February 1, 2017
The days since Trump’s inauguration have seen a stream of cabinet appointments and executive orders that have sparked outrage across the country. A new opposition is already forming, from the women’s march to mass protests against Trump’s ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. “At the very moment when establishment politics have been severely undermined,” Jedediah Purdy writes in our new issue, “the American left has been reborn.” But in order to achieve political victories, the resurgent left must lay out practical strategies for opposing Trump and the ideology he represents. It’s not enough to urge solidarity—to say we resist racism and demand equality. We have to put actions to slogans. We asked scholars, activists, and politicians—from John Lewis to Gavin Newsom, Ai-jen Poo to Eliot Spitzer—to show us the way forward. Below, they outline the future of the American left and the shape of its resistance to Trumpism.
1 Copy the Tea Party
Angel Padilla and Leah Greenberg, former Democratic congressional staffers and authors of Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda
Immediately after the election, progressives began forming groups dedicated to resisting Trump. But they didn’t know what would be most effective. Liking something on Facebook isn’t going to move your member of Congress. We want to provide better tools. As former Democratic congressional staffers, we know how powerful local action can be, because it’s been used against us—by the Tea Party. So let’s use the Tea Party model for progressive goals.
The Tea Party recognized that they had the most leverage when they organized around issues that were in the national conversation, mobilized at the local level, and targeted individual lawmakers. They knew how each member of Congress had voted and never let them forget that they were accountable to their constituents. Everything lawmakers did was being watched. People came into our offices and were mean, aggressive, even violent. One weekend in 2010, there was a big Tea Party rally against the Affordable Care Act, and we had to lock our doors. At town halls, it seemed like every other question was really hostile. It reflected a level of organization and preparedness we had rarely, if ever, seen.
If we use the same approach, we can stall the Trump agenda. To be clear, we do not endorse the Tea Party’s racist or violent tactics. But some of their efforts—calling congressional offices and attending town hall meetings—can be exceedingly effective.
The strongest lever you have is your local member of Congress. There’s always an election coming up, and lawmakers are squeamish about losing their seats. If a local newspaper reports that protesters at a town hall barraged Congresswoman X with questions about corruption in the infrastructure bill, or if a group of constituents on social media calls Congressman Y unresponsive and untrustworthy, that makes them nervous. Some will go to great lengths to avoid those outcomes. Some may even change their positions or public statements.
Progressives aren’t accustomed to this type of organizing. We like to talk about what we’re for: a clean climate, economic justice, universal health care, racial equality, gender and sexual equality. That’s what galvanizes us. But now we have to come to terms with the fact that for the next four years, we’re not going to set the agenda; Trump and the Republicans in Congress will. The best way to respond at the federal level is to go on defense, protect each other, and stick together. That’s what the Tea Party did, and that’s what made them so effective.
Adopting the same strategy will force Congress to redirect energy away from their priorities. It will sap their willingness to support reactionary change and deprive the Trump administration of any semblance of legitimacy. Remember: We won the popular vote by an enormous margin. Trump is not coming in with a mandate for change, and he has demonstrated a disrespect for democratic values. That’s categorically different from anything we’ve seen before. It’s not a situation we can treat as normal politics.
2 Play Hardball in Congress
Thomas E. Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution
Republicans were united in opposition to Obama, but it’s much tougher to stay united on offense. There are a lot of working-class Republicans, for example, who don’t believe the government has any business messing around with their Social Security and Medicare. So Paul Ryan’s budget is a tough sell, and it’s clearly an area where Democrats may see an opportunity to drive a wedge between the president and congressional leaders. Democrats should look for these kinds of vulnerabilities. They should not be deferential at all when it comes to the confirmation process. And they should try to derail a quick repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The idea for Democrats should be to slow things down.
