This is not a drill.

Preliminary Thoughts on Law and Order

Young boys at a U.S. internment camp during World War II. (National Archives)

Preface: These are preliminary thoughts intended to open a conversation. The opinions expressed in this piece were significantly strengthened by talking to a number of organizers and philosophers. Any faults are my own. None of the views presented here reflect the positions of any organization of which I am a member or of my employer.


Donald Trump is a racist, misogynist, xenophobic nationalist and his presidency presents grave threats both domestically and abroad. While it’s vital that we remain level headed, avoid exaggeration, and attempt to keep ourselves from reactionary thinking, we must also prepare ourselves for all contingencies, even the worst and the most remote.

Trump is a megalomaniac whose only known commitments, in the words of a friend, are “greed and vengeance.” While his temperament and thinking are highly varied and volatile, he appears to register no distinction between an individual and an office. As such, it is possible that he may use the state as an extension of his personal power. (Indeed, in the days immediately following his election under prevailing law, he has shown a propensity to do just that.)[1]

On January 20, 2017, Trump will assume control of the executive branch, including both the security and war state apparatus. He will name the heads of the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice (including the FBI), Treasury (including the IRS), and State and they will all report to him. The Republican Party will control both chambers of the legislature and judicial appointments may substantially tilt the Supreme Court as well as the makeup of the lower judiciary.

While the republic has checks and balances on executive power, Trump’s strongman campaign organized popular support around a “law and order” theme that could, under certain conditions, be used to consolidate and legalize extrajudicial uses of power and threaten the stability of the liberal democratic state.[2]

Mobilizing resistance to terrible and terrifying public policy threats that will kill everyday people, especially the people Trump has so viciously attacked, is vital. We can hope and pray that is all that we will need to resist. But, in the event that it becomes necessary, protecting the integrity of the liberal democratic state and civil society is even more vital. Their disintegration poses what I would call an ‘integral threat.’

The line between these two kinds of threats is a thin one. If, for instance, Trump carries through with his promised campaign to speed up (formally lawful) mass deportations of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country — as soon as the first 100 days of his presidency — a situation of civil unrest could unfold and quickly have cascading consequences.

Even the mere possibility that an “integral threat” could be in play requires us to move and think extremely carefully as we plan and execute a campaign of resistance. We need to quickly compile a list of signs, stages, and scenarios of Trumpian authoritarianism that is paired with an action plan for each stage and assemble a broad coalition of allies that is prepared to act as needed. Doing so will require consulting experts with knowledge of American right-wing movements, white nationalism, populism, authoritarianism, as well as the leaders in key sectors of the American left and liberal infrastructure today.

That said, here are some preliminary thoughts about what is required to avoid strengthening the likelihood or contributing to the success of an integral threat. They are framed as imperatives for the purposes of preliminary exposition, but I am putting them forward merely for the purposes of consideration. I frame some things below as if they are certainties, when they are anything but.[3] Many of the recommendations suggest we work to straddle contradictions.


NEAR-TERM OBJECTIVES


We should not contest the election results.

There are proposals circulating to ask members of the electoral college to vote for Clinton on December 19. Their only success will be in strengthening the perception that the Left is anti-democratic and unlawful. While such efforts pose minimal threat, no strategic political group within the resistance should join or support them. There are many senses in which the election was “rigged,” but we should avoid activity and messages that can be presented as anti-democratic. We will win not simply by the exercise of power, but by efforts that secure trust and legitimacy for ourselves and (eventually) for our vision across a broad cross sector of the populace.

At the same time, we must avoid normalizing and legitimizing Trump’s rule. Clinton won the popular vote and Trump’s legal victory makes clear the real disfunction of the electoral college and other features of the American system. Thus, our role should be to establish ourselves in permanent opposition to the Trump regime and create a crisis of legitimacy for that regime, while making clear that our aim is to expand, rather than reduce, democracy. We should put forward reform-oriented policies that would advance that goal.

