Social Self Defense, Part Two

The Trump regime will soon control the major governmental levers of power in the U.S.: the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and presumably the Supreme Court, not to mention the military, the national security agencies, and the federal bureaucracy. Under such conditions, how is Social Self-Defense possible?

Gandhi once wrote, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” The depredations of the Trump regime will not be able to continue for a day without the cooperation of some and the acquiescence of most of those whose lives and future they are destroying. Trump will only be able to continue his destructive course if others enable or acquiesce in it. Social Self-Defense can defeat Trumpism without weapons or violence if it can withdraw that cooperation. We have no way to know how long it will take to overcome Trump and Trumpism. His regime and its successors could last for decades—consider Mubarak or Berlusconi. Alternatively, they could rapidly succumb to popular disenchantment and internal contradictions. While elections two and four years from now provide important milestones, the timeframe for the struggle against Trump will depend primarily on the gradual or rapid development of a Great Repudiation in which the American people decide to act decisively to eliminate him. Trump’s defeat requires a shift in power away from him and his supporters to his opponents. That process starts with a cumulative disillusion and repudiation—apparently already underway. It requires an on-going expansion of Social Self-Defense in civil society and government. It must make Trump’s actions increasingly ineffective—neutralize them. It needs to undermine Trump’s wobbly pillars of support. The result may be in effect a period of dual power, in which Trump remains in office but he is unable to implement his agenda because of popular resistance. Depending on circumstances, it may also require peaceful “people power” uprisings like those that have removed dictatorships and reestablished democratic processes in many countries around the world. Sooner or later the transfer of power will need to be ratified by popular elections.

Social Self-Defense is not an organization—it is a set of practices to be engaged in by myriad organizations, hopefully in close coordination with each other. It draws both on established and newly emerging organizations. The community assemblies in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Montpelier, and many other locations illustrate how new organizations can arise for Social Self-Defense—often interpenetrated with existing ones. Other examples of self-organization: A group of young millennials agreed to set aside $20 a week each for travel and bail for when they may need to go to a demonstration and risk arrest. And the immigrant youth organization Cosecha is establishing a network of “activist circles” that each consist of anywhere between 3 and 150 people. Social Self-Defense need not become a single organization or umbrella group. But it requires that pre-existing issue- and constituency-based groups expand beyond their accustomed practices to act in concert with each other to resist the Trump agenda. “The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people.”

Three Strategic Options

Social Self-Defense requires coordinating three strategic objectives. First, minimize the damage Trump does to people and planet. Second, terminate the Trump regime ASAP. Third, lay the groundwork for expanding protection of people and planet. These are part of a continuous process: slow the Trump assault by pushing back; then begin to roll it back; ultimately evacuate him from the stage of history. The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people. They must be persuaded that Trumpism is bad for them personally; bad for the groups of which they are part; and bad for society as a whole. They must be able to see that better alternatives are possible and that their action can make a difference.

This requires reaching out beyond the initial anti-Trump base. For example, people throughout the country could support Fight for 15 to organize in the depressed, low-income areas that swung for Trump in 2016. The fight to preserve health insurance could similarly concentrate on protecting people in poor rural and urban counties. In the face of Trump’s dubious promises to restore coal mining, a group of senators introduced the RECLAIM Act to provide $1 billion to create new jobs and economic opportunities in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry through the reclamation of abandoned coal mines.

Every victory is valuable both for what it accomplishes in itself and as a building block for the ultimate defeat of Trumpism. Protecting one immigrant from attack or deportation is a victory. So is exposing one brutal act of repression or securing medical care for one person who has been denied it. The most important criteria for success are the growth of the movement and the expansion of public support.

