THE ROLE OF STREET ACTIVISM IN TRUMPLANDIA
The election, let alone the nomination, of Donald Trump as President of the United States was quite the eye-opener–in a horror film, Jamie Lee Curtis, sort of way. We really didn’t see it coming, and when it came, the realization that we would be living under a President Trump for at least the next four years left us all grasping for something to help us make sense of the surreal. For many in my social circle, students, friends, colleagues, family the something that they grasped was me. For this, I’m humbly grateful. I’m not sure how much of a consolation I was to them, but they were invaluable to me.
See, I didn’t have time to really lose myself in the emotional morass that I experienced when I saw Pennsylvania flip red. People were coming to me with questions and, as a teacher, I was expected to help guide them through the answers. I had to be reasonable, to apply my sociological imagination to a particular phenomenon in order to reach an understanding.
Trump’s election excited two types of questions from my particular circle. The first, most pressing, was a historical “how could this have happened?” For many, this constituted an existential crisis. Their understanding of our nation and our history was turned inside out. The standard historical myth is that, yes, the United States has a checkered past tainted with racism and bigotry and ethnic hatred, but all of those days are behind us now. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. He gave a great speech and it all went away. We had a black president. Yeah, there are some issues, but they are mostly the result of the last remaining prejudiced people.
Overall, the defining myth of American history is one of perpetual progress, that our nation, indeed our world, is making headway against the remnants of tribalism and medievalism as we walk inexorably into a more civilized and tolerant, dare I say progressive, future. Trump’s election was especially dispiriting for my historian friends. The fact is that there is no evidence of the kind of historical endgame, one in which we have our issues figured out and we can focus on advancing humanity and walk into an idyllic future that our American mythos suggests. History is messy, subject to cultural sinkholes in which we often find ourselves stuck.
Yes, in the last two hundred years the United States and humanity as a whole has made great progress. But there is no reason to believe that we will continue to make progress for the next two hundred. I suppose some historians under Marcus Aurelius may have noticed the same kind of progress made over two-hundred years and felt that the Empire could only get better from their vantage. But it didn’t. It fell into a deep sinkhole from which Europe took about a thousand years to climb.
Now I’m not saying that it is going to take the United States a thousand years to recover from Trumpism, or that we are in a period comparable to the so-called barbarian insurgencies of the fourth century. Nor am I entirely arguing that human history is not one of progress. Those who are familiar with my academic approach understand that I see history as the chronicle of man’s quest for knowledge and freedom. In the end, knowledge and freedom are the same things. This quest, however, is far from linear, or in Martin Luther King’s terms, “a long arc.” This quest is one of small victories and great losses. It is the story of an indomitable human drive to build and to rebuild despite the ravages of the powerful and the greedy, to rebuild in the face of calamity. If there is hope for human progress it lay not in some definable process of history, but in the fortitude of human communities to sift through the rubble of their lives and rebuild, maybe stronger, maybe wiser, maybe more knowledgeable, maybe more free. Maybe. But not necessarily.
So this leads to the second type of question. What happens now? Many in my social circle were afraid of what Trump and Dr. Moreau’s Monsters were going to do now that they were in control.
My answer was always the same. That depends upon us.
Look, what progress that was made throughout history was never the result of electing the right people to office. Government has been and will almost certainly always be the handmaiden of the power elite. And the power elite hates us. They hate us because they fear us and they fear us because they need us. Their tether on power is gossamer thin and they know it. Their greatest fear is that we will realize just how little power they really have, and how much power we hold. No. What progress we made, especially in the last two-hundred or two-hundred and fifty years, happened because the people took to the streets and demanded progress. We became a threat that the government, as an agent of the power elite, was wise to negotiate with rather than try to suppress.
That’s why I’m heartened by what I’ve seen in the last few months. People are not laying down in their angst and accepting the cruel twists of political fate. They are taking to the streets, they are clasping hands and raising their fists. Marchers in the thousands are chanting and singing songs and shouting down the representatives of the elite. Capital switchboards are overloaded with calls from those who refuse to accept Trump’s Billionaires’ Club Cabinet. People who never gave politics much thought are now becoming galvanized to become crucial actors on the political stage.
Furthermore, this pressure is having a noticeable, albeit not dramatic, effect. The Trump Administration has had to back off of some of its more draconian measures. The Republican Congress has paused many of its major schemes to roll back Obama’s legacy. Furthermore, these movements have accomplished something that I never thought I would see. Finally, for the first time in generations, we see the nascent appearance of a spine in the giant jellyfish known formally as the Democratic Party.
This is quite the accomplishment for just a couple of months worth of democratic street work. It has been an exhilarating shot in the arm to see people from all walks of life, all cultures and subcultures, stand side-by-side to take care of each other; to see communities come together to protect the marginalized targets of the Trump Administration, recognizing that our neighbors need us in the face of potential tyranny. Progress is not foreordained by some inimitable process of history, but neither is autocracy, neither is tyranny. And we are coming together to make sure that the latter does not happen.
That being said, we have to recognized that what we are doing, those taking to the streets, those writing the histories, those telling the stories of resistance, is nothing more nor less than taking our place in the turbulent, temporal tempest that is history. We have to remember that what we do in the face of power is not necessarily for ourselves. What we do is for the ages. Many in my social network have asked, what’s the use of protesting? What’s the use of fighting for democracy when it can be taken away so quickly, with the irrational confluence of social angst and the ravings of a narcissistic con-man?
We protest because it’s right. We protest because we love our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren whether we happen to have them in our lives or in our plans for the future. We protest because that is part of the inimitable human spirit to rebuild in the face of calamity.
Remember, throughout history, most of those who have taken to the streets, who have shaken their fist in the face of power, never actually saw the benefits of their actions. I like to remind people that the American civil rights movement didn’t begin in the fifties. It began when the very first slaves were brought to our shores and had to find ways to survive and to preserve some shred of their humanity in the face of oppression. Martin Luther King’s “dream” rest on the archetypes set three hundred years earlier. Ours is just the next twisted story in this long-winding, often disappointing chronicle.
One underlying theme remains, however. Despite their propaganda, Trump and his billionaire elite find us revolting.
Let’s show them just how “revolting” we can be!