Democracy Alliance President
The early steps of what will become the Trump Administration have obliterated any doubt that it will be the most extremist in American history, with devastating consequences for working families, communities of color, the safety of our water, air and planet, and American democracy itself. No aspect of what our country has achieved in its more progressive, tolerant, and caring moments, and no settled norm or revered institution is safe from this onslaught. We are in the fight of our lives – and for too many, for our lives – all the more daunting because few were prepared for it just a month ago.
Many of us are asking, of ourselves and our institutions: how can we possibly rise to meet this crisis? I’ve been talking in recent weeks with many activists, strategists and donors, and they’ve helped me answer this question – for myself, and I hope for others. The thoughts I share below are not a guide to which specific fights to take on – and in any case, we don’t know yet what each of those will be, or in what sequence they will come. They are a lens through which to view the fights, and a guide to making the decisions that govern our actions.
When the right takes power, its first priority, always, is to attack and undermine the sources of progressive power. It’s why Ronald Reagan gutted Legal Services, why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker went after public employee unions and then private sector unions in his state, why virtually every Republican Governor and legislature in the Obama era has rolled back voting rights and gerrymandered election districts to seal in electoral advantage, why when blue cities take progressive measures in areas from wages to gun safety, conservative state legislatures move to “pre-empt” their powers, and why Planned Parenthood is public enemy #1 on the right’s hit list. Labor and Planned Parenthood are both sources of self-financed electoral and progressive movement strength, and key pillars of a fair and just world for workers and families. Making it harder for young people, low-income people and communities of color to vote perpetuates the grip of a demographically dwindling Republican base.
The unprecedented denial of a President’s right to fill a Supreme Court seat tilts the balance of the court for a generation, assures that bad decisions on Citizens United, gun regulation and voting rights stay in place or get worse, and bodes ill for abortion rights, gay and transgender people and immigrants. High on the list of the fights we must wage, and work hard to win, are those which involve changes to the structure of power – to resources, voting and courts – upon which so many other fights depend.
A close corollary of the advice to make a priority of fighting assaults on the sources of progressive power is that some victories against Donald Trump will be more costly to him, and weaken his own power, than others. The earlier and more resounding those victories, the better. George W. Bush came back into office after the 2004 election overestimating his mandate, and overplayed his hand by making a signature issue of one of the right’s most cherished goals, the privatization of Social Security.
I was part of the successful campaign to block that, and it had two huge impacts. First, of course, it protected a landmark program upon which millions of older and disabled people and families rely. But second, it weakened Bush at a critical moment, and the rest of his second term went downhill from there. Success for the policies Donald Trump will push, from public school privatization to the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and financial regulation, and success for the appointees he’s nominated to pursue them, will mean tragedy for Americans and for the rest of the world. Trump already enters office with a gaping deficit in the popular vote, his victory compromised by Russian interference in the election, and a mountain of ethical challenges, and early polls suggest he’s the most unpopular President-elect in memory. A successful campaign to protect, say, Medicare from right-wing predations will fracture Trump’s coalition and weaken him for other fights.
This should go without saying, but there will be some fights – too many, I fear – which must be waged no matter what the political or power calculations. Deportations will devastate families. A Muslim registry is a human rights abomination. Torture is wrong. When we look back at American history of the past century, our greatest shame is when the rights of racial or political minorities were suppressed and many good people looked the other way or made excuses or compromises with policies that were immoral or unconstitutional. We must all pledge together never to do that in the coming period, which may test us as surely as the internment camps for Japanese-Americans or the imprisonment and ruining of dissidents in the McCarthy era. There must be solidarity on these core principles across progressive movements, whether directly threatened or not, and with principled conservatives who will join us.
Let’s not kid ourselves: we will lose far too many of the fights that will be thrust upon us. The executive and legislative branches of government, along with the majority of states and possibly, before long, the Supreme Court, are under the control of the far right. Just last week, the Ohio legislature passed draconian restrictions on abortion rights, and in many states far right leaders will now work in tandem with a President they are in sync with. Only the discipline and focus of progressives, fractures in the shaky Republican coalition, strong social movements and some moments of luck along the way will save us from the worst and hold the line for better days. But even when we lose, we should strive to “lose forward” in a way that preserves our moral integrity and builds our strength for the next fight.