Thinking About Committing Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump

Thinking About Committing Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump

Thinking About Committing Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump

For the first time in my life, this liberal technocrat is considering going to jail.


My greatest fear, when I ponder going to jail, is that my 53-year-old prostate wouldn’t be able to handle the long wait until I am booked. Before Election Day, it seemed a little crazy to imagine that I would ever be behind bars. Now it seems a little crazy that the country would be where we are. Like many others, I am weighing what I am willing and able to do in response.

Henry David Thoreau begins his 1849 essay On the duty of civil disobedience with a timely question: “This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but in each instant losing some of its integrity?” American government lost more than some of its integrity on November 8, when Donald Trump was elected to succeed Barack Obama as President of the United States.

Donald Trump is the most comprehensively unworthy president-elect in generations. His mere venial sins astonish: his grifting business practices, exemplified by the $25 million settlement against Trump University, his tabloid affairs, the crude personal insults he hurls at critics and political opponents, his disdain for the craft of policy making, exemplified by his failure to attend national-security briefings. I’m not even mentioning his relationship to Putin.

Since Election Day, we’ve finally seen serious media coverage of Trump’s basically insurmountable conflicts of interest that that arise from his efforts to combine being president with his worldwide business empire. That these hiding-in-plain-sight practicalities received so little attention before November 9 suggests that our media and political elite didn’t take fully seriously the possibility that Donald Trump would win. That’s one reason he actually did.

Yet, serious as they are, Trump’s personal improprieties and financial conflicts are not what lead me to ponder chaining myself to a courthouse door. Like no other president-elect in generations, he bluntly challenges bedrock norms of our pluralist democracy. That’s what Trump’s challenges to President Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts were really about. That’s what Trump’s retweeting wildly wrong alt-right claims about the proportion of crimes committed by African Americans and his “textbook”-racist remarks about a Mexican-American judge were really about, too. Trump and his key advisers denigrate Muslims, African Americans, Latino immigrants, and others. Key appointees—Steve Bannon, Senator Jeff Sessions, and Gen. Michael Flynn—have track records of dubious statements and associations that would bar them from leading many hospitals or Fortune 500 firms.

The threat a Trump administration poses is obvious enough. What’s less obvious is what I myself should do, and am prepared to do, as this group enacts its views into public policies. Thoreau, contemplating slavery, was dauntingly emphatic on this point: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.” I’m not sure I can meet that standard. I’ve never been arrested. I don’t recall even carrying a sign at a protest march.

I put myself out in the public square more than most academics do. I tweet and publish op-eds. This year, I made and distributed two campaign videos that got tens of thousands of views on Facebook. Both substantively and as a matter of political style, I’m an avowed liberal; I don’t consider myself a man of the left. My instincts lean more towards The American Prospect than The Nation. I support NAFTA and TPP. I’ve written critically of single-payer health-care. I favored Clinton over Sanders in the Democratic primary. I’ve collaborated with Republican health-policy experts. While I would have been bitterly disappointed by a Romney 2012 victory, I would not have feared for the country the way I now do.

But I am implacably opposed to a bullying politician who preys on weak, politically marginalized groups. Maybe the president-elect attacks Muslims and undocumented immigrants out of heartfelt spite. Maybe he is cynically seeking political advantage. Either way, the consequences are catastrophic, and action must be taken.

I work with graduate and undergraduate students who are undocumented, and with youth in violence-prevention initiatives across Chicago who are undocumented or who live in mixed-status families. Many of them have lived here for nearly all of their lives. Their childhood memories were formed in Chicago’s Little Village, East LA, or rural Iowa, not northern Mexico or Guatemala where they were born. Many of their parents have worked for decades for low wages packing our meat, shingling our roofs, caring for our children and our elderly relatives. As many Republicans acknowledge, these men and women belong to our national community.

Some of our University of Chicago students are now permitted to work under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. They applied for DACA, paid their $465, and along the way acknowledged their unauthorized immigration status. But DACA’s legal foundation rests with an Obama administration executive order, which can always be revoked. Within a few months, these DACA students may discover that they will lose their employment authorization or worse. Many—alongside parents, siblings, and other loved ones—are vulnerable to deportation.

They have done nothing that my own elderly relatives, immigrants from Eastern Europe, didn’t do. Under normal political conditions, these young people would be protected under attempted compromises advanced by Presidents Bush and Obama, Senators John McCain, Marco Rubio, Richard Durbin, Lindsey Graham, and others. Now these immigrants’ fate rests on the whims of a president-elect who called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals, who spouts false crime statistics about racial minorities, who insults the fitness and heritage of a Mexican-American judge. These young people are scared, and who can blame them? They trusted the US government. They may soon discover that this trust was misplaced.