The obvious model, of course, is the Republican effort that began the day Obama was inaugurated. It was a complete strategy of obstruction and delegitimation of the governing party. In pursuing that strategy, however, Republicans were willing to say things that just weren’t true. For Democrats who aspire to use government in a positive way, it would be a mistake to follow the precise example that the Republicans set. It was much too cynical, and much too destructive of our democratic system. Democrats shouldn’t take the position of “opposition now, opposition forever.” But they do have to play hardball in resisting the Republicans—while still standing up for truth and evidence, science and democracy. That will serve them well over the long run.
The congressional strategy should be followed by a larger effort to communicate that what the Republicans are proposing to do has nothing to offer those who voted for Trump. The diminished prospects for realizing the American dream are certainly at the root of the GOP’s success, but the policy proposals in their agenda aren’t responsive to those concerns. And a lot of their proposals will make new Republican voters feel very uncomfortable. The Democrats can take advantage of that, by getting people engaged and angry about what’s going on. They need that intensity. They need to replicate the way they opposed changes to the Office of Congressional Ethics: using social media to mobilize interest groups and raise the alarm at the local level.
It’s also important for Democrats not to be distracted. This is not the time for reconsidering what the Democratic Party stands for. No unnecessary battles over, “Do we stick with our core constituents or appeal to white, working-class voters in the industrial states?” All that is beside the point now. This is not the time to frighten or discourage core constituents— it’s the time to mobilize them. The focus has to be on what the Republicans are trying to do.
3 Look to Cities and States
Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor of California
We’re not a monarchy. We’re a representative democracy, so we have agency, we have a voice. We have the ability not just to navel gaze, but to act, to be engaged—to resist. We’ve got to dust ourselves off and step up, and not just roll over and act as if we don’t have a very potent role to play in our democracy, particularly at the city level. At the end of the day, 80 percent of us live in metro areas. The economic engines of this country are its cities: They account for 85 percent of the GDP. If Trump wants to go to war with cities, he’s committing economic suicide.
Here on the West Coast, we’re preparing for the worst. We are taking Trump’s rhetoric both literally and seriously. San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities are preparing to push back on immigration, on the environment, on health care, on education. Cities have passed supplemental appropriations to fund legal aid to undocumented residents, and the state of California is doing the same. We are doing everything to protect and preserve the privacy rights of our Dreamers—not just at the state level, but also on campuses at the University of California. And we’re working with superintendents of public schools—there are over a thousand school districts in California—to do the same.
When it comes to the border wall, it’s self-evident that Trump cannot achieve that goal. It’s laughable, because logistically that wall will never be built as he has described it. There are geographic impediments and sovereign Native American lands on which a lot of the fencing would need to be constructed. But if he does try to build a wall, there is legislation in California to challenge the administration, by requiring the construction of the wall to be put to a vote of the people of California. There are also many hurdles that could be put in the way of procuring the contracts for construction permits.
California is also very resilient when it comes to climate policy. We survived the Reagan years, we survived the Bush years. We are prepared to be very adaptable now in the Trump years. The state has identified all the ways we can expect the Trump administration to assault our environmental rules and regulations. We have mitigation strategies—plans A, B, and C—and we are preparing a very aggressive countereffort. As the governor said, if the federal government stops collecting climate data from satellites, we’ll build our own damn satellite. If they want to roll back EPA protections, we have our own state EPA.
So even though it’s difficult right now to determine exactly where the Trump administration will begin and end on all of this, there are a lot of backstops in California, and we will happily assert our autonomy and jurisdictional authority. We’re not going to be timid. We are going to remind the administration that there will be consequences for trampling the rights and values that we hold dear.
4 Learn From History
Seyla Benhabib, professor of political science and philosophy at Yale University
There is a certain typology that cuts across both time and space. Authoritarian leaders ask the people to believe in them and their sole capacity to accomplish great things. They attempt to forge a direct bond with the public, often at the expense of established institutions. “Democracy has failed you,” they say, “but have faith in me, and I will take care of you. I will get it done.” It’s a very paternalistic style. We have seen this with Mussolini and Berlusconi in Italy, Erdogan in Turkey, Franco in Spain, Perón in Argentina, Modi in India. And we see it with Trump, as well.
