This Is a Time to Fight, Not Retreat or Fantasize About Canada

Black Lives Matter activists rally in New York City in a protest on December 14, 2014. (Photo: Terence McCormack)Black Lives Matter activists rally in New York City in a protest on December 14, 2014. (Photo: Terence McCormack)

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally ran on November 5.

So, the darkness has descended and we must decide how to respond. Will we look to the Democratic Party to develop new technocratic strategies for winning a few more votes in a few more swing states? Will we retreat into an isolationist cultural politics like those faced with the rise of Ronald Reagan? Will we double down on centrism and triangulation in the hopes of gaining a few more moderate votes for a political program we don’t really support? Or will we fight?

In order to fight, we need to understand the nature of the threat. We are not just fighting over control of Congress or the Supreme Court. We are fighting to preserve some semblance of democracy and stop the spread of fascist alt-right movements, or what Umberto Eco calls “ur-fascism,” which will feed on the Trump victory and push to make the politics of racism, misogyny and xenophobia more politically mainstream. There is also the threat of another aspect of fascism, which is even more blurring of the lines between political and economic elites. While Trump is not beloved on Wall Street because of his anti-free-trade rhetoric, there are many sectors of business very happy to embrace his pro-business, anti-regulation politics head on. Under Trump we can expect an increase of crony capitalism in which favored players reap the rewards of protectionism, deregulation and privatization.

Here are some of the things we must do to build a broad and robust anti-fascist politics to transform people’s political views and serve as a bulwark to the politics of white male resentment roiling the nation:

1. Form or Join a Labor Union

Unions have been the single most important American institution in demanding an economy that serves the needs of working people. From the eight-hour day to worker’s compensation, the labor movement has been the source of power for most of the progressive economic reforms of the last century. While unions rarely speak with only one voice and have themselves engaged in racial and gender discrimination, they remain essential to opposing the empty and dangerous right-wing populism embodied by Trump.

Unfortunately, over the last 40 years, union membership has declined significantly, especially in private-sector unions. While Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers in 1981 was the opening salvo in this process, politicians of both parties have overseen the weakening of labor laws and the embracing of a politics of free markets and government austerity that undermine the bargaining power of workers and their unions. It is essential that workers have organized political power if we hope to reverse the neoliberal economics that has undermined standards of living and increased inequality.

In addition, we have to struggle to make those unions more democratic and more relevant to working people. We need to embrace various forms of social unionism that look to defend the broad interests of working people. Narrow business unionism, devoid of a more systemic political analysis, has left unions vulnerable and members alienated. The major unions poured tens of millions of dollars into the Democratic Party this year and have almost nothing to show for it. That money could have been spent on building a real workers’ movement that only supports candidates who repudiate the politics of neoliberalism and austerity that have been at the center of the Democratic Party nationally.

2. Defend the Constitution

Fascism relies on extra-legal politics to gain power. Trump clearly signaled his disdain for the rule of law by calling the election “rigged” and threatening to jail Clinton. Trump, backed up by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie will almost certainly call for a variety of witch hunts targeting immigrants, Muslims, political progressives, and others. It is therefore essential that we have robust organizations that can fight back against violations of the constitution. The ACLU was founded in the face of just such a threat in the 1920s as the “Red Scares” and “Palmer Raids” led to large-scale civil rights violations. They and groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Southern Poverty Law Center are at the forefront of exposing and pushing back against racist, xenophobic and misogynist actions by governments at all levels. These groups have brought litigation on behalf of immigrants wrongly deported or held in deplorable conditions, defended the right to protest, and informed the public about the threats posed by right-wing extremists. The Constitution remains a vital if imperfect tool for defending individual liberties in the face of a potentially tyrannical leader like Trump. We must join and actively support these organizations to protect the rights of those who would be targeted by fascist movements.

3. Support Those Under Attack

Trump and the alt-right have centered their politics on vilifying immigrants, Muslims, and anyone else perceived to interfere with the “supremacy” of the white male. We must all directly support groups that represent the interests of targeted populations so that they can better defend themselves and organize for greater political power as an alternative to the politics of hate. Large organizations like the ACLU and American Friends Services Committee do great work supporting immigrants, but we also need to support those doing grassroots organizing work, like the Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Desis Rising Up and Moving and United We Dream, who are working at the local level and in coalition with other groups across the country.

