I didn’t watch Donald Trump’s speech Tuesday night, not because I was skipping it in protest, but because I was otherwise engaged. I was on a panel at a bookstore in Chicago, discussing civil disobedience. I didn’t really need to know the content of the speech to know my time would be better spent discussing activation and strategy, rather than drinking my way through another round of “Just How Doomed Are We?” I knew I would get the full rundown when I got home, and catch all the varying takes online in the morning because, well, that’s part of my job. When I did get caught up, I didn’t find much of the news surprising, but as any marginalized person can tell you, you don’t have to be surprised by something to be frightened by it, and here’s what scares me: Trump is upping his game, and we, as resisters, aren’t ready.
Some have raged against the praise Trump has received. I’ve seen many posts and tweets bristling at the notion that actually reading from a teleprompter, and thus not losing his way mid-sentence, made Trump more “presidential” than he’s been in the past, but let’s be real. It does. To acknowledge that, of course, we have to put aside some cultural illusions about what the word “presidential” means. As far as I can tell, most people say it with some nostalgia for presidents they thought were particularly respectable, or even honorable. But as anyone with a sense of history can tell you, there is nothing inherently elegant or admirable about the presidency.
If you give the matter some thought, I’m sure you won’t have to reach far for examples of presidents who don’t match any lofty standard one might like to attach to “the leader of the free world” or the commander-in-chief of the US military. But truly, to have an honest conversation, we have to de-romanticize that office, and what it means for a man like Trump to sit in it. He is not the first president with conflicts of interest. He is not the first president with a racist, xenophobic, predatory agenda. And he has not yet begun to let loose the havoc that many before him have caused. Climate change and nuclear weapons give Trump more world-ending potential than most former presidents, but in a contest of character, well, let’s just say that, be there a hell, Donald will no doubt run into at least a few of his predecessors in the Ninth Circle.
But as we all (hopefully) know, merely acting “presidential” will win over a lot of people who are inclined to sit back and “give him a chance.”
People want to believe that they’re safe, and that their system of government, albeit flawed, will never completely betray them. They want to believe that in spite of any conflict or tumult, the center will hold, and nothing extraordinarily awful will happen. And Tuesday night, they got a glimpse of the kind of consistency they’ve been longing for. A president, standing before a joint session of Congress, coherently reading from a teleprompter, and acknowledging the wife of a Navy Seal who was killed in action. Some characterized this act as exploitative — and to be clear, it is — but as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, that exploitation is also standard presidential behavior. Trump wasn’t the first to invoke it, and if he doesn’t manage to end the world as we know it, he won’t be the last.
Trump hit a number of standard notes, for a presidential address, and the praise that followed is relatively unsurprising. The media is fickle, and so is the public, and too often, neither is concerned with details.
It shouldn’t be easy to erase heinous policies that target marginalized people, just as it shouldn’t be easy to erase the culture of hate that Trump’s administration is cultivating, but we just saw a chilling demonstration of how distractible the public really is. Rather than talking about the substance of what Trump had to say, most focused on the style in which he said it.
Now, let’s think about what this means, moving forward.
On Tuesday, Jeff Sessions announced that the federal government will lay off on civil rights investigations of police departments. As this news emerged on Twitter — that the attorney general of the United States was tacitly cosigning police violence, including murders committed by police, the broader public conversation seemed fixed on Trump’s presentation and presence. Even as Trump announced in his speech that he is creating a new office to track the crimes of immigrants, bringing to mind the Nazi propaganda tactic of publishing crimes committed by Jews, the conversation was centered on the feel of the speech, with more than one pundit saying that Trump truly became president Tuesday night.
Sadly, Trump has been president since he was inaugurated, and people living in the margins have felt the violence of his administration since that time. I sincerely wish that there were something decidedly unpresidential about his vicious agenda, but there isn’t. If there were, countless American atrocities never would have occurred.
The initial stumbles of the administration, and Trump’s general cluelessness, gave organizers a running start on the PR front, but that head start was never going to last. In his early weeks, the media didn’t know what to make of the Trump administration. Trump’s team was accused of being wickedly genius one week, and comically idiotic the next. And while it was my feeling, from the beginning, that Trump’s crew had stumbled out of a clown car and into a space they didn’t understand, I also knew that most of their setbacks would be temporary. I warned people, including myself, not to take comfort in Trump’s cluelessness, or the cluelessness of his team, because they would get better at this. After all, they have no shortage of resources or advisers. Their ability to strategize was always going to have an upward trajectory.
And here we are.
The president spoke in complete sentences and praised a fallen soldier, and suddenly, for some people, the world isn’t spinning out of control. This is the actual problem to address. Because, as much as I hate to say this loudly, we’re not ready. We weren’t ready when Trump got elected, and we’re not ready now. These people have the full power of government behind them and they are laying out plans that end horribly for many of us. And yet, here we are, allowing establishment Democrats to call themselves “the resistance” and entertaining arguments about what failed candidate should have won and why.
