as shelters while at the same time “creating a modern-day underground railroad to ferry undocumented immigrants from house to house or into Canada.” Hiding and housing immigrants is but one important register of political resistance that such sanctuaries can provide. Organizations such as the Protective Leadership Institute and the State Innovation Exchange are fighting back against conservative state legislation by modeling progressive legislation, putting ongoing pressure on politicians, educating people on issues and how to develop the skills for disruptive political strategies, and building “a progressive power base in the states.” In addition, cities such as New York have proclaimed themselves sanctuary cities, and students in “as many as 100 colleges and universities across the country” have held protests “demanding their schools become sanctuary campuses.”

The concept of democracy in exile offers a new rhetorical approach to understanding such resistance and the new stage of authoritarianism that has made it necessary. Such outposts of exile offer new models of collaboration, united by a perpetual striving for a more just society. As such, they join in solidarity and in their differences, mediated by a respect for the common good, human dignity, and decency. Together they offer a new map for resisting a demagogue and his coterie of reactionaries who harbor a rapacious desire for concentrating power in the hands of a financial elite and the economic, political, and religious fundamentalists who seek to amass wealth and power by any means necessary. This call for a new mode of opposition connects the educational challenge of raising individual and collective consciousness with mobilizing against the suffocating ideologies, worldviews, and policies that are driving the new species of authoritarianism. These alternative spaces and new public spheres reflect what Sara Evans and Harry Boyte have called “free spaces,” which welcome the challenge of ongoing community engagement designed to revitalize civic education and civic courage.

The language of exile also projects a threat to pro-fascist nationalist networks, for it signals the rival mobilization of emancipatory social forces organizing against political intolerance, white supremacy, economic oppression, police violence, and the constant fabrications that serve to normalize and enforce them. The creation of new spaces for community resistance asserts the right to reject all such formations of domination, impunity, and abuse.

Rethinking the possibility for social movements and a new form of politics can begin by reconceptualizing what might it mean to create public spheres and institutions that represent models of a democracy in exile — sanctuaries that preserve the ideals, values, and experiences of a radical democracy. What will it take to create communities whose diverse institutions function as sanctuaries for those who fear expulsion and state terror? How might we together generate a multi-pronged resistance that revives and defends the ideals of an already fragile and wounded democracy — one that cultivates educated hope and actions that safeguard our future? Such a society would foster “the eradication of all forms of racial, gender, class, and sexual hierarchy” and would be based on a call not for reform but for a radical restructuring, a substantive socialist democracy that rejects the notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous.

This certainly raises further questions about what proactive roles educational institutions can take to counter the creeping influence and further normalization of authoritarianism in all its forms. One of the challenges confronting the current generation of educators, students, progressives, and other concerned citizens is the need to address the role they might play in any resistance effort. What can and should education accomplish in a democracy under siege? What work must educators do to create the economic, political, and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the general public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring an informed, thoughtful citizenry integral to the existence of a robust democracy? In a world witnessing an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses and the erasure of historical memory, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to learn from the past and understand the present in order to challenge rabid, unbridled authority and hold power accountable?

Many of the resources are already available. In his book On Tyranny, historian Timothy Snyder provides a list of suggestions that range from not being afraid to disobey, to defending democratic institutions. Michael Lerner has produced a number of invaluable proposals that include what he calls a global Marshall Plan and a strategy for US progressives to take seriously matters of education, subjectivity, compassion, and care in any political struggle. George Lakoff has provided a number of useful suggestions for engaging in the individual and collective practice of resistance, including the call to re-examine the nature of power and to focus on substance not sideshows in the realm of criticism. Bill Quigley has offered a number of substantive points on how to engage in direct action to stop government raids. Reverend William J. Barber II has written extensively on the need to create broad-based alliances, especially among the religious left, and in doing so has infused the call for resistance with an energizing sense of moral and political outrage. In The American Prospect, Theo Anderson has provided an insightful commentary on how the left’s long march of resistance must include direct action at the state level. Robin D.G. Kelley has written a series of brilliant articles on the need to develop emancipatory strategies in the university that call for students and faculty to move beyond framing grievances in the discourse of victimhood and personal travail. Harper’s Magazine engaged a number of intellectuals to talk about what the ecology of resistance under a Trump regime might look like. These are only a few of the many valuable sources that can be studied, talked about, and potentially used to advance networks and movements for democracies in exile.