We must also build a more robust racial justice politics. The Trump victory has confirmed the extent of white supremacy. While the demographics of the country make catering to white supremacists a weak long-term electoral strategy, we must find a way to fight white racism. This can involve direct support of movements like the Movement for Black Lives and hundreds of other local and national groups, such as Million Hoodies, Black Youth Project 100 and the Dream Defenders. But we must also find ways of confronting racism within the white community. Even if we develop an economic program that could improve conditions for both working class whites and Blacks, we cannot assume that whites will support it just because it’s in their financial best interest. A simplistic class analysis is no more likely to be successful than one based solely on race. Groups like the Catalyst Project are doing the hard work of bringing an analysis of white privilege into progressive social movements, which is a crucial start to such an effort.

We must also directly confront the forces of fascism in the streets. Just like “clinic defenders” have warded off anti-abortion extremists, anti-fascists must be prepared to demonstrate against right wing forces, such as the Ku Klux Klan, wherever they attempt to manifest themselves publicly. Many have already taken the first step by constantly disrupting Trump rallies, but stopping a growing fascist movement will require much larger-scale mobilizations.

4. Engage Local Politics

For too many people, politics means voting for the president every four years and not much else. Unfortunately, this is the arena in which individuals have the least influence. The sums of money needed and the politics of the parties are such that individual choice plays a very small role. The outcome in most states is a foregone conclusion, leaving only a handful of “battleground” states in play. If you don’t live in one of these states, then your vote is essentially taken for granted.

It is essential that we begin revitalizing politics at the local level. The fundamentalist right wing understood this all too well when they began running people for local school boards and city council seats, building political momentum for the anti-evolution, anti-choice, and anti-immigrant politics that produced the current crop of GOP national leaders like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump.

There are strong structural impediments to participation in electoral politics. Big money increasingly plays a role even in local races, with hedge fund billionaires pouring millions into local races in hopes of getting richer by privatizing schools and cutting taxes for themselves. But we cannot concede this territory. We need to form local political clubs that engage elected officials and push for progressive legislation. The Working Families Party, which started in New York and is growing nationally, offers a model. By combining grassroots issue campaigns with targeted endorsements of pro-labor progressives, they are trying to push the Democratic Party to the left from the ground up. Many are turned off from this kind of politics because it is messy and full of compromises, of which the Working Families Party has made many. But we cannot sit on the sidelines discussing foreign affairs and national politics from a position of moral certainty but political powerlessness. We have to get our hands dirty in the trenches. Not just working to elect yet another moderate Democrat, but instead to develop a real agenda with real popular support and the tools to implement it.

This is not intended to be a substitute for the social movement politics that is essential now. The planet is in jeopardy economically and environmentally and we must embrace movements for racial, economic, and environmental justice. But these movements cannot exist as single-issue special interest movements detached from either a more systemic analysis or the rigors of local community-based politics. Any long-term strategies for gaining power have to take electoral politics into account. Even if people support more revolutionary political programs, people live in communities in which government plays a major role in their lives and we have to figure out how to effectively respond to that reality, not just dismiss it as reformist.

5. Form Study Groups

Developing a political agenda for unions and local political clubs, and figuring out which organizations to support, requires an analysis of the nature of the fascist threat and how to counter it. It’s not enough to read a social media feed or subscribe to a few progressive publications. A real analysis requires deeper study and a community of people to engage with.

Ideally, study groups should be connected to the struggles we are each participating in. Unions, political clubs, and grassroots organizations should all sponsor and encourage such active learning and long-term thinking. We need a much stronger analysis of the economic and political dynamics that have created the current moment and strategies for reversing the trend of growing inequality and right-wing backlash.

For those of us who are not facing immediate threats to our safety or survival, now is not the time to retreat, to turn inward or to fantasize about escaping to Canada. Now is the time to fight and to think. We owe it to ourselves, our children and the planet.