There’s always a lot of subliminal sexual politics in authoritarian personalities. Every television image of Trump, for example, is Trump the family. Three wives, five children—by American puritan standards, it’s an unusual family. But it’s also the image that he’s projecting: I’m a strong man. These are my children. This is what I brought to the world. I’m not a wimp.
We have to be careful, however, about throwing around the language of fascism. Yes, Hitler was also elected. But Trump does not represent a strong fascist movement. We are not living in a dictatorship—not yet! It’s going to be a rough ride, but let’s avoid the exaggerated examples. Trump is sui generis.
I prefer to call what Trump is engaged in “autocratic presidentialism,” meaning I’m the one who lays down the rule of law. To what extent is he going to respect the division of power laid out in the Constitution? Are our public institutions—Congress, the Supreme Court—going to be strong enough to prevent the country from sliding toward a kind of presidential dictatorship? To oppose these tendencies, we need as many moments of resistance as possible. We need to hold politicians’ feet to the fire.
There’s another way in which Trump differs from authoritarian leaders of the past. He has tried to use the language of nationalism: triumphal whiteness, “Make America Great Again.” But what we are really hearing from Trump is the corporate language of business success—the language of “making deals.” He and the Republicans are likely going to move toward privatizing everything. That is not something you can say about past authoritarian movements. Most authoritarian leaders believe in a strong state. Trump doesn’t. For Trump, the state is a corporation—and he is going to treat it as such. In that sense, he’s almost more dangerous than previous authoritarian leaders. If the government is like a big corporation, we are clients, not citizens.
How are we to oppose this? We need a new, constructive vocabulary. It’s not enough just to call him “fascist,” “patriarchal,” “white,” “reactionary.” He is all that. But to mobilize people against him—especially people who might not necessarily agree with a progressive, left agenda—you have to create a language of caring for civic institutions, caring for the Constitution, caring for making democracy better. You have to instill a sense that this may really be the end of a certain kind of republicanism, with a small r. The art of the deal has to be opposed by a language of civic commitment and solidarity.
5 Use Vivid Language
Geoffrey Nunberg, linguist at the University of California at Berkeley
One of the interesting things about Trump is the utter absence of ideological language. Even when he’s going on about Obamacare, the problem is that it costs too much, not that it’s a socialistic intrusion on American liberty. That’s not something Trump would say. Instead, he makes emotional appeals. He plays on cultural insecurities and fears of violence and offers a restorative anger in their place.
Democrats have to rediscover language that can channel a sense of anger about social and economic inequity, though not so nihilistically. I don’t think that it helps to call this sort of language “populist”—that’s a word that Trumpism has emptied of any vestige of its meaning. But Democrats in the past have found language that connects with popular emotions. Think of Bill Clinton in 1992—“I’m tired of seeing the people who work hard and play by the rules get the shaft.” Even Obama spoke this way for a while in 2011 and 2012, though it isn’t his natural register, the way it is for Joe Biden.
Hillary Clinton was clearly uncomfortable with this kind of language—she had trouble conveying her anger about social injustice and establishing a visceral connection with her listeners. So that’s the challenge. As Obama said in December, “The problem is that we’re not there on the ground communicating not only the dry policy aspects of this, but that we care about these communities, that we’re bleeding for these communities.”
So: How do you respond linguistically to Trump and Trumpism? On the one hand, you focus on the man himself as a grotesque. I don’t know that it helps to call him a fascist—he’s menacing and creepy in his own Trumpy way, and you have to call him out on his deceptions and fabulations. But resistance calls for a broader linguistic strategy. You want to build solidarity among your partisans, but you have to reach the voters you lost in November, the people who know that Trump is an asshole but voted for him anyway out of frustration or dislike of the Clintons—as opposed to the people who voted for Trump because he’s an asshole, who are really a minority of his supporters.
This is likely to play out in terms of resistance not just to Trump himself but to the radical programs and rollbacks the Republicans are going to be implementing—on the environment, wages, unions, immigration, education. These issues are going to be fought out one by one in the linguistic trenches, by deploying language that makes the stakes clear.
