EducationLiberal Democracy in Question

Social Resistance

May We Rise

I begin with the satisfaction of saying in public what so many of us have said in private: What a fucking nightmare! Like millions of others, my household on election night was one of inconsolable grief and rage. Within the seas of pain were especially heartbreaking scenes: immigrant and Muslim American families asking if they were now in immediate danger; a young man comforting his sobbing African-American, HIV positive boyfriend, who felt that a part of him had been killed by a country unwilling to accept his very existence; school children donning their Halloween superhero outfits to declare to their anguished parents, “Don’t worry, I’ll save the country!”

We have struggled to push past the tears and remind each other that we are not alone. We have gorged on all the what ifs and smart essays laying blame on everything from an historically flawed candidate, to persisting racism, to the revolt against a genuine, neo-liberal elite contemptuous of globalization’s “losers.” And some of us have already been in the streets to say with perfect conviction, “Not my president!”

The resistance, that is our focus today, is already gathering. I will not dictate here the course it should take. Progressives have already issued, it seems, more agendas for action than there are people to carry them out. I reject, moreover, the role of wise elder pronouncing “What is to Be Done,” and leaving it to the young to do it. That condescension repels the very cross-generational coalition we need.

Instead I’ll do two things: first, revisit moments in the American past, both disturbing and inspiring, that hold lessons for today; and second, make a particular kind of plea for resistance itself.

First, to history, spun as much from recollections of my college youth as from my knowledge as a professional historian. Trump’s election is in ways unique, prompting a nausea all its own. Never before has a president had such contempt for the intellectual and civic demands of the office. And never, since the modern civil rights era, has a president so brazenly campaigned on appeals to racism, nativism, and xenophobia.

But Trump’s victory also comes with precedent, including the sense of doom filling so many. I refer here to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Like today, one could feel the tectonic plates of American society shifting. A radical was now in charge, surrounded by foolish or dangerous men, and poised to do lasting damage.

The era preceding Reagan’s election bears likeness to our own. The United States had suffered in Vietnam a “humiliating” defeat exposing, much like the Iraq War, the limits to US power. Propelled by the social movements of the 1960s and early 70s, a liberal multiculturalism was in ascent. Chicago organizer and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson emerged as a major national figure, blazing a trail Barack Obama would later walk. Following Nixon’s disgrace, the liberal establishment — leavened by newly empowered political actors — had been re-established.

Reagan represented the explicit repudiation of all that. His goal was nothing less than to dismantle the New Deal, while turning back the clock of American culture. Reagan conservatism meant a white hetero-normative order — hostile to women, queer people, and urban blacks — couched in saccharine nostalgia for an America before the enlightenments of the 1960s. Restoring American “strength” meant a newly militarized anti-communism that ravaged Latin America and tempted the possibility of nuclear war.

Though trading Reagan’s charm for vulgarity, Trump also heads a rabid conservative movement that regards liberals, the left, progressives — whatever the talk radio epithet — as a cancer that must be removed from the nation. Like Reagan did, he seeks to fill cabinet posts for labor, the interior, and the EPA with officials hostile to workers, public lands, and the environment. And he too plays to the racialized resentments of an aggrieved, white working class, while only debatably offering anything to improve their economic lot. Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again,” like Reagan’s declaration of “Morning in America,” chases the dark night of the nation’s past.

Upon Reagan’s election, a great resistance quickly gathered, persisting through his two terms. The mission: to preserve what was worth preserving of the liberal welfare state; to defend a woman’s right to choose; to thwart an all out military invasion in Latin America; to stand up for the dignity of people with HIV and AIDS and queer America more broadly; and (no joke) to prevent a nuclear war. A generation of activists remembers the intensity of those struggles — no matter the historical amnesia about much of it and the galling sanctification of Reagan as some transcendent, national folk hero.

But here is where the history lesson sours. Familiarity provides no necessary comfort. Precedents can be bad. Yes, there were important wins in the 1980s, from the toppling of US-backed apartheid in South Africa, to the protection of Roe, to the eventual visibility and voice gained by people with HIV/AIDS. But there were also terrible defeats. These can be measures in piles of corpses — tens of thousands lost to AIDS and to death squads and proxy wars in Latin America. Countless lives were ruined in the country’s benighted drug war, while cities and the poor groaned from neglect. So much of the struggle felt like rearguard actions to hold the lines of progress and deter catastrophe.

Here is where the political lesson begins. Veterans of that era knew what it took to achieve whatever we could against the Reagan juggernaut. We also know that it was not nearly enough. And we have some sense, informed by history and experience, of the kind of mobilization, the depth of resistance, needed today.

What will that mobilization take? In some primal way, the decision of individuals — of each and every one of us — is to be a part of it. Collective action begins with personal commitment; the making of a covenant with oneself to devote the next years of one’s life to serving in a public way all the things one cares most deeply about. In a new era of hate and violence, those most vulnerable must set the priorities.

Collective action also means working in a group and experiencing the profound solidarities that come with belonging. In hard times, those bonds may sustain one more than any ideology or political faith. Sometimes one can be part of a movement simply by showing up: at Zuccotti Park or other Occupy encampments, in the streets for Black Lives Matter protests, at Standing Rock for a week or a month, or at a campaign rally. But such occasions are the exception, and without organization no movement is durable. The antidote to dejection, private rage, and peripatetic protest is community. And community is the basis for political power; the space where courage grows and things get done.

I mean with this exhortation no special doubt of anyone’s resolve. But I also know with respect to struggle that many are called but few are chosen. Too easily, the demands of daily life can encroach, the desire for sanity-saving distraction stiffen. Dissent thus dissipates into Facebook posts and anger at one’s television set. By this inertia, Trump and his gang may attain the dignity of a new normal. That’s a backdoor legitimacy we should never accept, nor let ourselves grant by our idle upset.

Political destiny — spurred by the perversions of the Electoral College and a cascade of grave errors — has issued a great moral challenge. The course of history, and the meaning and worth of our own lives, rests on how we respond. May we rise, together, to the demands of our moment.

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Jeremy Varon

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