I don’t want to imply that no one is gearing up. Some people are already throwing down hard, and effectively. In California, some faith groups are openly offering residential sanctuary to the undocumented. There are plenty of people out there who recognize that this is a time of severity that requires aggressive action. But without thorough cultivation, mass movement momentum will fade. That will happen here and now, if we don’t strategically mobilize. I obviously don’t have a playbook for victory here. No one does, because we are living in a unique historic moment, but in the interest of being productive, I do have some advice, based on my own analysis and experience.
Get the names of failed candidates out of your mouths. Those fights are over, and the fights unfolding around us are life and death affairs. It isn’t simply hubris to argue about Hillary and Bernie at this point. It’s downright disrespectful to the people whose lives and rights we ought to be using our energies to defend.
Arguing about the failure of your preferred candidate is not social justice work, and it will avail us nothing.
Get your learn on. Most of what you’ve been told about past resistance movements is candy-coated garbage, generated by a system that doesn’t want you to know how to adequately resist it. Most of us don’t understand the past well enough to thoughtfully relate it to the present, and we bicker so much about the tactics being employed eight states away, or what ought to have happened eight months ago, that we are not learning fast enough, or building collective power fast enough. So start learning now. If you are interested in protest, find a direct action training in your area. Read up on varying tactics. Know the history of employing those tactics — when they’ve worked, and when they haven’t. Read up or get trained up in strategic campaign planning, to get a sense of how to structure the story you’re telling. Because if you are trying to influence the public, you are telling a story, and it needs to be compelling and well thought out. There is an art to protest. Study it, and then live it.
Stop policing what everyone else is doing. Becoming a full-time movement critic is the fastest way to lose track of what’s in front of you, and it’s fruitless. The goal is to have a mass movement, and if we get there, none of us will have any centralized control of tactics or messaging. That’s the way of things. We will disagree a lot. That’s fine. People tend to characterize movements of yesteryear as having had some level of unity that puts us all to shame, but the truth is, changemakers, throughout history, have often found each other insufferable. If you read deeply into most of the movements the public tends to romanticize, you will find a broad spectrum of opinions on tactics, respectability and long-term visions. These conflicts have always been with us in movement work, but the people who got things done knew when to face forward and focus on the task at hand. We can and must challenge each other.
We can and must enact tactics that are transformational, as opposed to simply oppositional, but not everyone will line up with what everyone else has to say — or what they choose to do — and we are really going to need to learn to pick our battles. Please consider, we have not adequately begun to fight the real enemy, and we do not have the social infrastructure to protect and defend those who are in danger. Pick your battles, and prioritize. This is a time for triage, for preparation, for building relationships we didn’t have before and approaching friends we haven’t met yet. And if you are not spending a lot more time learning, healing and building than you are talking smack about other leftists, you are not helping us move forward.
Moving forward is a matter of survival for some of us, so I would appreciate it if we could get a move on.
Build culture and community. We need community spaces where we can learn history and tactics together. We need to break bread together. We need to get close enough to one another to understand that, whatever divides us, we have more in common with each other than we do with those who now govern us. Movements must be grounded in culture, community and action. There is resistance work going on in this country. But is there a broader culture of resistance? The word itself is being co-opted by the establishment that helped pave the path to this dark moment. If we don’t connect with one another, we will remain segmented and self-oriented in our advocacy and in our organizing. We have to break free of that. To fight together, we need to build together.
People go to protests, and every once in a while, they make a friend, or connect with a new organization, but most of the time, we just go home, either empowered or deflated by the experience. The idea that movements only happen in the streets is a major hindrance to growth. It is important for people who care and who are able, to show up in the streets, but that’s simply not going to be everyone’s role. Whether the issue is distance, disability, or any other hindrance, we need to make it clear to people that everyone has an essential place, somewhere within the framework of the work we are doing — which leads us to my next suggestion.
Figure out what you have to give and who you ought to be giving it to. I hear from people all the time that they can’t take certain risks. I understand, as there are risks I cannot take myself, though I have, at times, pushed my boundaries. Any analysis of what we can or can’t give should be an analysis of what’s at stake, and what is possible for us personally. With so much at stake (the fate of the earth itself, for example), I am willing to go the extra mile when I can, but as a person with a disability, I simply won’t make every action or meeting, and there are some tasks that I simply can’t take on. If our organizing does not account for these variations in ability and availability, we are failing. Everyone who wants to contribute should be able to do so, and by the same token, if you want to bring down the likes of Trump, figure out what you can do, and where to do it. As organizers and community members, we all have to make that effort, to connect our skills, abilities and raw political will with actual contributions. Whether it’s food for a training or meeting, artistic contributions, the use of space, printing materials, running teach-ins or offering your skills as a photographer or writer — there are countless ways to help, and everyone who wants to help should have work in front of them, because all hands are needed on deck.
Remember that you don’t have to like someone to respect their humanity or struggle. We won’t always get along and we don’t have to. I don’t have to like you to respect you, and I don’t have to agree with you to know that you deserve to live, and be free. By the same token, you don’t have to agree with me about much of anything to know that my people, Native people, deserve to live. We will, at times, come into conflict, and there will be times when that conflict is necessary, but as my parents used to say, “Do your homework first.” Because our enemies are getting stronger and more adept, and they are being normalized. The culture they are building needs to be countered, and the clock is ticking. So get your hands dirty, and start building.