In a funny way, Trump may actually have made the linguistic job easier for Democrats than it was a few years ago. His own ideological indifference undermines a lot of the language that Republicans traditionally use to justify their approach. Would-be populists like Trump can’t play the “class warfare” card against Democrats, or rail about “makers and takers.” And the rhetoric of trickle-down sits uneasily with attacks on the elite—even if you bellow.
6 Revamp the Democratic Party
Matt Stoller, fellow at New America, a nonpartisan think tank
Beginning in the 1930s, Democrats were the party of the working class. Their vision of social justice involved protections for workers, small businesspeople, family farms, and independent retailers. In the 1970s, however, Democrats decided to adopt a new ideology that viewed Wall Street as useful and efficient, rather than as a threat. They began to allow big business to make important technological and political decisions that affect all of us.
Right now, Democrats are just panicking and whining and saying, “You have to say mean things about Trump on Twitter,” as if that’s a strategy. Instead, you should fight Trump on economic populist grounds. Today, farmers face monopoly power in the form of Bayer, Monsanto, ADM, and Tyson. People in urban areas face other monopolies, but they’re driven by the same concentrated financial power. The ideology of Democrats should be to break up that power.
You can fight Trump by saying, “It’s outrageous that he wants to allow the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile, because that’s going to raise our cell phone bills and put our telecom infrastructure in the hands of a guy who might be interested in censorship.” You can fight him the way Bernie Sanders has on the Carrier deal, by saying, “We’re going to deny you federal contracts if you’re offshoring jobs and you’re profitable.” When it comes to the trillions of dollars that corporations are holding in offshore bank accounts, Democrats could strike a deal to allow that money to come home tax-free. Or they could fight it by saying, “This money is just going to be used to pay off shareholders and pay for more mergers and acquisitions so that companies can lay you off.” That’s the right way to fight it.
People will vote for you if you deliver something concrete—as long as they know that you did it and it’s simple to understand. Instead of throwing bankers in jail and stopping foreclosures, Democrats did very complex, weird things, like Dodd-Frank. Obamacare allowed the concentration of hospitals and insurance companies and Big Pharma, and ignored the fact that millions of people got shifted from mediocre insurance to terrible insurance.
During the New Deal, Democrats smashed the power of the trusts, which cleared the road for improvements in social welfare. Barack Obama, by contrast, didn’t restructure the economy when he had the opportunity to, in 2009, when banking was on its back and everyone was asking “What do we do now?” Instead he said, “We’re going to re-empower the same people who destroyed the economy and disempowered the middle class.” That’s what the bailouts and amnesty for bank executives were. Dodd-Frank is essentially a 2,000-page note to regulators that says, “The 2008 crisis was really awkward, so try not to let that happen again.”
If you look back at history, there was this whole other antimonopoly tradition that Democrats ran on aggressively for a really long time—you can trace it all the way back to the Revolutionary War period. We need to get back to that.
7 Reinvent Labor
Ai-jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance
The interests of working-class people have not been at the center of the Democratic Party agenda the way they should be. The question going forward now is: How do we build a labor movement that truly embodies the hopes and dreams of a diverse electorate?
The labor movement needs to be out there fighting tooth and nail for policies that allow workers to live and work with dignity in this economy. For immigrant workers, that means living free from raids and registries and deportation. For black workers, that means living free from racial exclusion and profiling. And for workers in the Rust Belt, it means living free from corporate cronyism and deals that get cut without working people’s interests at the table.
Today a lot of work is service-based, and a lot of it is disaggregated and fissured and isolated. The traditional image of a union member is that of a factory worker, but in reality, today’s worker looks much more like a nanny. One of the fastest-growing occupations in the entire economy last year was home care. We’ve found that it’s incredibly powerful to organize people with the broadest possible sense of what “we” means. We’re trying to bring together all caregivers—everyone from nurse’s aides to family members caring for loved ones with Alzheimer’s. Rather than saying this is the worker’s interest and this is the family’s interest and this is what workers of color need and this is what immigrants need, we’re saying that this is an American challenge.
