This New Year’s, Let’s Resolve to Win

Soweto Uprising, 1976

As it is the Christmas season, I naturally find myself thinking silly and unhelpful thoughts. Like: what if Donald Trump tweeted that Santa Claus is real? Would his most ardent followers believe him? Would there be a backlash against people who say he (Santa) isn’t?

This kind of vaguely depressing whimsy reminds me of the importance of spending my politico-cognitive time more productively. And so I would like to propose, to myself and fellow progressives, a twelve-point list of New Year’s resolutions.

1. Accept reality. Then set out to change it. We’re spending too much time in denial and disbelief. Mind boggling though it may be, a crude and transparently insincere con artist really did become President of the United States. Refusing to accept it or announcing that he’s “Not My President” doesn’t change reality: for now at least, he is the President-elect of the country. Note that I am not suggesting we should “accept it” in the sense that we should reconcile ourselves to living with it. By all means, let’s do what we can to have him removed from the Presidency if he’s breaking the law, or to undermine his power, counteract his effectiveness and elect opposing legislators in the next election. But we do ourselves a disservice if we pretend this isn’t really happening.

2. Stop trying to make it all come out right. For many of us, it’s as if the whole country had a referendum on whether two plus two equals four or five. And “two plus two equals five” won. Many of us are driving ourselves crazy trying to demonstrate that two and two in fact equals four. And so we find ourselves in crazy arguments with people who say things like: “well, if two plus two equals four then why did Hillary Clinton once say that eight minus three equals five?” Let’s stop having those arguments. We need to regain control of the country and re-establish that two plus two equals four. When we do, the “fivers” will still be screaming every day that we’re wrong. The argument will never end. But we’ll be back on top. That’s all that matters. We know we’re right. We need to get power back. Because the hardcore “fivers” will never admit we’re right. They will never admit the logical inconsistency between defending the Second Amendment to the last punctuation mark but disregarding the rest of the Constitution. They will never admit the moral inconsistency of condemning Hillary for her ties to Wall Street while applauding Trump’s continuous appointments of industry insiders to high level positions. At least until the national mood shifts, we’re not going to win those arguments with hardcore Trumpers, so we need to stop obsessing about it. And we’re not going to replay the trauma in our minds and make it come out right this time. Let’s just focus on winning back power.

3. Don’t be a Bitter Billy. Haven’t we all had a friend, perhaps back in high school, who was dumped by a girlfriend and, even months later, couldn’t stop speaking about her and her new boyfriend bitterly? At first we are there for him, listening to his weepy/angry diatribes with patience and concern. After a few weeks it gets tedious. But he won’t stop — even months later. A bunch of friends go out for tacos and he is speaking bitterly about how his ex’s new boyfriend doesn’t know a tamale from a tostada. Someone suggests bowling. Your jilted friend hijacks the conversation with a rant mocking his ex’s new boyfriend’s supposed great bowling skills. Everything turns into an angry, obsessive, rant against the new boyfriend, until you can’t stand the sound of your friend’s voice anymore.

That’s what we sound like to people who don’t hate Trump.

4. Give a crap about the people who don’t hate Trump. That’s right. At the end of #3, above, you may have said: Wait, why should I give a crap about people who don’t hate Trump? Aren’t they all complicit in his racist, homophobic, sociopathic, misogynistic, anti-Constitutional destructiveness? Sort of, but aren’t we all complicit in everything? Aren’t the zillions of us who have cell phones and wear inexpensive clothes complicit in third world sweat shops? Aren’t those of us who eat meat complicit in the systematic slaughter of sentient living beings? Again, sort of. And if spoken to reasonably, and presented with viable alternatives, we might change our ideas and behaviors. We make a mistake when we assume that the 26% of eligible voters who chose Trump (almost 60 million people) are monolithically evil. Imagine for a moment that we could isolate that most extreme, hateful, racist, angry one percent of that group. That’s almost 600,000 people. That’s a lot of very mean, very vocal people, all of whom seem to be writing insanely vile things in the comments sections of news reports. But it’s only 1 out of every 100 Trump voters.