Universities have an essential role to play in midwifing democracies in exile. In addition to creating safe spaces for undocumented immigrants and others deemed vulnerable or disposable, universities can also equip people with the knowledge, skills, experiences, and values they need to organize, litigate, and achieve higher levels of justice, openness, and accountability. For many universities, this would mean renouncing their instrumental approach to knowledge, creating the conditions for faculty to connect their work with important social issues, refusing to treat students as customers, and choosing administrative leaders who have a vision rooted in the imperatives of justice, ethics, social responsibility, and democratic values. The culture of business has produced the business of education, and to be frank, it has corrupted the mission of too many universities. It is necessary for students, faculty, and others to reverse this trend at a time when the dark shadows of authoritarianism and fascism threaten both the spaces for critical inquiry and democracy itself.

At the very least, students and others need the historical knowledge, critical tools, and analytical skills to be able to understand the underlying factors and forces that gave rise to Trump’s ascendency to the presidency of the United States. Understanding how “the possible triumph in America of a fascist-tinged authoritarian regime” is poised to destroy “a fragile liberal democracy” is the first step toward a viable and sustained resistance. It is crucial to repeat that this authoritarian regime draws on a fascist legacy that not only decreed the death of the civic imagination but also unleashed nothing short of a mass-scale terror and violence.We must also ask what role education, historical memory, and critical pedagogy might have in the larger society, where the social has been individualized, political life has collapsed, and education has been reduced to either a private affair or a kind of algorithmic mode of regulation in which everything is narrowly focused on achieving a desired empirical outcome? What role could a resuscitated critical education play in challenging the deadly neoliberal claim that all problems are individual, when the roots of such problems lie in larger systemic forces? What role might universities fulfill in preserving and scrutinizing cultural memory in order to ensure our current generation and the next are on the right side of history? What might it mean to return to and rethink critically the ideals of the 1960s and 1970s, when university life was defined by students and faculty? What will it take to give power back to faculty and students so they can play a major role in the governing of higher education? How might faculty and students best collaborate in order to eliminate the tsunami of exploitative part-time labor that has been employed by the corporatized university to de-skill and punish faculty since the 1970s?

Historical memory is too easily subverted by manufactured ignorance. The corporate-controlled media and entertainment industries make it easy to forget that Trump is more than the product of the deep-seated racism, attacks on the welfare state, and corporate-centered priorities that have characterized the Republican Party since the 1980s. He is also the result of a Democratic Party that has separated itself from the needs of working people, minorities of color, and young people by becoming nothing more than the party of the financial elite. There is a certain dreadful irony in the fact that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party has been quick to condemn Trump and his coterie as demagogic and authoritarian. What cannot be forgotten is that this is the same ruling elite who gave us the surveillance state, bailed out Wall Street, ushered in the mass incarceration state, and punished whistleblowers. Chris Hedges is right in arguing that the Democratic Party is an “appendage of the consumer society” and its embrace of “neoliberalism and [refusal] to challenge the imperial wars empowered the economic and political structures that destroyed our democracy and gave rise to Trump.” The only answer the Democratic Party has to Trump is to strike back when he overreaches and make a case for the good old days when they were in power. What they refuse to acknowledge is that their policies helped render Trump’s victory possible and that what they share with Trump is a mutual support for bankers, the rule of big corporations, neoliberalism, and the erroneous and fatal assumption that capitalism is democracy, and vice versa. What is needed is a new understanding of the political, a new democratic socialist party, and a radical restructuring of politics itself.

At the same time, any confrontation with the current historical moment has to be infused with hope, possibility, and new forms of political practice. While many countries have been transformed into what Stanley Aronowitz calls a repressive “national security state,” there are signs that authoritarianism in its various versions is currently being challenged, especially by young people, and that the radical imagination is still alive. Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party lost the presidential election in France; Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party just dealt a blow in the United Kingdom to Theresa May and the conservatives in the 2016 election; and young people under thirty across the globe are marching for a radical democracy. No society is without resistance, and hope can never be reduced to a mere abstraction. Hope has to be informed, militant, and concrete.