We must be, and appear, peaceful.

Donald Trump’s victory has stirred up strong emotions not only among a newly emboldened Right, but also among certain segments of the “ultra-Left.” Unstrategic segments of the ultra-Left have already participated in acts of property destruction. Acts of violence are not outside the question. And those who advocate such unstrategic action have a potential base. Everyday people may, in the grip of fear and some for the first time in their lives, feel like acts of violence are necessary for their own self-preservation and for the preservation of their families.

We must start by recommitting ourselves and our allies to a strict pledge of nonviolence. I don’t believe it’s an exaggeration to say that every act of violence or property destruction at this moment strengthens the pretext for an authoritarian crackdown, which will be most harshly felt by those who Trump has already attacked, especially: immigrants, Muslims and Jews, people of color, the LGBTQ community, the disabled and women.

In addition, it is quite apparent that we live in a post-facts, post-truth era — perhaps now more than ever before. While some no doubt approved, vast swaths of the population willfully excused, glossed over, or simply did not even register Trump’s well-documented racism and xenophobia, misogyny and sexual assault, and so on.

In a post-truth age, appearances constitute reality. As such, it’s vital that we avoid even the appearance of violence, property destruction, or civil unrest, all of which strengthen Trump’s hand as he assumes and remains in control of governing power. That might mean, for instance, rethinking exactly what it might mean to precipitate or lead a march, a mass action, a general strike, and so on.

This will require that we thread a very thin needle, as we work to resist destructive, violent, and potentially authoritarian policies, while simultaneously avoiding the perception that we are precipitating unrest. Great creativity, flexibility, and innovation will be required to plan mass actions that can meet these conditions.

We should, as possible, refrain from alienating Trump voters, while simultaneously protecting those he might attack.

While many have been disenfranchised from democratic participation and are apathetic to it, we cannot ultimately win without the consent of a broad cross-section of the governed, including portions of the Trump coalition.[4]

Our goal must be twofold. We should aim to win over as large a cross-section of the American populace as possible to a bold, change-based ideology and establish a strong majority to stand against authoritarianism and for liberal democratic principles.[5] We cannot let this prevent us from standing up for the most vulnerable members of society when they come under attack during a Trump presidency. The aim must be to protect those vulnerable to Trump’s attacks, while simultaneously and effectively enlisting as many people as possible to join us in resisting Trump’s agenda.

As much as possible, we should reveal the contradiction between what Trump has said and what he does, ideally in a way that people can feel as well as see, to weaken his standing among his supporters, and redirect people’s anger away from each other and towards the financial and political ruling class.

We should claim the mantle of law and order for ourselves and use it to delegitimize Trump with the populace.

We must effectively invert the perception that Trump stands for “law and order” while we stand for its opposite. In organizing, we say that the action is in the reaction. In some ways, given Trump’s volatility, we could not ask for a better target. At the same time, we must be on guard against overreactions that pose a grave threat to the most vulnerable in our communities and to our world.

Our aim should be to identify and take actions that create a wedge between Trump’s law and order and populist economic rhetoric and the reality of his rule. Just like the civil rights movement strategically used, e.g. Bull Connor, we must strategically use Donald Trump as a foil to polarize the public and move people towards our side. The ultimate aim should be to delegitimize Trump’s authority and his promise to restore “law and order” and “prosperity.”

We should reclaim fundamentally American ideals: democracy, equality, liberty, love, inalienable rights — and realize their radical potential.

We cannot win by advancing ideals that are inherently foreign to the American people. Instead, we must pick up on the good sense that is already widespread, and slowly reshape the ideals that are already part of the popular imagination. As much as I find portions of our founding documents and ideals to be problematic, we must make full use of them as resources for ideological struggle. The aim must be to fight for, and win the interpretive battle over, the dominant understanding of concepts like: democracy, equality, liberty, and inalienable rights (enlightenment-American values) and love (a “Judeo-Christian” value, whose political counterpart is fraternity or solidarity).

