Social movements are notoriously finicky. They can peter out quickly or grow into a transformative force. Their longevity is questionable, but eventually the establishment re-establishes its power or the social movement rebalances the political equilibrium; or smashes it altogether.
Without optimal strategy movements tend to have short lives, and the pendulum swings in the other direction. The anti-Trump movement is in danger of a premature death as it faces two grave dangers:
1) Allowing Democratic Party affiliated groups to co-lead the movement, who want only electoral change while continuing many of Trump’s pro-establishment policies.
2) Demoralization due to lack of concrete victories that can stunt growth into the broader community.
These barriers are already beginning to suck energy from the movement at a time the far-right begins to grow legs. Our movement’s defeat will be the fascists growth spurt.
The anti-Trump movement isn’t really about Trump. He’s a figurehead representing a coalition of powerful interests. The Democrats want us to think that just Trump is the problem, and therefore they are the solution.
But many of Trump’s policies are extensions of Obama’s, the “deporter in chief” whose policies allowed Wall Street to capture 99% of new wealth creation. Trump’s billionaire Education Secretary, Betsy Devos, could have been chosen by a Democrat, as she shares Obama’s vision of privatizing public education.
Trump despises Black Lives but the movement emerged under Obama’s reign, and he did absolutely nothing in response. Desmond Tutu was correct when he said, “If you’re neutral in situations of injustice, you’ve chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Trump’s militarism is also a logical extension of Obama’s, who expanded global wars by destroying Libya and overseeing a proxy war in Syria. Obama left troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and drone bombers in the air over Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan.
The Democrats’ cancerous role in the anti-Trump movement was exposed at a critical moment: in one week Trump bombed the Syrian government and dangerously threatened North Korea. In response, the anti-Trump “resistance” movement crumbled, as Democrats lined up to support Trump at his most dangerous moment. A perfect opportunity to jumpstart the anti-war movement was surrendered. The ‘resistance’ flinched, and now Trump is insisting on a new ‘surge’ in Afghanistan.
A different “fail” from the anti-Trump movement occurred when the House of Representatives voted to cut nearly $900 billion from Medicaid. The Democrat’s reaction was almost giddy, as they arrogantly pronounced their certain victory in the midterm elections. Their “resistance” is limited to electoral opportunism. This is a perfect moment for the anti-Trump movement to demand universal, single-payer healthcare, but it won’t be supported by the Democrats.
The Democrats are incapable of challenging Trump’s billionaire-filled cabinet because Democrats depend on the billionaire owners of the big banks, military-industrial complex and tech firms for support. Trump is a symptom of a larger problem co-created by the Democrats, where the ultra-rich exert a vice grip on politics. A militant mass movement can shatter the status quo, but not until the Democratic Party status quo is amputated from its ranks.
The 2nd Threat: demoralization due to lack of concrete victories and lack of movement expansion into the broader community.
There are millions of newly politicized people watching the movement from the sidelines, wondering if they should care or go about their business. They haven’t been to a protest because they’re not convinced the movement is fighting for them. Protesting injustice is fine but it doesn’t put food on the table. Maybe they see the movement as a fad destined to fade.
Many are likely wondering if the movement is serious about fighting for something, and winning, or if it’s going to devolve into a quagmire of brawling with police and fascists. If onlookers sense the movement is gaining power their interest will grow. A victory will gain their trust.
How deep are the movement’s roots? It’s hard to tell, though a recent article in the Washington Post had some interesting statistics about anti-Trump protesters who were surveyed: more than three quarters had a college education and 82 to 90% of people voted for Hillary Clinton.
Such statistics probably vary throughout the country, though the data likely points to a real trend where the tens of millions of people who didn’t vote and don’t have a college education are under-represented at the protests. If not reversed, this abstentionism will prove fatal.
One example of movement skepticism was recently voiced by Conor Friedersdorf, in his article ‘Why the Left Can’t Win’. He writes:
“But is the American left capable of political success right now? Its recent win-loss record is poor, whether one begins with the Seattle WTO protests, the anti-war marches of 2003, the push for immigration reform, Occupy Wall Street, or Black Lives Matter. And observing the left during the first 100 days of the Trump administration, I am beginning to despair that its pathologies are growing in strength at the very moment when the worst of the right is ascendant, too.”
