As we face what already seems an exhaustively daunting challenge wrought by Donald Trump’s presidency, the first thing we can agree on is that each of us should do something.
A critical corollary to that is that we each need to try not to fritter away too much time –– and, more importantly, psychic energy –– passing judgment on what other people decide something is.
Each of us is unique. We have different passions, skills, free time on our hands, and, frankly, levels of commitment. But there’s room for all kinds of activism, and even an incremental increase in Americans’ engagement in civic life could have a profound effect.
When I warn against passing judgment on the activism of others, I’m not suggesting we be uncritical in our thinking about how to proceed. But I am urging us to not be unduly harsh or petty. A couple of examples can make this point.
I heard about a recent organizing meeting at which several people indicated that, though not of the Islamic faith, if the Trump administration were to establish a Muslim registry they would step forward. They were summarily informed that such pledges were meaningless because given data networks already in place the government would have no trouble identifying Americans who are Muslim. It might, in fact, be the case that Trump could nefariously exploit technology to establish a Muslim registry without making any public notice at all. Whether or not that’s the case, however, there’s no good reason to step all over earnest shows of solidarity at this early stage in our coming together in resistance.
Similarly, earlier this week, an activist I respect very much decried the call to post images of the Obamas as Facebook profile pictures on Inauguration Day as “fake activism.” It’s true that social media often fools us into thinking we are contributing to a movement simply by executing a couple of computer clicks between phone calls at work. Still, the impact of a blizzard of Baracks and Michelles online Friday in reinforcing just how many of us are mindful of our responsibility to resist should not be ignored. Changing your Facebook profile picture and getting arrested at a Senate confirmation hearing are not mutually exclusive. And who knows, for even the most casually engaged person, the effort could just prove to be “gateway activism.”
We would also be wise to avoid getting caught up in every outrage moment to moment. Trump’s tweets often spawn visceral reactions of anger, despair, or befuddlement, but they’re not the main event. In fact, they’re more often calculated to be a distraction from what’s really important at the moment. It’s fair to debate whether attending the Inauguration inappropriately legitimizes a man who has no credibility for the job he’s about to assume, but the level of hot type I’ve seen about this in recent days makes me wonder whether we’re adequately preparing ourselves for what is going to be a long haul.
Each of us has a part to play, and we’ll be most effective if we can look inside and make an honest self-appraisal of where we can make a contribution. The large number of impressive turnouts at street protests reminds us that there is a strong appetite for direct action, which is encouraging. As New Yorkers, however, we should remember that many decisions will be made a long way from Midtown Manhattan. Marching on Trump Tower is empowering and does grab media attention, but civil rights leaders sitting in at Jeff Sessions’ Alabama offices made a particularly poignant display of defiance. ACT UP was often most successful when it brought its truth to the source of power –– whether at pharmaceutical headquarters, the NIH, or Jesse Helms’ North Carolina home.
For many people, giving money is what feels most comfortable –– and money is needed to mount a defense against Trump. There are many credible organizations representing our community, but don’t neglect those that speak for and serve the most vulnerable among us –– such as the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Ali Forney Center, the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, the National Black Justice Coalition, the National Center for Transgender Equality, or the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Nor should we forget that perils posed by the new Washington regime are so all-encompassing that the full range of progressive groups –– pro-choice, health care access, immigration rights, labor, environmental defense, criminal justice reform, educational opportunity, and more –– deserve our support. Coalition, intersectional politics have never been more critical to America’s future.
Finally, we need to think about our relationship to elected officials in power, particularly the Democrats. Republican officeholders often resisted Obama by threatening to close down government, defund programs, or otherwise obstruct the normal course of business. Democrats are at a bit of a disadvantage in this regard since they tend to believe government can be a force for good in our society. Allowing the workings of government to grind to a halt will have real, damaging impact on the lives of real people –– especially those already poorly served by society.
Democrats will have to be careful as to how and when they obstruct. But they must be willing to stand up to Trump. In Washington, no Democrat has greater leverage in doing so than New York Senator Chuck Schumer, who as minority leader can use the filibuster to curb Republican abuse, at least in some situations. He will be an insider where most of us will be on the outside. Understanding that we all have different roles to play is not the same as a free pass. In 2016, both in the presidential race and in congressional contests, the Democrats, faced with a Republican ticket headed by a woefully unqualified candidate, threw away an historic opportunity to build on the last eight years. Their sorry performance demonstrates the need to step up their game big time.
And we need to remind them we’re keeping our eye on that ball.