First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemöller
I have been thinking about this quote a lot since election day. In that time, I have received about a dozen email blasts from progressive organizations trying to come to terms with the unexpected results. Most have pledged to “redouble” their efforts and do more of whatever they have been doing all along. This is an understandable reaction, but it seems somehow wrong. To survive a Trump administration, we are going to have to do something new—we are going to have to stand together—and to do that, we will necessarily have to do LESS of something that we were doing before.
For the most part, progressive organizations have been on the offensive for the past eight years, but now it is time to switch to playing defense. And, like any sport, that means pulling some players off the field and changing tactics.
Playing defense does not mean focusing all of our energy on preventing big losses, but it may mean choosing battles less for their intrinsic importance and more for their value as vehicles for bringing people together and winning broader public understanding and support.
“Public opinion alone can keep a society pure and healthy.” – Gandhi
Gandhi believed in people—all people. He believed that everyday people both in India and England would reject colonialism if they really understood it. Gandhi’s civil disobedience, built on this faith, was carefully calculated to hold up a mirror to show people (on both sides) the true face of British colonialism. Rather than confront the superior British military, Gandhi won independence by changing public opinion.
Seen from Gandhi’s point of view, Donald Trump is a gift.
For a short time, the American civil rights movement fought racism face to face in the streets, but since about the time of the Civil Rights Act, its true enemy has not been organized racists, the KKK, or the American Nazi Party: it has been the apathy that grows from a false sense that racism is a thing of the past.
Trump is the face that America has been hiding since the 1970s. It is almost impossible to fight an invisible enemy, but with the enemy out in the open, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to pick the kinds of fights that permanently change people’s hearts and minds and fundamentally alter what is politically possible.
In the dark days following the election, progressives have been wringing their hands and doubting the strength and appeal of their values—of justice itself. In spite of the sobering election result, I see no reason to conclude that most people have suddenly abandoned our 240-year experiment with “liberty and justice for all.” These are our common values and they have never been uniquely “leftist.” A majority of American adults (96 percent) believe in equal rights for women, and 87 percent have a personal relationship with someone who is gay. I don’t believe that the vast majority of Americans will let people be pushed back into the closet—if they manage to notice it happening. Given a clear choice, they won’t allow Muslims to be targeted or immigrant families divided.
(I understand that many people will read this cynically and conclude, “no, that is exactly what many Americans will do.” It is undeniably true that racism runs deep in this country, but thankfully people don’t have to be free of racism before they choose to stand up for justice.)
Sure, there are many who voted for Trump precisely because of his racism, misogyny, and intolerance, but there are millions of Americans (probably tens of millions) who voted for Trump but didn’t really intend to sign on to any racist agenda. They were voting against Hillary, or voting for “change,” or just not paying attention.
Trump’s triumph was in winning over a large mass of these essentially moderate Americans to back the far right. As long as those people support him, there is nothing he can’t do. Congress won’t stop him; the courts won’t stop him; the Electoral College won’t stop him as long as the people stand with him. If we want to stop Trump (and Paul Ryan, speaker of the House), we need to drive a wedge between him and the electorate. There is no other strategy.
Our job—our most important job—for the next two years is to help the American people recognize what’s at stake. If Trump is as bad as we fear, it should be easy. All we need to do to win people over is get them to pay attention.
But winning their attention will require discipline and a level of coordination that the left has not managed in my memory. Where the far right has put together multi-issue teams like the Christian Coalition and the Tea Party, both united more by a certain mean spirited outlook than by any specific policy priorities, the left has been fielding dozens and dozens of isolated causes, each competing to be the star player. Should we really have to choose between eliminating poverty or stopping global warming? Really?
Now suddenly, we have no choice but to work together or we will lose everything. There aren’t enough gay people to defend marriage equality alone, there aren’t enough African Americans to defend Fair Housing laws alone, and there aren’t enough immigrants to stop deportations alone. There aren’t enough environmentalists to defend our climate agreements alone. And as much as I suspect that everyone reading this is ready to help defend ALL of these things (and more), there aren’t enough hours in the day for us to fight all of these fights separately.
If you are an affordable housing organization and your primary concern these days is saving the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, I urge you to take a step back and think bigger. Surely, we need to do what we can to protect the tax credit, but there aren’t nearly enough housing advocates for us to defend the whole range of essential housing programs alone. While we might have won important gains pursuing housing on its own in a Clinton administration, in a Trump administration, we have to see housing as part of a much bigger fight. I am not suggesting that we give up on affordable housing, but I think our best chance to save these programs is to put more of our collective energy into broader campaigns to win (more) popular support for equity and inclusion—campaigns that won’t focus on housing immediately. If we can build a broad coalition that can win sustained public support, housing will be one of many beneficiaries.
The truth is, I don’t really know what that kind of campaign looks like—I haven’t seen such a thing in my lifetime. But I got a small glimpse of this possibility in my inbox last week. It came in the form of an e-blast from the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). There is so much to fear from the incoming administration on environmental issues and it would be easy to convince yourself that exacerbating climate change is the worst of the many Trump threats, but this email was about racial bigotry. LCV was rallying its supporters to back up the NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center’s call for opposition to the appointment of Steve Bannon as White House strategist. As far as I can tell, resisting racism is not something that LCV has historically focused on, but this kind of united front is exactly what it is going to take to beat Trump. (You can support this approach by donating to LCV here.)
If we fight for our separate issues separately, we have no chance of penetrating anyone’s media bubble or changing anyone’s mind. But if we stand together we can draw clear lines in the sand that highlight (sometimes symbolically) the choice we are facing about what kind of country to be. And if we draw the lines in the right places, when Trump crosses them, the American people will stand with us—and they will remember that choice for generations.
Whatever comes next, we should not lose faith that the American people will ultimately make the right choice. The long arc of history still bends every bit as much toward justice.