The labor movement needs to lead the way toward economic solutions that lift all boats. We need to enable immigrants to fully integrate into the workforce, provide training for everyone, and improve the quality of these jobs so people can support their families. To do that, we need new forms of organizing and new ways to connect people. We need to organize entrepreneurs and technologists to reflect the new forms of work in our economy. We need to take risks and try new things as a movement—like using social media and texting platforms to do meet-ups, create groups, and enable people to self-organize. Coworker.org has created an online platform that’s a good example of this kind of experimentation.
We’ve built a membership association that provides domestic workers access to benefits and social services, and the ability to feel connected to the community—kind of an AARP for workers. We’re building our own benefits platform for gig workers, and we’ve created a web site to help women understand their rights. We’re going to be setting up committees around the country to help people know where to go for help and how to defend their communities against things like raids. It’s not just worker solidarity; it involves everyone who believes that America is meant to be a multiracial democracy, where everyone has the opportunity to live and work with dignity.
8 Utilize the Courts
Eliot Spitzer, former governor and attorney general of New York
The federal government’s capacity to undercut rights granted by the states is very limited. When it comes to issues like LGBT rights, voting rights, immigration, financial regulations, and the environment, a state can increase the rights it affords its own citizens. LGBT rights are easiest to conceptualize: We recognize same-sex marriage, we decide who gets to vote in our states. Our ability to expand those rights to universal status across the nation may be limited, given the changing makeup of the Supreme Court. But the Constitution will not be interpreted in a way that denies a state the right to extend marriage rights or voting rights to certain individuals.
Financial regulation and the environment, same thing. The federal government could pass laws exempting certain institutions from state regulations or consumer claims. But no court would uphold a federal statute that said a state cannot pursue a fraud action against banks or require power plants to limit emissions. So if Trump does something dubious on policy grounds and there’s a plausible legal argument to be made against it, governors and state attorneys general should say, “No, we’re not going to let you tell us how to run our state.”
This is a much better way to fight Trump than to focus on ethics violations or conflicts of interest. For one thing, rules relating to federal officials are enforced by federal officials. In terms of actual enforcement actions, not much can be done there. And more importantly, those things won’t win the public back to our side. All the shouting about Trump’s business structures certainly didn’t resonate. So how do you win people back? By making the case that regulations actually help people. If Republicans try to roll back the Clean Air Act, Democrats should say, “They want dirty coal to be belched into the jet stream in Ohio, but it will come down in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. So our kids are getting asthma, and acid rain is killing our trees.” That is a better, more visceral argument to make than, “Gee, Wilbur Ross still owns 2 percent of this coal company.”
There are other areas where it’s going to be much harder for states to retain their power, though. If the federal government wants to wield its full authority on immigration, for example, it will be hard for states to object, because that’s an area where the courts have said the government has a clear capacity under the Constitution to do what it wants. Another problem is that over the past decade, we’ve argued in court in favor of administrative latitude in decision-making. Now, by asserting the primacy of states rights, we’re flipping that argument on its head. How do we go back to all these cases where we’ve been arguing for executive discretion and say, “Oops, we didn’t mean it”?
9 Organize a Moral Resistance
Rev. William J. Barber II, architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement
On Election Day, we rejected our deepest moral and constitutional values for a campaign rooted in hyperbole and outright distortions. When someone can create this fear—class fear, race fear—and rev people up almost into a frenzy, it’s not just about political parties or ideology. It’s about the morality of our politics. Neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party can get any better until we have a moral movement that calls all people—regardless of their party or faith—to lean in to their better angels.
In 1967, Dr. King looked at America after the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. When he saw how militarism, materialism, classism, and racism still had such a hold on the body politic, he began to organize a poor people’s campaign. People forget what he said: that America needs “a radical revolution of values.” That’s what we need now.
You don’t change things tweet to tweet. You need a sustained movement, not a moment. You have to reimagine what hope means. You have to hook up with unlikely allies. You have to build a voting strategy. And you have to have a legal strategy for challenging unconstitutional acts. It all has to flow together.
