It is already clear how Donald Trump will govern: with no restraint or respect for conventions, his primary concerns the accumulation of wealth and the exercise of power. How people resist, and how many, will determine whether the next four years are remembered as a dark time for American democracy or the awakening of a new civil rights movement.
The posters lining the corridor at 20 Jay Street in Brooklyn are standard issue, a common sight at any anti-globalisation protest: Crisis Is Business As Usual, Abolish The Police, Capitalism Is Armed Robbery, and so on. One shows a masked Monopoly man brandishing automatic pistols.
What’s unusual for a meeting of the radical left is the size of the crowd. Several hundred people are crammed into the offices of publisher Verso Books, packed as tight as demonstrators in Zuccotti Park at the peak of Occupy Wall Street. There are overflow meetings in the hallway and down the block, and bouncers at the front door.
A black banner reading Solidarity Means Attack, the last A circled to form the anarchist symbol, indicates that dedicated anti-fascists are running the show, but there are as many newcomers in the audience as old hands. “When somebody like Hillary is elected people just go to sleep for four years,” says a middle-aged Bernie Sanders supporter, Emily S. – no last names here. “I’m horrified by Trump, but at the same time, this is an amazing response.”
On the mic, a young white woman dressed in militant black announces “a rapid response number for people who don’t want to call the police” and invites us to visit the anarchists’ base in Bushwick. “We offer fight training, cop-watching, basic first aid and know your rights.”
An older male activist, black cap and ponytail, promotes a Community Action Team of volunteers to defend vulnerable people: “These are bullies and they need to be stood up to. You knew that in the schoolyard; this is no different.”
“Yeah, punch a fascist in the face,” adds an African-American organiser with dreadlocks, earning an indulgent laugh and a round of applause, mostly from people who have never had to physically fight for their rights.
By the door, a twenty-something woman with bleached hair and glasses, Mason, is handing out a pamphlet of legal advice: Oh Crap! What Now? Planning For A Trump Administration When You’re Not A Straight Rich White Dude. “I think a lot of people are realising just how racist this country is, how homophobic, how misogynist, and they’re really seeing it for the first time and are ready to take action,” she says.
Arun, a longtime anti-war activist, offers a less optimistic assessment. “If you go the protests at Trump Tower, there’s a naked, gut reaction kind of response. A whole lot of ill-informed and badly-educated and poorly politically-conscious people got the idea that if they ran into the streets and shouted ‘we won the popular vote’ by some magic they could reverse the decision,” he says.
He allows that it is encouraging to see so many people offering to help, but wonders how many know what they’re signing up for. “This mobilisation and this momentum is going to grow and grow and grow in a way that’s going to be provocative to the fascist forces… The question is ‘when is their fuse going to be lit?’”
The notion that the presidency would change Trump lasted about five minutes. He invited his daughter to a meeting with the president of Japan, paid $25 million to settle three lawsuits against Trump University, sought a security clearance for his son-in-law, got entangled in various conflicts of interest and picked Twitter fights with the New York Times and the cast of Hamilton, all before the last ballots had been counted.
This is the politics of permanent outrage, in which one furore follows another so quickly that all are forgotten, and substantive discussions are crowded out. Soon, it will no longer be a distraction from policy debates; it will be a distraction from policy. Trump’s first appointments provide a clear indication of the human rights violations to come, under cover of scandal.
Whether Trump won Wisconsin and North Carolina as a result of vote suppression is debatable, but with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General and Republicans in control of two-thirds of state legislatures, efforts to restrict the franchise and prevent blacks, Hispanics and poor people from voting are certain to intensify.
In 1986, Congress deemed Sessions too racist to become a federal judge. He has described the Voting Rights Act as “a piece of intrusive legislation” and his Department of Justice (DoJ) is unlikely to defend it. A conservative majority on the Supreme Court could go after Section Two, which prohibits voting practices that discriminate on the basis of race.
Under Eric Holder, the DoJ pushed aggressively for police reform in Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland and Ferguson, among other cities, in an effort to reduce violence and racial bias. Nothing in Sessions’ record suggests he will hold out of control police departments to account.
Trump’s choice as National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, has tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” As head of intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command, he pioneered an aggressive new approach to ‘black ops,’ including assassinations, kidnappings and detention without trial in secret prisons.
