The last weeks have brought some cheering news: Many Americans are determined to defend their democracy against Donald Trump.
But even as protesters gear up to do battle for the republic, there has been a lot of debate about just how to wage the good fight. Should we focus on opposing particular policies or on standing up for democratic norms? And should we keep pointing out how abnormal Trump is or treat him like an ordinary political opponent?
These debates have helped to clarify our options. But they are now in danger of distracting us from the task at hand. Some forms of protest are unacceptable. So long as peaceful resistance to Trump is possible, there is no justification for violence. The leftists who are defending black bloc tactics because they have fantasized about growing up to be Che Guevara since they were little kids are the best allies Trump can hope for. But while violent protest should be beyond the pale, there is no one mode of opposition—and no one winning strategy.
American civil society is very diverse. Different people oppose this administration for different reasons and are motivated by different goals. It’s inevitable that their fight will take on different forms, too.
Five main strategies have been suggested in the last months. At times, they have been portrayed as standing in opposition to each other. But they are actually complementary. Every opponent of Trump’s rule should feel free to choose the mode of engagement that best suits his or her own skills and passions. What matters is that, collectively, they engage in all of them.
In the first days after the election, one battle cry rang out more loudly than all others: “Do. Not. Normalize. Trump.”
This task has turned out to be rather less challenging than many people expected. After the election, I feared that Trump’s assault on democratic norms might prove subtle, and his assault on the rights of the opposition creeping. Instead, the early weeks of his presidency have been anything but normal—and even CEOs like Uber’s Travis Kalanick, who were initially reluctant to criticize Trump, have been forced to distance themselves from him.
But the insight that it is important not to normalize Trump—and to keep explaining why opposition to him is based in a commitment to democratic norms common to a large majority of Americans, including both liberals and conservatives—remains just as urgent today as it was on Nov. 9. For many voters, phrases like democratic norms or the values of the Constitution remain abstract. It will take patience and determination to explain why these norms and values matter—and how Trump’s presidency is imperiling them.
It may even take a special event for the point to hit home. In the early 2000s, liberals kept emphasizing the cronyism and incompetence of the George W. Bush administration. By and large, their complaints fell on deaf ears. Then Hurricane Katrina hit. For weeks, the human cost of that cronyism and incompetence was exposed on every television set in the country. From that day on, Bush was defined by his failure, something that was only possible because liberals had continued to sow the seeds of his downfall even when their tactic didn’t seem to be taking.
The chorus about Trump’s innumerable violations of democratic norms may one day play a similar role. For an agonizingly long while, it will seem to fall on deaf ears. But it’s important to keep on singing, confident in the belief that a patient refrain can prepare the way for sudden change.
The core claim of every populist is that he alone speaks for the people—with the implication that anybody who opposes him must be a traitor, a foreigner, or a paid agitator. Donald Trump is no exception to this rule. “I am your voice,” he declared at the Republican National Convention, and so it hardly comes as a surprise that he now rails against the “so-called judges” who oppose him or dismisses protesters as hired actors.
But Trump does not speak for all Americans, and it is crucially important to demonstrate that point over and over again.
Calling your senator or representative is one way of showing that Trump does not speak for you. Writing to your local newspaper is another. Turning up to protest at the airport when he wants to bar permanent residents from entering the country is even better. Going out into the streets, where nonprotesters will happen upon you, may be best of all.
If possible, Trump’s opponents should do all of this in explicitly patriotic terms. Paint your faces in the colors of the American republic. Wear red-white-and-blue shirts, red-white-and-blue baseball caps, and red-white-and-blue hot pants. Proudly hoist the American flag.
Why engage in all this patriotic pageantry? So that everybody knows that it is the people, not their self-declared spokesman, who represent the true spirit of the United States of America.
Grow the grass-roots
“Give a man a fish,” the old canard goes, “and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”
A similar wisdom—trite but true—holds for organizing. It’s important to show up for spontaneous protests in an hour of need. But it’s just as important to build the political infrastructure that is needed to sustain ongoing resistance against Donald Trump and lend effective support to political candidates who oppose his agenda.
Over the last years, the left has not done enough of this. The Democratic Party has fallen fallow in many places. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton had a well-staffed headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, but far too few field offices across key states like Michigan. At a larger level, Democrats poured hundreds of millions of dollars into the presidential race but failed to contest thousands of seats in local and state elections across the country. To start rolling back the awesome power Republicans now hold at every level of government, Democrats need to build the infrastructure that can sustain ongoing local engagement.
Even in extraordinary times, when basic democratic norms are in danger, there is every reason to protest against ordinary wrongs—like harmful tax cuts for the rich or bad educational policies that hurt the poor. Partisanship, as Nancy Rosenblum has pointed out, has its virtues. It is fine for avowed liberals to argue their particular values with the courage of their convictions.
But a partisan perspective must not stop those who oppose Trump from building the kinds of ideologically heterodox coalitions that will be needed to thwart his attacks on democracy. Already, the White House has given signs that it may instruct federal bureaucrats to undertake illegal acts or ignore the rulings of a federal court. It is possible that Trump might try to overrule the Supreme Court or pack it with his own cronies. The country must prepare for that moment. And preparing for that moment means building cross-ideological coalitions among all Americans who are committed to the basic values of the Constitution.
Many times in the past, both left and right have refused to come to the defense of democracy because doing so would have required cooperation with the rivals they despise. They have paid dearly for the satisfaction of their moral purity—and so have scores of innocents who suffered as a result. Americans must not make the same mistake: If our institutions should truly come under attack, they will only survive if libertarians as well as Clintonites, evangelical Christians as well as Bernie bros, rise to their defense.
“If nobody with whom you disagree is part of your coalition,” a student pointed out to me last Monday, “you don’t have a coalition.” This doesn’t mean that we have to hide our disagreement, or to stop hoping for a moment when that disagreement can once again become the main fault line of our politics. But it does mean that, for the time being, activists committed to fighting Trump have to be willing to make common cause with people whom they saw as their primary political opponents until a few short months ago.
Offer a vision for a better future
For too long, political parties have sliced and diced the electorate. At each election, they looked for the groups that would supposedly swing the election: soccer moms one year, hockey moms the next. If they made a targeted pitch to those key demographics, so the theory went, they would be sure to cobble together a winning coalition.
But things just don’t work that way. To win elections, you need people to get excited. And for people to get excited, you need to prove that you have a vision for how to improve the country—something that helps them, yes, but also subsumes their story into a common narrative of hope and progress.
Barack Obama was incredibly good at telling such a story. Donald Trump, with his apocalyptic cadence, was too. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, lacked an overarching narrative and consequently struggled to convince most Americans that she was in it for them. That does a lot to explain the differences in the fates of these candidates. It also implies a simple takeaway for 2020: Democrats will lose if they run on the platform that Trump is horrible. To win, they need a bold vision for how to improve the lives of most Americans.
I don’t think this challenge is any more important than the others. But I have increasingly become convinced that it is the part of the overall struggle to which people are paying least attention, and the one to which I can personally make the biggest contribution. So, over the coming years, I hope to spend a lot of my time on some basic questions: What would a bold vision for a better America look like? Which policies can ensure that average Americans will find meaningful work and enjoy a growing standard of living in the age of automation? And how can we find a political language that puts the focus back on our commonalities?
Americans are now ruled by a president who is depressingly effective at exploiting our differences. A key part of the good fight is to show how, if only we make the right choices, a better future is possible for us all.