We must fracture Trump’s right-populist/corporate coalition.

This is a long-term task that we must begin immediately, especially to guard against Trump’s potential assaults on his political enemies and the communities he has attacked repeated. There are clear signs of fracture in the coalition. Indeed, it’s unity is weak. At the same time, we should not underestimate the potential power of fusing authoritarianism with corporate power, given that corporate structures are themselves anti-democratic. We should use, but not depend exclusively upon, moral appeals to attract moderate and even corporate Republicans. If Trump’s actions create market volatility, those portions of the corporate coalition that depend on market stability may jump ship — although that’s a dangerous game. Already corporate conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan (and his corporate backers) seem to be downplaying Trump’s threats, e.g. to immigrants, while seeing the opportunity to push a corporate conservative agenda on things like tax reform, the privatization of medicare and Social Security, right-to-work, and so on.

We should force political realignment of the major parties.

This election has irreparably fractured the coalitions that defined both major political parties for the last several decades. Clinton represents the last in the line of neoliberal Democrats and Trump in many ways breaks with traditional Republicans. The categories of Left and Right are no longer the most apt measure of American politics. Currently, the political spectrum is being realigned, most significantly (and roughly speaking), along the lines of two-place and three-place populism, where two-place populism pits a ‘people’ against a ‘ruling class’ and three-place populism pits a ‘people’ against a ‘ruling class’ that is aligned with an ‘Other.’[6] While three-place populism is currently ascendant, it remains unclear which populist political realignment will prevail.

Unless we can rapidly win proportional representation, which is highly unlikely, the path forward requires us to rebuild the Democratic Party and rebuild an expanded Democratic coalition around a two-place populist agenda. Although I am open to being convinced otherwise, I do not see a viable path forward for third parties, unless the disintegration of the party structures becomes even more pronounced. For this reason as well, we should avoid casting blame on all members of the party elite (some of whose knowledge could be politically valuable), while simultaneously creating a strong anti-establishment, anti-ruling class message.

The interpretive battle over the results of this election began immediately. We must find ways to publicly and privately intervene in those fights and win.


MID- TO LONG-TERM OBJECTIVES


We should work to protect the free press.

Responsible journalists, public intellectuals, and other influencers of public opinion provide an important bulwark against authoritarian rule. We must work to protect the free press and the function of truth-tellers in society at large. The press should aim to tell the truth (even in a post-truth world) and to find ways to do so in an emotionally resonant way.

We should build relationships with people within the security and war state.

Depending on how grave the situation becomes, allies within the security and war state could be vital to preventing domestic authoritarian violence or even global war. We should not wait to begin forming necessary relationships among such sectors. While police unions supported Trump and he had support from significant segments of the armed forces, we will lose in the worst case scenarios if we fail to organize support within the security and war state. The chain of command and basic financial incentives provide strong reason for obedience, even in the case of clearly immoral action. Counteracting such incentives among top leadership will require dedicated resources and should not be taken for granted. I do not know which organizations are best positioned to do such organizing, but it should be done.

We must consolidate a multiracial, multiclass popular front (that includes segments of the elite) around an anti-establishment ideology.

There is widespread agreement, so far as I can tell, on the need for building the most vibrant, dynamic, and powerful social movement in American history, and on the fact that it must be a multiracial movement. I would add these further thoughts.

First, the coalition must also be multi-class and include substantial portions of the “middle class,” broadly construed in the typical American fashion to include many top income brackets, but with a particular focus on those people who feel themselves slipping out of the middle class.

Second, while we must rebuild the Democratic Party, we are too weak to exclude liberals from our coalition. As such, we need to work with liberals to form a popular front against Trump’s agenda and the new right-populist/corporate coalition.