Combining civil resistance with
political resistance in the institutions

It will take months for the Trump regime to eviscerate, coopt, or eliminate the institutions that might resist it. There are still courts, legislatures, local and state governments, legal, educational, labor, media, and other civil society institutions. People power needs to be expressed not only through direct action, but through supporting and rebuilding those institutions willing and able to resist Trumpian tyranny. While there is at present little possibility for an “inside game” that attempts to influence the Trump administration from within, cooperation with anti-Trump politicians and institutional leaders is essential to the success of Social Self-Defense. The success of Social Self-Defense will depend on combining civil resistance in social institutions and the streets with political resistance in the institutions of government. Such a strategy is already being forged by the political arena. We want our elected representatives to help defend society against Trump’s attacks.Although Democrats are in the minority in both houses of Congress, they still have significant powers. They can hold hearings on appointments, legislation, and executive policy; speak out and campaign around the country against Trump’s actions; in the Senate they can filibuster; if President Trump commits high crimes and misdemeanors that provoke public and congressional outrage they can move to impeach him. We want them to use every available power to expose, condemn, slow down, weaken, and to the extent possible halt Trumpism’s anti-social plans. That includes resisting appointments, executive orders, legislation, and Trump’s often anti-democratic and outlandish pronouncements. We want our representatives to build a unified force to oppose Trump’s agenda and to hold each other accountable not to sell out.

An immediate objective is to take back the House and/or Senate in 2018. That requires driving down Trump’s public support. Anti-Trump representatives need to show the disastrous effects of Trump proposals and expose Trump’s corruption and stupidity.

Split the Republican Party

They must split the Republican Party by making Republican officeholders fear they will pay politically if they don’t break with Trump.

Many Democrats have already stated that they are willing to work with Trump, at least in limited areas like infrastructure and trade. But there must be redlines for any cooperation. There can be no compromise when it comes to human rights, protection of the climate, constitutional limits on the power of government, or global cooperation to protect the human future. Even Trump’s most attractive programs are likely to be laced with threats to equality for women and minorities, labor rights, and the environment—and if so there can be no support or compromise. And any cooperation with Trump’s agenda—or even failure to oppose it—risks legitimizing and normalizing his regime and offering him credit for winning bi-partisan cooperation. Congressional Democrats can also begin laying out attractive alternatives that meet the needs of those to whom Trump appealed but who he is now dissing. Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign laid out a progressive program that had wide support, not only within the Democratic Party but even among many people who eventually voted for Trump. What our representatives do will depend heavily on what the people do. We need to define the Trump agenda not as a slight variation on “normal politics” but as an attack on society. We need to use petitions, letters, calls, and social media to urge government officials, the media, and institutional leaders to deny that Trump’s agenda is anything but an attack on human rights, the natural environment, constitutional government, and global survival.

We need to protect the protectors, ensuring money and support for those in Congress, local and state government, and the political system more broadly who are demonstrably fighting Trump. Advocacy groups need to collaborate and form broad coalitions to fight each of the elements of Trump’s agenda.

Citizens in safe progressive Democratic congressional districts need to direct resources to support Democrats and fight Republicans in marginal districts, both by providing resources to candidates and by supporting issue activism.

Finally, Democrats who may be tempted to compromise with Trump must be made to realize that they will be risking their own political future to do so. Advocates for Social Self-Defense need to develop means to pressure Democrats to find their backbone: For example, they can issue multi-issue ratings of courage vs. cowardice in standing up to Trump—with the obvious implication that money and support is more likely to flow to the resolutes than to the wishy-washies.

What Social Self-Defense is defending

While Trump and Trumpism threaten individuals and specific groups, they also threaten the essential principles that make it possible for people to live a life that is not nasty, brutish, and short. Defending these principles is a common interest—indeed necessity—for all of us. Conversely, defending the rights and wellbeing of every individual and group is central to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all. As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights points out, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Similarly, the protection of the earth from devastating climate change and other environmental destruction is essential to the preservation of ourselves and our posterity. The fundamental principle of constitutionalism—that governments and their officials must be ruled by law—is necessary in order to prevent tyranny. The recognition that human beings are part of one species and must share one planet is necessary to prevent efforts to advance one nation, people, or other group by destroying others. These principles provide a basis for unifying the struggle against Trump and Trumpism—indeed they are already emerging in one form or another in the resistance that is already under way. They provide a way to ground the objectives of the anti-Trump movement in the most fundamental principles.

These principles can define not only what Social Self-Defense is fighting against, but what it is fighting for. They provide the ultimate grounding for the case against Trumpism. They can serve as the basis and justification for alternatives proposed by progressives and others. And they provide “red lines” that must not be crossed in any kind of cooperation with the Trump regime.