Now imagine the most ambivalent, moderate 10 percent of the Trump electorate. These may be people who dislike Trump but were bamboozled by fake news sites that Hillary recklessly email server Benghazi blah blah blah. Or maybe they are opposed to Trump’s behavior, but had convinced themselves he had apologized and changed his ways; they went ahead and voted for him because they believed he’ll bring jobs back to coal country. Maybe they think he was just using inflammatory rhetoric to get elected and will govern as a pragmatic businessman. A lot of them simply despised Hillary so much that they felt it was necessary to stop her at any cost and they had no other choice. Regardless of their motivations, some of them might be persuaded to oppose Trump’s policies or support Democrats in future elections. We need to form alliances with these ambivalent Trump supporters in order to take back our country. Accusing them of the deeds perpetrated by the most vicious extremists (the one percent above) only drives them away. Don’t drive them away. Plus, these are the very people who will suffer from Trump’s policies and would benefit from progressive ones. We must give a crap about them.

5. Celebrate, don’t consternate. Celebrate what? Celebrate the fabulous victory that we are going to achieve two or four or more years from now. Sure, the world may be beyond repair in terms of climate change, or perhaps will have been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust, but let’s not get hung up on small details. Assuming the world is still savable, as we must, we need to visualize success, and we must rejoice in our own life spirit and power. I am thinking now of my experience back in the anti-Apartheid campaign days. I recall watching a film about protests around the world. One clip showed people in America, mournfully and dutifully marching and chanting old civil rights songs. But another showed protesters in South Africa itself — throngs of black South Africans demonstrating with enormous energy and spirit. The message was clear: you can berate us, you can jail us, you can shoot at us — but we, the people of this country, are filled with powerful, righteous energy and sooner or later we are going to win. And they did. In contrast, mourning becomes the American left. We like to feel sorry for ourselves, but no one else feels sorry for us. Our most passionate opponents enjoy our defeat and mock our self-pity. We need to be warriors and we need to win. (I don’t mean to belittle the seriousness of the well-organized protests in South Africa — for all I know the crowds I saw on the screen that day might have been shot at moments after the cameras stopped. Part of my point is that many of us are in a much stronger position, with less to risk, then fighters for justice in other places and at other times — yet we often show less spirit and tenacity.)

6. Argue strategically. Imagine the American electorate like this: a spectrum from bright, dense blue on one side over to bright, dense red on the other. So we have deep blue then sky blue then light blue then a kind of bluish white then white then pinkish then light red and then the dark red. Our job, each time we get into a conversation or debate online or in print or in person, is to think about how we can get a little more of the pinkish and whitish voters to stop whatever it is we’re trying to stop, or support whatever we’re trying to support, or vote for whomever we’re hoping will be elected. When we encounter a point of view we disagree with, the question we must ask ourselves is: can I do anything to get some of those pinkish and whitish people to see things my way? Or can I at least make sure that none of the light blue people start to drift toward white? Getting into a shouting match, including personal insults, with one or two of the deepest red people, will almost certainly not help. Creating a feedback loop in which a bunch of deep blue people all agree with each other about the racist stupidity of everyone from light pink over to deep red also will not help. Posting funny pictures of Donald Trump looking like an obnoxious baby probably won’t help. In fact, at some point it becomes counterproductive. Seems obvious, right? So why are these the very things we spend most of our time doing? If we’re going to spend time on social media, let’s focus on persuading a few people somewhere in the middle that we are right, in a calm, reasonable manner. Let’s not fall into that trap of screaming at the deep reds and thus convincing the neutrals that we’re just as unreasonable and annoying as our right-wing counterparts. It’s an act of self-indulgence that we cannot afford.

7. In general, ask yourself: will this be effective? Of course we must always consider what is morally right. And we cannot help but be guided by what feels personally satisfying to us. But if we are to prevail in this contest, we must also think hard about whether each of our actions will be effective. A lesson from history: during the Civil Rights era, activists and attorneys were looking for an example that would demonstrate the unconstitutionality and unfairness of segregation on city buses in Montgomery, Alabama. In the mid-1950s, a few different women refused to move to the back of the bus or stand for white men and were arrested as a result. But the NAACP did not choose to make examples of either of them. Why not? Was it because the NAACP wasn’t sure bus segregation was wrong? No. Was it because the NAACP thought that perhaps they could reach a compromise with the forces of segregation? Nope. Was it because the NAACP was afraid of confrontation? Not a bit. The reason was simply this: they knew they had one shot at galvanizing moral indignation and perhaps a Supreme Court decision, and they wanted to make sure they would win. Thus, they waited until Rosa Parks — a polite, churchgoing, neatly dressed woman — defied the law to launch their effort. And, after years of dangerous and grueling effort, they won. It isn’t enough to be right. We must also be effective.