The president-elect says he has had second thoughts about torture since talking to retired General James Mattis and no longer proposes subjecting detainees to “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding,” but Flynn, an ardent supporter of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ has his ear too.
Immigration hardliner Kris Kobach, a leading candidate to be Secretary of Homeland Security, was photographed walking into a meeting with Trump holding a plan for his first year in the job. It defines a “criminal alien” as any undocumented immigrant that has been “arrested for any crime” – the italics and the presumption of guilt are Kobach’s. Trump’s “deportation force” starts here.
Kobach has been touting the reintroduction of a post 9/11 scheme, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required adult males from “higher risk” countries to be interrogated on arrival and monitored while in the United States. It didn’t specifiy Muslims, but every country on the list apart from North Korea was majority Islamic.
His new plan suggests that all “high-risk aliens” should be questioned “regarding support for Sharia law, jihad, equality of men and women, the United States Constitution.” On Fox News, Trump supporter Carl Higbie said that wartime internment camps provide a historical precedent for a Muslim registry: “We did it during World War II with Japanese, which, you know, call it what you will…”
In short, Trump and his Republican allies intend to follow through on his promised white supremacist agenda. Muslims will be denied entry and kept under surveillance, millions of undocumented Latino immigrants will be rounded up, the threat of police violence against African-Americans will increase and institutional racism will become more deeply entrenched.
Steve Bannon, who prior to becoming Trump’s campaign manager ran Breitbart News as “a platform for the alt-right,” will be his chief strategist in the White House. In a conference speech this week, one of the alt-right’s leading ideologues, Richard Spencer, quoted Nazi propaganda and said America belongs to white people. As he closed with “Hail Trump! Hail Our People! Hail Victory!” several men in the audience gave Nazi salutes.
Trump told the New York Times “I don’t want to energise the group, and I disavow the group,” but his hires tell a different story. In an article on neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer, titled “It’s like Christmas,” Andrew Anglin wrote “honestly, I didn’t even expect this to all come together so beautifully. It’s like we’re going to get absolutely everything we wanted… Basically, we are looking at a Daily Stormer Dream Team in the Trump administration.”
Around 20,000 people protested against George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001. There were perhaps three times as many demonstrators on Richard Nixon’s first day. Protests against Trump are likely to dwarf these. On Facebook, 116,000 people have signed up so far for the Women’s March On Washington, the day after he is sworn in.
“One, there are so many proposals that would violate people’s rights, but two, I think there are so many people who feel personally affected that you may see a different kind of public response,” says Maria McFarland, co-director of the US programme at Human Rights Watch.
On Nov 9, Trump tweeted: “Just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!” Articles claiming that people opposing the right’s agenda are paid by conservative bogeyman George Soros are a staple on right wing news sites. Breitbart will seek to deligitimise protests however and whenever it can.
Trump’s abusive relationship with the media is impossible to look away from – executives are counting on it, heedless of the danger. He lambasted the “failing @nytimes” and railed against coverage he perceived to be unfair in an off-the-record meeting with cable news owners and presenters. Yet when he eventually agreed to take questions at the newspaper, his answers – maybe climate change is real, no he won’t prosecute Clinton – were presented straight up, as evidence of moderation.
“The statements that Trump has made complaining about protesters… implying that people shouldn’t have a right to speak, are very concerning,” says McFarland. “You combine that with his comments about wanting to sue the media and loosen libel restrictions, you’re looking at a situation where freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association could be under attack.”
Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a prominent Trump surrogate, described the mass demonstrations after the election as “riots” that “should be quelled quickly,” and suggested a five point plan for doing so: “1)Declare state of emergency. 2)Impose early curfew. 3)Mobilize Nat Guard. 4)Authorise ALL non lethal force. 5)Tear gas.”
“It’s critical that the protest movement is prepared to respond in a smart way to repression,” says Kevin Zeese, of grassroots left wing organisation Popular Resistance. “In Occupy, for example, the protesters responded in a non-violent way when they were attacked. And that sparked a movement across the country.”
In North Dakota this week, police threw concussion grenades, fired rubber bullets and sprayed water at Native Americans and environmentalists demonstrating against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Dozens of protesters were taken to hospital with hypothermia, but returned to the fight. Resisting Trumpism will require similar bravery and commitment, on a much larger scale.