The dark clouds of an American-style fascism are brewing on the horizon and can be seen in a countless number of Trump’s statements and orders, including his instructions to the Department of Homeland Security to draw up a list of “Muslim organizations and individuals that, in the language of the executive action, have been ‘radicalized.’” Given Trump’s intolerance of criticism and dissent, it is plausible that this list could be expanded to target Black Lives Matter activists, investigative journalists, feminists, community organizers, university professors, and other outspoken left-wing intellectuals. One indication that the Trump regime is compiling a larger list of alleged wrongdoers was the Trump transition team’s request that the Energy Department deliver a list of the names of individuals who had worked on climate change. Under public pressure, the Trump regime later rescinded this request. Couple these political interventions with the unprecedented attack on the media and the barring of the New York Times, CNN, and other alleged “fake news” media outlets from press conferences, and what becomes clear is that the professional institutions that make democracy possible are not only under siege but face the threat of being abolished. Trumpists’ constant cry of “fake news” to discredit critical media outlets is part of a massive disinformation campaign designed to undermine investigative journalism, eyewitness news, fact-based analysis, reason, evidence, and any knowledge-based standard of judgment.Nothing will change unless people begin to take seriously the deeply rooted structural, cultural, and subjective underpinnings of oppression in the United States and what it might require to make such issues meaningful, in both personal and collective ways, in order to make them critical and transformative. This is fundamentally a pedagogical as well as a political concern. As Charles Derber has explained, knowing “how to express possibilities and convey them authentically and persuasively seems crucially important” if any viable form of resistance is to take shape. Trumpism normalizes official falsehoods, intolerance, violence, and pro-fascist social manifestations. Taken as a whole, these conditions do not simply repress independent thought, but constitute their own mode of indoctrinated perceptions that are reinforced through a diverse set of cultural apparatuses ranging from local gun clubs and hate groups to corporate media such as Fox News and online commercial operations like Infowars and Breitbart News.

Despite everything, optimism and resistance are in the air, and the urgency of mass action has a renewed relevance. Workers, young people, environmental activists, demonstrations against the massive tax cuts for the rich posing as health-care reform, along with numerous expressions of protest against Trump’s draconian policies are popping up all over the United States and symbolize an emerging collective opposition to pro-fascist tendencies. As I pointed out earlier, thousands of scientists have rallied against the assaults being waged on scientific inquiry, the veracity of catastrophic climate change, and other forms of evidence-based research, and are planning further marches in the future. Mass protests movements at the local level are coming into play, as seen in the Moral Monday movement and the anti-pipeline campaigns. In addition, a number of big city mayors are refusing to obey Trump’s orders; demonstrations are taking place every day throughout the country; students are mobilizing on campuses; and all over the globe women are marching for their rights. Many people entering politics for the first time are demonstrating for affordable health care, a social wage, and a jobs program, especially for young people. Some individuals and groups are working hard to build a mass movement organized against militarism, inequality, racism, the increasing possibility of nuclear war, and the ecological destabilization of the planet.

We are witnessing the imminent emergence of new forms of resistance willing to support broad-based struggles intent on producing ongoing forms of nonviolent resistance at all levels of society. It is important to heed Rabbi Michael Lerner’s insistence that a democratically minded public, comprised of workers and activists of various stripes, needs a new language of critique and possibility, one that embraces a movement for a world of love, courage, and justice while being committed to a mode of nonviolence in which the means are as ethical as the ends sought by such struggles. Such a call is as historically mindful as it is insightful, drawing upon legacies of nonviolent resistance left to us by renowned activists as diverse as Bertrand Russell, Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King Jr. Despite their diverse projects and methods, these voices for change all shared a commitment to a fearless collective struggle in which nonviolent strategies rejected passivity and compromise to engage in powerful expressions of opposition. To be successful, such struggles have to be coordinated, focused, and relentless. Single-issue movements will have to join with others in supporting both a comprehensive politics and a mass collective movement. We would do well to heed the words of the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass:

It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

The political repression of our times requires that we work together to redefine politics and challenge the pro-corporate two-party system. In the process, we will reclaim the struggle to produce meaningful educational visions and practices, find new ways to change individual and collective consciousness, engage in meaningful dialogue with people living at the margins of the political landscape, and overcome the factionalism of single-issue movements in order to build broad-based social movements. Proto-fascist conditions are with us again. Fortunately, Trump’s arrogance as a champion of such forces is not going entirely unchecked as the great collective power of resistance to his regime deepens. Mass actions are taking place with renewed urgency every day. Facing the challenge of fascism will not be easy, but Americans are marching, protesting, and organizing in record-breaking numbers. Hopefully, mass indignation will evolve into a worldwide movement whose power will be on the side of justice not impunity, bridges not walls, dignity not disrespect, kindness not cruelty. The American nightmare is not something happening somewhere else to someone else. It’s happening here, to us. The time to wake up is now. To quote James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis:

Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name. If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own — which it is — and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.

In the end, there is no democracy without informed citizens, no justice without a language critical of injustice, and no change without a broad-based movement of collective resistance.

Copyright (2018) by Henry Giroux. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, City Lights Publishers.