8. Focus on solutions, not problems. I have now read hundreds, maybe thousands, of online posts and comments about how terrible Donald Trump is, how terrible his advisers are, how terrible his appointments are, how cynical and manipulative the DNC has been, how uninspiring Hillary was, how misguided her campaign strategy was, etc. etc. etc. I probably agree with 95 percent of it. But what good is it doing us at this point? Problems are interesting and easy to talk about. Solutions are harder. But solutions are what we need. Let’s stop talking about problems unless we are using them to encourage specific solutions or strategies. We need solutions and action, not an endless witnessing of problems and the vain self-satisfaction of being right.

9. Remember: there’s no referee. Those of us who watch sports such as football and basketball are familiar with a specific gesture — the incredulous astonishment of a player who believes he or she has been wronged. Whether it’s a wide receiver who thinks he was held or a point guard who thinks she was fouled, the player will throw his hands in the air and look at the officials and the crowd in disbelief: how could you not have called that? Sometimes the ref will then throw a flag. But in the game of American politics, there is no referee. We all feel we have been fouled egregiously by the Trump campaign — lying, cheating, benefiting from Russian hacks and partisan FBI announcements, and more. But there’s no point in throwing up our hands and shouting in disbelief. There’s no official out there to call foul. We know we’ve been fouled, the other team won’t admit it and they have the ball. If we want to win the game, we just have to score more points — even if the other team is cheating. (Apologies for the endless metaphor!)

10. Know the power structure. And I don’t mean the hidden power controlling the universe — whether it’s the military industrial complex, webs of secret corporate influence, Illuminati or anything similar. I just mean we progressives need to know who our Congress member is. We need to know what committees he or she serves on and when and where he or she will be appearing in public. If they are anti-Trump, let’s make sure they stay strongly anti-Trump. If they are pro Trump, let’s make things tough for them. They should feel that every gesture of conciliation or support of Trump is like sticking their face in a fan. Similarly, we must be in continuous touch with our Senators and see if we can find lines of influence to members of Congress in other districts — perhaps through friends or family members. Once we’ve gotten used to that we must also be vigilant about our state level representatives, Governors, etc.

11. Take action as often as possible. Let’s make 2017 the year we stop just signing online petitions and sharing grievances with one another, and make it the year we seriously engage with our elected officials. I’m going to try and do something meaningful — a letter or a call directly to my representative — a few times each week. And we must begin working on taking back Congress now. Which Congressional campaign are you going to focus on?

12. Maintain humanism. One of the most depressing aspects of the presidential campaign and the ensuing transition is the degree to which our cultural discourse has degenerated. Before a single policy has been enacted, we are already feeling the repercussions of living in a world where truth and logic are devalued, courtesy is scorned and interpersonal ugliness is tolerated. Even as we fight with ferocity against the Trump agenda, we must live in a more humanistic world of our creation. It’s as if we find ourselves in a room with awful, angry rock music blaring out of half-broken speakers, and we are spending our time screaming about turning down the volume and trying to drown it all out with our own loud songs. We need to find the equivalent of noise canceling headphones that allow us to listen to music we like, both metaphorically and literally — and read books and see movies and have thoughtful conversation — so that our entire lives are not about reacting to the horrible noise. We must maintain a parallel universe (open to all voters) — let’s call it civilization — alive.

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The bottom line is this: we are joined in an important battle. The other side is not going to collapse under its own weight or realize that they’re wrong and we’re right. And there’s no omniscient and objective chorus to appeal to. It’s our vision for America against the Trump/Republican coalition’s vision. We simply must take power back. Outrage, disgust, sarcasm, moral indignation, hurt feelings, cynical resignation, internal bickering, retrospective criticisms, Internet insult wars and funny caricatures are all worthless unless they are put, deliberately and strategically, into the service of getting power back.

My personal slogan is “Power, not Protest.” We need to be the ones making the decisions; we will accomplish little or nothing as the aggrieved outsiders shouting at the insiders who have their hands on the controls. 2016 was a disaster. We must accept it, learn from it, get over it, and make sure that next time we’re the ones who come out on top.