Human rights

International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney observes that Trump’s comments that there should be a religious test imposed on entering the U.S., or that there should be state-sponsored torture, or that families of suspected terrorists should all be killed are all “violations of international human rights” and the values that underlie them.

A high proportion of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s other proposals are likely to result in deprivation of human rights as well. Their housing, education, healthcare, and other social welfare proposals will result in deprivation of the human rights to housing, education, and healthcare. Their proposals to dismantle labor law will eliminate the right of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and undertake concerted action—and their basic human rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and expression. Their proposals to further restrict the right to vote undermine the fundamental right to equality. The list could go on to include discrimination against LGTB people, women, racial and religious groups, and other infractions too numerous even to list.

Social Self-Defense means protection of human rights.

The earth: Our individual and common life depend on our natural environment. Trump’s assault on every aspect of the environment has already begun. His proposals for expanding fossil fuel production and burning spell catastrophe for the earth’s climate. As a recent federal court decision makes clear, “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” A stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, “without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.” According to that decision, protection of the “public trust”—the essential natural resources on which human society depends—is so basic that it need not even be written in the Constitution, for it is assumed to exist from the inception of humankind.

Social Self-Defense means protecting the public trust and a climate system capable of sustaining human life.

As constitutional law teacher Garrett Epps recently wrote, “Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from ‘unreasonable searches and seizures’ to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.”

Social Self-Defense means making governmental
institutions and officials subject to law.

One people, one planet: Donald Trump’s bellicose threats and insults to other countries and their leaders pave the road to war. His threats of unilateral economic aggression pave the way to international conflict, trade wars, and downward global economic spirals. His repudiation of global efforts for climate protection pave the way for both American self-destruction and the destruction of the rest of humanity. It is a truism that the world today is too inter-dependent for any one nation to provide for its own wellbeing unless it also assures the wellbeing of the rest of the world community. The problems of individual nations, races, and religions cannot be solved by making economic, military, or environmental war on others. Security and environmental wellbeing require global cooperation.

Social Self-Defense means international cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.

The election of Donald Trump is part of a larger political development that includes Brexit in Britain, the rise of LePen in France, and the emergence of repressive racist, nationalist, xenophobic rightwing regimes in Poland, Turkey, Brazil, India, and elsewhere. In most cases these are regimes that have the trappings of democracy—political parties, elections, and the like—but in which government is used by self-aggrandizing leaders and cliques to perpetuate and expand their own wealth and power.

What can we expect of the Trump regime?

These regimes typically combine charismatic leaders, traditional conservative forces, and multiple forms of political repression. They make appeals to non-elite constituencies based both on economic interests and on nationalist, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and other appeals to hate and division. The recent wave of such regimes has been in part a response to the catastrophic consequences of corporate-led economic globalization, manifested in the Great Recession and the growing inequality and rapid deterioration in economic conditions for a large segment of the working class in the countries it affected. In the U.S., Republicans now control almost all the national governmental levers of power as well as a majority of state legislatures. Trump has largely unrestricted power over the executive branch, including the power to direct the armed forces, issue executive orders, set policy for government agencies, declare states of emergency, and order assassinations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gives the President almost unlimited power to use force any place in the world at any time—and Trump has a cabinet full of generals advising him about how to do so. Republicans in Congress control the Federal budget and legislative power with few legal limits except filibuster and appeal to the Supreme Court. Trump’s career has been marked by willingness to flout legal and constitutional limits. His modus operandi is largely based on instilling stigma, fear, and distraction. He appears unconcerned with actual problem-solving. He is highly opportunistic; in fact, it would be difficult to find any consistent goal other than his own wealth, power, and fame. He is also highly erratic, engaging in unpredictable actions whose motivations beyond personal pique and vengeance are often obscure. He accepts no responsibility or accountability for his actions and their consequences. The almost unimaginable incompetence of Trump and the people closest to him makes outcomes even more unpredictable. There is every reason to expect that his behavior as President will continue or even amplify these traits; that, however, means that the details of his behavior will be unpredictable and in many cases enigmatic. Neither his signals nor his expressed policy statements necessarily predict what he will do.

