The playing field for changing American political life is about to shift dramatically.
If your agenda has included both resisting Trump and building a just, sustainable, antiracist, liberated world, you’ve just lived through a dramatic four years where one problem—the president of the United States—probably occupied a lot of your mental space. That space was crammed with a seemingly endless series of moral/political crises, from a sudden travel ban, to the attempted rollback of Obamacare, to racist mass shootings in Pittsburgh and El Paso, to the literal break-up of refugee families before our eyes, to the drastically mishandled COVID pandemic, and in a final burst of sparks both an attempt to grab power despite electoral defeat and a sheaf of last minute executive action, symbolized for me by the leasing of Arctic indigenous land to oil companies on January 6, 2021. Alongside all this has been a dumpster fire of a presidency marked by petty corruption, vindictiveness, foreign entanglements, and the endless, surreal production of belligerent tweets and speech.
Up til now, America has had a 2016 problem. How to manage the consequences of troubling (to say the least) president elected without even a plurality of votes, who showed no signs of seeking broaden that coalition, but instead focused on using the available levers of power to advance corporate power, a narrow-minded religious vision he evidently had little faith in, an authoritarian vision of state that attracted him greatly, and the nativist, racist, and antiqueer agendas that had hidden behind codewords and euphemisms for decades. The tools for dealing with that problem ranged from mass street protest to fights in the courts, but their leading edge was an electoral effort that reclaimed one house of Congress in 2018 (with an extraordinary 8% vote margin) and the White House in 2020 (with a more modest 4.4% vote margin). Despite temporary and quasi-permanent structural barriers to one-person/one-vote democracy—respectively, redistricting and disenfranchisment, and the Senate and Electoral College—this effort succeeded.
But as I said, the problem is about to change. And that change is going to be disorienting for many of us who have nothing but glee over the end of the Trump presidency.
I’m writing here to keep us—those who want more than a “return to normal”—oriented as the political world takes an Inception-like 90-degree turn and the forces of gravity seem to turn against us.
The compass I keep in the back of my mind is this: think about the scale of the problem you are confronting. How deep does it go? How far back in history are its origin points? How wicked in the problem, and what other problems are clustered around the same causes?
It helps that my adult political life began around the time of the Seattle global justice/antiglobalization protetss against the World Trade Organization. Adbusters magazine, one of the creative epicenters of that mobilization, circulated the image shown here. In the center is the kind of error message produced by 20th century Apple Macs when they crashed, with the text “System Error—Type 1945 (progress).” The end of World War II also marked the foundation of the global economy, through the World Trade Organization (then, the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. It was the handoff point from a war-time, state-organized economy to the era in which mass consumerism would accompany continuing militarism. And it was the debut of a United States-led global order incorporating the majority of countries into sometimes colonial and sometimes dictatorial, but self-branded “free” world.
In Seattle, we were confronting a process that was “writing the constitution for a single global economy,” as WTO head Renato Ruggiero put it, written behind close doors in the interest of corporate power. We were also confronting a process endorsed by both political parties. It was the culmination of a neoliberal vision of globalization, championed as much by Clinton’s New Democrats as by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. (The Democratic party assumed that Seattle, a city then much more identified with Boeing than big tech, would be the perfect showplace for the debut of globalization.) When we surrounded the meetings with nonviolent blockades, a Democratic president, governor, and mayor collaborated in calling in the National Guard, flooding the streets with tear gas, and arresting six hundred demonstrators.
Flash forward three tumultuous years to the authorization of the War on Iraq. Fifty-eight percent of Democratic Senators and 39% of Democratic Representatives joined nearly all Republicans in backing the new war. The global antiwar coalition lacked a partisan home in the United States, but it built on the global justice movement’s transnational ties and experience in taking the streets. The media baptized global public opinion “a second superpower” that was challenging the unilateral US government. Within the United States, though, we never amassed the votes to block the war, but just as in Seattle, our protests gave other countries the space to step away from or denounce the war. Later, Barack Obama made opposition to the Iraq War a core part of his appeal in 2008.
The point is, whether confronting war or globalization, we knew we started from a point of institutional weakness within representative government, but potentially widespread support in the country at large. Protest was our natural arena since congressional votes and court cases would often run against us.
The last four years have been different. I could feel this when people protesting the Muslim travel ban flooded airports, along with lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union. Already in the first week of the Trump presidency, a range of institutional actors were shifting their stances around protest: local officials extended transit hours for people protesting at the airport, technology executives from Google’s Sergey Brin on down were showing up to back the protests, state attorneys general were filing for court injunctions against the ban. An exceptional wave of donations and subscriptions was rising to support advocacy organizations like the ACLU and journalistic outlets like the New York Times.
2017 and 2018 proved to be an experiment in what would happen when a radical faction controls the executive and legislative branch of the US government, but faces opposition from many other institutions, notably bastions of professionals. Journalism, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley were all filled with critical voices. Certain Federal courts issued injunctions limiting executive power. #MeToo emerged, a movement with extraordinarily broad participation and a target on the kinds of harrassment and abuse practiced by the president, but also elite men of all parties and sectors. Speeches by Meryl Streep and Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes, the not-necessarily-political awards ceremony of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, frontally challenged the president. (These signs reassured me about the parallels to fascist authoritarianism in Europe: Hitler and Mussolini had succeeded in part because of the total moral collapse of major institutions. Ours held up by comparison.)
The broad alliances of the past few years have now done their work, pushing Donald Trump kicking and screaming to the edge of the political stage and to a now-inevitable exit from the White House. But they won’t last into the next round of struggles. Because we will no longer be confronting just 2016 problems. Some of the people we voted for will reinforce the structures of power we aim to dismantle. Some people who joined us in the streets since January 2017 will drift away now that they feel they have an ally in the White House. And some of those who fought with us against Trump will now see our visions as the real problem.
The Black Lives Matter protesters of 2020, perhaps our country’s most widespread protest mobilization, knew this already. As Trump has never stopped reminding us, these protests usually take place in “Democrat cities.” They face off with a bipartisan consensus around mass incarceration and militarizing the police—System Error Type 1969 (New Jim Crow)—and require uprooting the systemic racism built into our country the beginning. Call it System Error Type 1619. Active movements call into question settler colonialism (Type 1492). As disappointing Biden appointments come in, we will be reminded of our other long-term struggles against unwarranted corporate power, wealth inequality, mindless consumerism and its destruction of the planet. All of these will require acting beyond political parties and mainstream institutions, as well as leveraging them where we can.
One more thing: it’s not the case that the older a systemic problem is, the harder it is to fight. We’ve lived through extraordinary changes to order of gender, sex, and sexuality—systems who symbolic origins are lost to time and unidentifiable with a familiar date—in the past fifty and the past fifteen years. Fights that were once only imaginable in the streets and in our own families became fights in the courts and eventually were embraced by the lighting of the White House. Successful movements transform fundamental shifts into collective common sense. Let’s keep our eyes on horizon as the world shifts around us.