How to Get Your Head in This Moment

This is not the first time forward progress has ended in a right-wing regime. And the past has plenty of lessons for how to go forward effectively.
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Photo by LuckyBusiness / iStock.

On the morning after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, I was still at home in rural Bolivia. My neighbors moved their cows to pasture and tended to their tall cornstalks as if it was just another Wednesday, which it wasn’t. I was grateful two days later when I boarded an American Airlines jet for an already-scheduled trip to New York City. In times of trauma, you want to be near others who feel it too.

“So now what do we do?” That has been the question that lingers in the air as I’ve spoken with protesters at Trump Tower, commiserated with my U.S. friends, and sifted through the daily rivers of post-election analysis. Detailed agendas and prescriptions abound, even as it is really too soon still to know what awaits us in unchartered political waters.

As an activist of more than 40 years and someone who has been a close witness to seismic political changes before in the U.S. and beyond, here are three big pieces of work I see ahead for us as we prepare for President Trump.

1. Grieve, but know that we’ve been here before

Our first task is emotional recovery. What I saw most in my friends here, among both young and not young, is a sense of shock, fear, and depression. I wouldn’t call those emotions unwarranted. People woke up on Nov. 9 to a country where hatred had come out of the closet, fact had fallen away to fiction, and where the planet’s most profound political powers were being handed over to a man with a deeply troubled relationship to power. In political and democratic terms, I found people asking whether we had just entered a new dark age—or just a really bad storm?

I vote for the storm, because I know we have been here before.

I vote for the storm, because I know we have been here before. My own emotions transported me back through time to another Wednesday morning, in the autumn of 1980. I was sitting on the floor of my sparse California apartment, talking to a close friend through a long-distance line as we took in the reality that Ronald Reagan was headed to the White House. It felt like the planet had just taken a dangerous turn on its axis. Others will go back to November 1968, when a decade of vibrant civil rights and anti-war movements culminated in the election of Richard Nixon, and two of the leaders we admired most, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, were not just defeated, but assassinated and freshly buried in the ground.

In other words, take solace from the fact that this is not an entirely unique moment in the nation’s history. We will find our political legs together this time as well. Mourn if you must, and then get it together because there is urgent work to be done.

2. Resistance becomes central

The second challenge before us has to do with a new word on many people’s lips in the aftermath of Trump’s election: “resistance.” Resistance is not advocacy or protest; it means using whatever leverage you have to block the machinery of power. Some of this will come in the form of Democrats in the Congress and lawyers in the courts using whatever political and legal power they have to scuttle the worst of Trump’s plans.

But in the Trump era, resistance will need to be much broader than that. In the face of dire potential threats—from the forced deportation of families to the construction of planet-decimating oil pipelines—resistance through direct action is also going to be essential, and it must be done with keen strategic sense. The encampments working to stop the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota provide a powerful example of what is going to need to become the new norm.

Resistance is not about acting out our anger in public.

Resistance is not about acting out our anger in public. It is about having specific targets and actions that match them. Colonial subjects in India made salt from the sea in the face of a British tax. During the Vietnam War, young men in the U.S. burned their draft cards and refused to go. Bolivians barricaded roads and held general strikes to block privatization of their drinking water.

We need to develop a clear and strategic vision of what resistance should look like under President Trump. What are the first issues where that resistance needs to be focused? What are the right targets and approaches that can actually block action and not simply provoke a public reaction that strengthens Trump’s hand? And if his treatment of protesters at campaign rallies is any sign, the crackdown against dissent will be intense. How will we respond? These are the questions we need to be discussing, together, to be sure we are actually achieving what is needed and not just becoming political noise.

3. Renew our movements

The third challenge before us is longer term: the renovation and renewal of our political movements. The deep undercurrent that drove the 2016 election, from start to finish, was broad public anger at an economy that increasingly serves the rich and powerful but leaves the rest of us behind. Among main political parties, two presidential candidates recognized and channeled that anger: Bernie Sanders, who joined it with social justice; and Donald Trump, who joined it with racism. Only the second made it to November, and just enough desperate voters sided with him to give him a victory.

The only rescue team we have is ourselves. 

It shouldn’t be rocket science to figure out how to build a strong grassroots-up movement of policy ideas and citizen action, in which the natural siblings of economic justice, social justice, and protection of the planet are rejoined as family. That rejoining will require organizing on specific issues, like jobs and working wages, which have the potential to cross the chasms of class, color, age, and gender. It will require new kinds of people running for public office, and campaigns that are as much about building power as winning the vote. The movement we need has to do more than win elections. It has to win the political battles that happen in between them, too.

The election of Donald Trump to the White House sends our future into dangerous waters. No Democratic majority in either house of Congress stands ready to launch a rescue. The only rescue team we have is ourselves.

What’s the strategy to battle and win against the threat of Trump? The only real option we have now is our faith that by coming together we can surprise ourselves with what we can do. Our strategy is ourselves or, more precisely, the smartest version of ourselves.

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