This sentiment is likely worrying millions of people, who see hope in the anti-Trump movement but fear it’s disintegration. A lack of victories will inevitably demoralize those already involved. If people feel that the movement is an occasional march without any concrete goals/demands, then passivity is an inevitable outcome.
If the anti-Trump movement continues to follow the trajectory of Occupy —all march and no action — we might have already seen the high water mark.
Mass mobilizations carry with them implicit threats to the establishment, who interpret them to mean “a huge number of people are paying attention and reject our policies, and if further provoked may take more aggressive action.”
Marches do matter, but without a demand attached to them the energy dissipates. The intrinsic power must be funneled into more explicit demands that allow people to zero-in on an issue and clamp down on it. A specific issue allows focus and gives the movement something concrete to bite into, with a pit bull-like grip until the demand is won. This is the secret power of the $15 Now movement and the winning campaigns for rent control in California, and the victories by Portland Tenants United: they picked a demand that resonates and didn’t let go.
Frederick Douglas was correct when he said “power concedes nothing without a demand.” Without tangible demands the movement veers from one issue to another, never fully committing and allowing the establishment to think that the movement will eventually surrender.
Crucial to winning militant demands is a broad-based coalition that represents those affected by the issues being fought for. A united coalition representing millions of members — and organizing to attract tens of million more — is a critical ingredient to a powerful national movement.
The above-mentioned Atlantic article quotes Freddie Deboer, who said:
“Political progress is always and only about pulling the edge cases into a particular orbit and hoping that in time they will come to circle closer and closer to your goals.”
Our enemies know this to be true as well. Notorious FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was a professional movement destroyer, and fanatically sought to isolate growing movements to prevent the broader population from joining.
In his excellent biography of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom explores the different ways that Hoover’s FBI sought to isolate the black liberation movement.
Bloom quotes Hoover giving specific direction to his FBI agents to prevent African American organizations from forming coalition: “in unity there is strength; a truism that is no less valid for its triteness.”
Hoover was especially interested in preventing African American organizations from gaining a foothold in the broader community, he directed his FBI agents to prevent black groups from “gaining respectability, by discrediting them.”
Most revealingly was Hoover’s directions to undermine the Black Panther Party’s successful, broad-based community organizing:
“…one of our primary aims in counterintelligence as it concerns the [Black Panther Party] is to keep this group isolated from the moderate black and white community which may support it. This is most emphatically pointed out in their Breakfast for Children Program, where they are actively soliciting and receiving support from uninformed whites and moderate blacks.”
Trump will wait out the protest storm if he believes that each protest issue is compartmentalized, divided against each other and not expanding to the broader working class.
Another barrier to growing the movement is the newly trendy “black bloc” politics, whose strategy is limited to small numbers fighting police and fascists in the streets. The black bloc isn’t even a group, but an assortment of individuals whose only internal agreements are fashion and hatred of police.
This lack of ‘strategy’ ultimately shrinks roots into the community instead of growing them. The police and establishment love street violence, because it gives them a perfect pretext to unleash violence that, in turn, de-legitimizes protest and keeps onlookers firmly rooted to their couch.
Nazis love street violence too, because it’s the only political venue where they can compete on a level playing field. Their numbers are too small — for now — to organize on a larger scale, and they use the occasional street fight victory to remain cohesive and recruit new members. Ultimately a fascist movement can only be extinguished by mass, collective action.
How much time does the movement have before the energy wanes, and the moment is lost? It depends on how well organizers adapt. There will be ongoing opportunities as protests continue in reaction to Trump’s policies, while the upcoming Pride march in June is certain to be the largest Pride mobilization ever; and the most political.
The anti-Trump movement will have more longevity than Occupy, but its life can be tragically shortened if some of the above mistakes are not corrected. The enormous revolutionary energy that exists must be funneled into something concrete, lest it be frittered away.
The most revolutionary thing the anti-Trump protester can do is not punch a fascist but help mobilize the broader population into a political fight. Local coalitions should copy the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which successfully fought for rent control and recently won two more seats in the city council while remaining politically independent.
Similar “Resistance” coalitions can be organized quickly by reaching out to labor and community groups, asking them to plan joint actions or mobilize collectively in support of common demands made against city or state government.
Millions of people are looking for the hope that a strong political movement provides, but the window is shrinking.