We need moral movements led from the bottom up—from the states, not the top down—because a lot of the problems are in the state legislatures. We need fusion coalitions that are antiracist, antipoverty, and pro-labor. I talk about “fusion politics” instead of “populism,” because in the South, populism can be a lynch mob; it used to be. Populism can be whatever’s popular. Segregation was popular. So, now, is Trumpism.
We’ve got to get people to see that something is wrong when power is used to create oppression and injustice. In the Moral Monday movement, we’ve brought together people who don’t even believe in faith, but they believe in the moral arc of the universe. They look at our Constitution, at those inalienable rights and values, and say, “Well, I might not be a Christian, but this is unjust.” And they’re willing to go to jail to stand up against it.
Remember: Even if Trump had not won, we would still have millions of people in poverty, millions of people without health care. The movement that spawned Moral Mondays started in North Carolina in 2007, when Democrats were in office. We looked at issues of poverty, health care, education, and we said, “Uh-uh. We’re still not living up to our highest values.” We challenge even Democrats. That’s not partisan. It’s moral witness.
What we’re seeing in this country has always been there; we can’t make the mistake of just blaming Trump, or blaming ourselves. This is in our DNA. As the Princeton historian Nell Painter says, without Obama there’d be no Trump. It’s part of our history: The call of justice goes forward, and then there’s a response, a pushback. It’s always been there, and it keeps rising back up, and in every age, somebody has to meet it. Every despot and demagogue in history has ultimately met a moral resistance. It’s just our time.
10 Don’t Give In to Despair
Rep. John Lewis, Democratic congressman and civil rights leader
My message is very, very simple: You cannot give up. You cannot give in. You cannot get lost in a sea of despair. You have to be hopeful and optimistic. Keep pushing, keep pulling, keep organizing, keep believing. This too shall pass.
Since the election, I have seen so many people saying, “I don’t know what we’re going to do.” A young woman came up to me and started crying. I told her, “I’ve cried, too.” I cried the night of the election, and for two or three days after that. But I stopped crying. I shed all of the tears that I wanted to shed. We have got to stand up. We have got to fight. Be unafraid. Don’t let anybody or anything get you down.
At the height of the civil rights movement, we were beaten and jailed, but we never lost faith. When we were first arrested, some of us felt free. We felt that we had been liberated. We had been told over and over again, by our mothers and fathers and grandparents, never to ask questions about the signs that said WHITES ONLY and COLORED ONLY. They would say, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get in trouble.” But individuals like Rosa Parks and Dr. King and thousands of others inspired us to get in the way, to get in trouble. We got in what I call “good trouble,” “necessary trouble.” Somehow, we believed that we had the ability to make things better; that we could succeed. I almost died on that bridge in Selma. I thought I saw death. But I never lost that sense of hope.
The election results were shocking. I truly believe that something went wrong, that outside forces intervened. I believe the Russians played a major role in influencing the outcome of the election, and one day the truth will come out. But this should also serve as a teaching experience. The lesson is that we’ve got to be stronger. We’ve got to do more. I believe people will emerge from this period more organized and more inspired to be engaged in American politics.
As a younger man, during the March on Washington, I said, We cannot wait, we cannot be patient; we want our freedom, and we want it now. That sense of urgency must still be there—the feeling that every day we must work to bring about the changes we desire. But it’s important to recognize that our struggle is not a struggle that lasts a few days or a few weeks or even a few years. It is a lifetime struggle. There may be setbacks, but in the final analysis, we are going to achieve victory.
Now is the time for Americans of goodwill—it doesn’t matter whether they’re black or white, Latino, Asian American, or Native American—to get in good trouble, necessary trouble; to push and resist what is happening. We should do it in an orderly, peaceful, nonviolent fashion, but people must stand up and not be silent. To be silent is like going along, saying it’s OK, it’s all right. We cannot do that. But we will get there, I truly believe that. I think that sense of hope is in our DNA. You have to be optimistic.