Third, I think our coalition must in some way include segments of the elite who retain necessary institutional power, institutional knowledge, and resources for resistance. At the same time, they must be organized around an anti-establishment ideology and we must balance our alignment with them to present usurpation of our agenda. The need to include elements of the elite becomes more important the further we move towards an integral threat.

We must be global and — and at a minimum — we must expand and empower the existing system of international law, regulation, and governance.

Three-place populism is on the rise across the western world and regimes are moving towards authoritarianism in other countries as well. America’s centrality to the global stage, and Trump’s “America First” protectionism-nationalism (which has broad support on the right and in some sectors of the left), heightens the risk of global war.

At the same time, the power of the nation-state has weakened relative to multinational corporate power, which poses a threat in the scenario of a long-term corporate-authoritarian alliance.

We should work with allies around the world to strengthen and take control of international institutions such as the United Nations that, at minimum, serve as a (weak) bulwark against national conflict and strengthen them to create an expanded and empowered system of legal checks and balances that ideally constrain both nation-states and features of the global corporate infrastructure that have created widespread economic crisis, instability, and pain. Establishing a stronger position would entail the takeover of institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

We must present a political-economic alternative to neoliberalism and three-place populist/corporate authoritarianism.

The neoliberal regime can no longer be sustained, but unless a viable alternative can be put in place, three-place populist/corporate authoritarianism may determine what the next regime of accumulation will look like. It is difficult to know what alternative regimes may be viable and, of course, the ultimate outcome rests on a balance of forces that is beyond the sphere of our control. But we know that ideas matter, so we should enlist the best thinkers in political economy and theory and ask them to devote themselves to working on advancing ideas about what characteristics a viable alternative regime might have; certainly many already are. And we should organize to build the alignment of forces necessary for realizing our vision. The near term goal, it seems to me, must be to reduce the power of capital and the role of markets; strengthen and democratize governments; and form a global system of governance and deep redistribution that is committed to working together to address the climate crisis. The challenge is to strike a balance between political-economic viability and the need for fundamental system change.


Notes:

[1] For instance, Trump reportedly asked for top secret security credentials for his children and may appoint his son-in-law Jared Kushner to a senior advisory post in violation of nepotism laws and conventional ethics.

[2] When I use the term “liberal democratic state,” I use it in the broadest sense. Many of us have shared critiques of political liberalism as it pertains to the liberal, free-market economy.

[3] I’m essentially following a piece of advice reportedly given by Ludwig Wittgenstein: “Say what you want to say. Be crude and then we shall get on with it.” Right now, I feel like that’s the right motto to follow. We shall see which ideas stick, but for now, let’s put them all on the table.

[4] There is a perception among some segments of the Left that a small vanguard, composed for instance of 3% of the populace, can win. Setting aside its eternal truth-value for a moment, I think it is wrong especially in this moment.

[5] It seems to me this task is complicated by the identification that likely exists between Trump and some of his supporters. For some, and it is hard to know how many, Trump is indeed their “voice” in a deep sense. As such, we should attempt to find ways to challenge Trump’s racism, xenophobia, etc. without simultaneously calling everyone who voted for him a racist, xenophobe, etc. At the same time, we must also prevent new norms around racism, xenophobia, etc. from taking hold. (Already, civil norms appear to and have been shifting and there are widespread reports of a resurgence of racial slurs and hate crimes.)

[6] I am indebted to John Judis and Jonathan Matthew Smucker , who introduced me to this distinction between two and three-place populism. That said, Judis describes these as “Right” (3-place) and “Left” (2-place) populism, which does not seem entirely correct to me. Many portions of the institutional “Left” — most significantly portions of organized labor — rely on a three-place populism that pits workers in America against workers in China and elsewhere in the developing world. Similarly, while I have no rigorous empirical evidence to support this proposition, I believe some Trump supporters are 2-place populists. These people must be engaged and won over to our side as political positions are realigned along populist lines.