I can’t protect them, but I can stand up with them if they are mistreated. Perhaps my actions can raise the political price of brutal policies. Perhaps I can speak to people like myself in a way that young activists may have difficulty doing. Perhaps the possibility of widespread civil disobedience by citizens who would ordinarily consider no such thing can exercise some restraining influence or deterrent against the worst of what Trump might do.

Perhaps the President-elect will back away from the hateful manner with which he conducted his campaign. If he does, I will be immensely relieved. But if he governs as he campaigned, if he moves to deport DACA-mented men and women or other long-standing members of the American community, or if he uses personal information provided in good faith by unauthorized immigrants to punish or deport them, I’ll go beyond offering commentary and engaging in legal street protest toward civil disobedience. If the president-elect and Congress snatch health coverage from millions of people, or if he reinstates waterboarding, I’ll move toward nonviolent direct action as well.

Conventional liberals and moderates are easily spooked by loud and angry young activists. I know this, because I am one. Indeed, I have chided some Black Lives Matter activists for strengthening the hands of their political adversaries. Whatever the strategic merit in my critiques—and post-election, there is some sad wisdom there—these activists are out there standing for what they believe. If middle-aged liberal technocrats like me want protesters to act more like us, there is one obvious way to make that happen: We can go out and join them.

In true professorial fashion, I’ve been gathering practical information on the consequences I could face for civil disobedience. This isn’t something to be done lightly. I am my family’s sole breadwinner. My wife and I care for her brother, who lives with intellectual disabilities. Could my federal research grants be at risk? What are the possible consequences of having a criminal record?

These investigations make visible the cloak of privilege that generally envelopes me. At work, the consequences of engaging in civil disobedience and being convicted of trespassing or some other misdemeanor would probably be few. I spoke with an important university administrator. He noted that if I didn’t damage university property, neglect my teaching duties, or charge my time in jail to an NIH grant, I would be well-protected by the University of Chicago’s longstanding commitment to free speech and by my academic tenure.

The tone of our conversation was also striking. He didn’t endorse any particular action, but he wasn’t surprised or dismayed either. He suggested that many faculty are pondering similar actions. I’ve been open with friends and research colleagues, and I’ve had a conversation with every single person, including some colleagues with whom I tangle on the normal matters of academic politics. I suspect that if I comport myself in a civil and serious manner, most of my colleagues will respect the spirit of my actions.

I’ve spoken to lawyers, too, about the practicalities. I learned that it’s unlikely that I will face severe penalties beyond a night or two in jail. Still, there are risks. The biggest would be to get in any way physically entangled with police officers. The second would be to damage property or to create any safety risk. Some safeguards might reduce the risks. One is for me to protest, alone, rather than joining a larger group that might get into it with counter-protesters or with police.

I’m not afraid of being arrested or spending time in jail. In the course of my work, I have often visited correctional facilities. I have some inkling of that experience. I’m more concerned about the fright I might put into my parents and my children. My wife hopes that I don’t do it. “I’m not thrilled,” she says. “But I’ll support you if you go through with it, whatever that’s worth.” That’s worth more than I can say.

Some professional consequences do make me nervous. Although my job is probably secure, I have relationships with grant funders, law-enforcement officials, and policy makers that might be affected. My protests would not be against the police. I believe my law-enforcement colleagues know that. Still, our relationships may change in ways I can’t predict.

My professional identity would change, too. It’s already changed because of my public advocacy for health reform. My persona has changed from “health-policy expert Harold Pollack” to “liberal health-policy expert Harold Pollack.” What will it be if I step beyond the usual op-eds, wonk-advocacy, and snarking on Twitter?

One friend—who opposes the president-elect as much as I do—advises against civil disobedience. As he put things: “Once you jump over the barricade, you can’t really climb back. You become that guy who gets arrested, not the guy you are now, who can pick up the phone to give expert advice to policy makers.” I just received an invitation to a fancy event with a government official who might reconsider that invitation after reading this essay.

President-elect Trump and his closest advisers are not normal figures in the American political tradition. Their disdain for accepted norms isn’t normal. Their apparent willingness to disparage or hurt weak individuals and groups isn’t normal. It’s not acceptable, either. In the face of that, I’m just as frightened that I might hesitate and end up doing nothing as I am that I might suffer personal repercussion that might arise from an act of nonviolent protest.

I live with rare privilege, which brings with it responsibilities. I don’t want my students to join or emulate me. They’d face different risks. But I hope that others in positions of similar privilege think hard about what we should do. We owe that to others who cannot do the same.

All of us across the political spectrum who are committed to core values of a pluralist democracy may be called upon to defend our values, to stand up for politically weak members of our communities, in ways that we haven’t before.

I’m not eager to engage in civil disobedience. But if it comes to that, I’d be at peace with it, too, because this time is different. That’s what I’m thinking about these days. I hope that you are, too.

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