It is entirely possible that Donald Trump’s election may indeed mark a significant inflection point in American political history – but not because it spawns a rebirth of white supremacy or the authoritarian right; quite the contrary.
I have been involved in progressive political organizing for 50 years – beginning in the late 1960s. There was an enormous amount of progressive energy, enthusiasm and passion generated during the Civil Rights movement and the mobilizations aimed at stopping the Viet Nam War. But the level of progressive mobilization generated by Donald Trump’s victory surpasses the 1960s and ‘70s or any other time in the last half-century.
Millions of ordinary Americans – many of whom have never been engaged in political activity of any kind – have joined the “resistance.” They have begun to attend town hall meetings, or participated in the amazing Women’s March following the Trump Inauguration, or they were part of the explosive response to Trump’s immigration policies and his refugee ban.
In fact, as far as I know, the Women’s March was the largest one-day series of nation-wide protests in American history.
The emergence of new grassroots-led organizations like Indivisible, the Town Hall Project, and the Women’s March have already transformed the political landscape. And the memberships of grassroots progressive organizations like MoveOn, Planned Parenthood, Organizing for Action (OFA), People For the American Way, and many others have all exploded.
When you attend town meetings or progressive political events – or just talk to your neighbors – the universal question is: “What can I do – how can I become involved to stop Trump and his policies?”
And already, we’ve seen evidence that the new level of political mobilization washes over very directly into electoral politics. In the Delaware special legislative election where the GOP and Democrats were fighting over a swing seat to determine control of the legislature, the Democrat won going away because turnout far surpassed expectation.
Political observers are watching the Georgia special election to replace former Congressman – now Trump Health and Human Services Secretary – Tom Price. Donald Trump won the election in the district by only 1 percent ― a seat that Price won handily last fall. It is entirely possible that a massive special election turnout generated by the new level of progressive mobilization may carry Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff to victory. That would send shivers down the Republican Party’s collective spine and could presage a Democratic takeover of the House next year.
Some people think that the current level of energy and engagement may fade with time – and they may be right.
But as anyone who has done political organizing knows, it’s much easier to get people fired up about things someone is trying to take away from them than about things to which they aspire. Once people have something, they don’t want to give it up.
At the same time, if you give newly energized people a taste of success, they are much more prone to deepen their engagement.
Ironically then, on the one hand the more successful Trump and his forces are at taking away our health care insurance, public television, school lunches or the rights of the immigrant community, the more angry and fired up people will be. On the other hand, the more progressives are successful at stopping Trump from achieving his declared goals of taking these and other things away, the more that success itself will inspire people to fight on.
This is not at all to say that the new level of progressive mobilization will inevitably continue. If progressives were to allow Trump to truly consolidate power, limit the rights of free speech and assembly, further suppress the right to vote, eviscerate the judiciary, pack the Supreme Court with Trump rubber stamps like his nominee Neil Gorsuch – or blunder into a truly devastating war ― that could change the picture.
But unless Trump is truly able to make himself into an American Putin, the Trump victory and the new level of political mobilization it has inspired present progressives with an historic political opportunity to catapult the country into a truly progressive direction that allows us to break through the gridlock ― and political and economic constraints of the last 30 years.
Increased progressive voter turnout massively changes the equation at every level of government. In addition, many voters who supported Obama, and then supported Trump in 2016 have already begun – gradually – to realize they were conned. Many of those most negatively impacted by repeal of the Affordable Care Act, for example, would be the older, rural, white working class voters upon which Trump most heavily depended for his surprise win last November.
And just last week, an iconic article appeared in The Huffington Post quoting a Trump voter saying that she didn’t know he would cut her Meals on Wheels program. “I was under the influence that he was going to help us,” she said.
If in 2018 Democrats take back the House and begin to retake the Governors’ mansions and legislatures upon which redistricting depends in 2020; if in 2020 itself we oust Trump and replace him with an inspiring populist progressive bent on building an economy that works for everyone – not just CEO’s and the wealthiest; and if the new level of progressive engagement allows us to simultaneously take back the Senate and make further inroads at the state and local level: if all of those things happen, America could make more social and economic progress over the next decade than we have made in the last half-century – all compliments of the progressive mobilization precipitated by the election of Donald Trump.
But to realize that possibility, progressives must do everything we can to nurture and encourage that mobilization. Here are some of the rules of engagement:
Do everything we can to provide people with useful, strategically valuable things to do. People will not be “burned out.” They want more to do, not less. We must provide them with the times, dates and places of town hall meetings and demonstrations; engage them in voter registration operations, creating press events, and – next year – the critical task of turning out the vote.
Continue to avoid the kind of sectarian, circular firing squads and hand wringing that often accompany major defeats like the Trump victory. The most inspiring thing about the tone of the new progressive movement is its clear understanding that Benjamin Franklin was right: we must all hang together or we will all hang separately.
Relentlessly take on Trump and the Republicans. Most Americans support progressive values – on economic issues, social issues, and international issues. We need to self-confidently stand up for those progressive values and never give in to those who say we should “compromise” or cut our losses.
In spite of their November election victory, the right wing in America is on the defensive. They’re in the same place as the dog that caught the bus. For eight years they have been free to criticize Democrats at every turn because they did not have responsibility for actually governing. Now they own it all. And they have to show they can govern. But instead they are in disarray.
When you have them on the run, that’s the time to chase them, not the time to settle down and act like we have to negotiate with Trump because he is the “new normal.”Those newly mobilized progressive activists expect us to go to war to defend our values. Progressives will win if we listen to our mothers, who tell us to stand up straight.
Celebrate our victories, but never try to claim that a defeat – or some minor modification in a horrible right wing policy ― is a victory. Victory is stopping them from achieving their agenda. Victory would be stopping them from eliminating the ACA – or making them take months to achieve their goal. Victory is stopping the Gorsuch Supreme Court nomination cold. Victory in the short run is driving Trump and the GOP approval rating through the floor. Victory is living to fight another day and preparing for real game-changing wins in 2018 and 2020.
Don’t be afraid to make it completely clear at all times that any victory that we achieve while the GOP controls the House, Senate, and White House is only a holding action until we can take back the reins of government in 2018 and 2020. One thing many “non-political” Americans learned in no uncertain terms last fall is that elections have consequences. Another is that we can’t count on the conventional wisdom to be right, we can’t count on other people to do it for us – everyone has to take personal responsibility for creating the society we want. No one can ever again sit out an election. We must all get involved in electoral politics.
Once we take back the reins of government, our first priority must be raising the wages of ordinary working people. That means we must end the era of growing income inequality and reduce the share of national income that goes to the top 1%. America’s gross domestic product per capita increased 48% over the last 30 years, but the wages of ordinary people flat-lined. That’s because those increases all went to the top 1%. Our failure to adequately address that fact created the fertile ground in which Trumpism flourished. We must never fail to address this fundamental question again.
Finally, while people are much easier to mobilize to prevent someone from taking something away rather than achieving something to which they aspire – they also most be inspired. They must have hope for the future. Hopelessness and fear are the enemies of empowerment and mobilization. Inspiration and hope are the catalysts that light the fire. Inspiration requires that someone believe that they are part of something larger than themselves – but that they themselves can play a personal, instrumental role in achieving the larger goal. We must remember that in fighting against the forces of darkness, we must always offer the sure belief that a bright, exciting future is possible – that it is sometimes darkest right before the dawn.
Dr. King was right, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But it is our hands that will make it so.