The Republican Right, which controls both houses of Congress, is more predictable. It has consistently pursued an agenda that includes tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations; expanding military budgets; dismantling of government programs and regulations that aid the poor or protect the common good; suppression of civil liberties in the name of anti- terrorism; disempowering organized labor, African Americans, and other groups that may oppose them politically; elimination of reproductive freedom and other rights of women; legally imposing religious norms and practices; and other policies too numerous and notorious to mention.

There are some areas where Trump’s past pronouncements and established Republican policy appear to be in conflict. Examples include international trade agreements and spending on infrastructure. Whether such matters will lead to significant conflict among Republicans that might weaken their unity and power remains to be seen. Trump’s cabinet appointments, however, suggest that most of his policies will represent traditional right-wing Republican programs carried to an extreme that ignores even the most certain and disastrous consequences.

One thing that virtually all Republican leaders agree on is the goal of permanent political domination. So a prime and unified objective of both “populist” and “conservative” factions will be transforming the political process to assure their permanent political power. That will undoubtedly include restricting the right to vote; strengthening the role of money in politics; shaping electoral districts to further favor Republicans; and protecting undemocratic institutions like the Electoral College. It remains to be seen how much it will also involve use of intimidation and violence, hacking or otherwise stealing elections, and court rulings that further skew representation.

Where Democrats win nonetheless, we can expect local, state, and national equivalents of the recent rubbishing of democracy in North Carolina, where the Republican state legislature called an emergency session to gut the powers of the incoming governor. In a Washington Post op-ed titled “The GOP coup in North Carolina previews what we’re going to see everywhere,” Paul Waldman describes legislation that will cut the number of appointments the governor can make by 80 percent; make his cabinet appointments subject to state senate confirmation; transfer authority for the state board of education from the governor to the superintendent (a Republican ousted a Democrat this year in the election for that seat); move the authority to appoint trustees of the University of North Carolina from the governor to the legislature; and dilute the governor’s control over the state board of elections and mandate that the board will be chaired by a Democrat in odd-numbered years (when there are no elections) and a Republican in even-numbered years (when there are elections).

One way in which Trump differs from previous rightist Republican presidents like Reagan and the Bushes is a willingness to activate the masses; his style is closer to fascism than to conservative authoritarianism in that respect. Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, rather weirdly describes himself as a “Leninist”—presumably referring not to his political objectives, but to his approach to power. Senior Trump associates are already forming a group that will provide “a surround-sound support structure” to bolster Trump’s agenda. The “working motto” of this “outside hub” is “Unleash the Potential.” President Trump will control many levers of power for repression. The FBI, the CIA, and the national security apparatus provides enormous opportunity for spying on, framing, and otherwise harming opponents and for provoking violence through agent provocateurs. Control of prosecutors and influence over judges will give wide latitude for legal repression—foreshadowed by Trump’s campaign promise to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton. Equally important may be the discretionary power not to prosecute violent and illegal action. Such toleration could extend to individual acts of violence directed against members of racial and religious groups; impunity for mob violence; and winks and nods for militias, KKK, and similar groups. In other times and places such groups have often formed the basis for paramilitary forces and death squads. Terrorist attacks and alleged terrorist threats will offer opportunity for the many kinds of repression experienced after 9/11. Congress, too, has ways to get into the repression act: Newt Gingrich has already called for establishing an updated version of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities. A likely tactic for Trump and his supporters will be to criminalize his opposition. While Social Self-Defense is an effort to protect and restore constitutional government, it is likely to be branded a criminal conspiracy.

Those who oppose Trump and his agenda may well be targeted not only for persecution but for prosecution. Those who have been subject to such repression elsewhere have often been able to use “political jujitsu” to publicly define such abuse of law as one more crime of the regime. In sum, the factors that are likely to determine the nature and course of the Trump era include Trump’s own idiosyncrasies; the Republican Right; the need and opportunity to use repressive and fascist techniques; unpredictable forces and events like war, foreign meddling, economic crisis and other “unknown unknowns”; and the actions of Trump’s opponents. For the time being, pro- and anti-Trump forces are probably both too strong for rapid knockout blows.


Jeremy Brecher is the author of over a dozen books on labor and social movements, most recently Against Doom: A Climate Insurgency Manual (PM Press, 2017). His book Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival (Stone Soup, 2016) is available for free download at of the Labor Network for Sustainability, www.labor