The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.
A great many people, myself included, have understandably used the word “shock” to describe Donald Trump’s election and the first months of his presidency. Though he breaks the mold in some ways, Trump’s tactics do follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis. In his first week in office, for example, Trump signed a tsunami of executive orders that had people reeling, madly trying to keep up. Since then, he’s never allowed the atmosphere of chaos and crisis to let up.
But as I’ve reflected on the word “shock” while writing No Is Not Enough, I started to question its accuracy in this context. A state of shock is produced when a story is ruptured, when we have no idea what’s going on. But in so many ways, Trump is not a rupture at all, but rather the culmination—the logical end point—of a great many dangerous stories our culture has been telling for a very long time. That greed is good. That the market rules. That money is what matters in life. That white men are better than the rest. That the natural world is there for us to pillage. That the vulnerable deserve their fate, and the 1 percent deserve their golden towers. That anything public or commonly held is sinister and not worth protecting. That we are surrounded by danger and should only look after our own. That there is no alternative to any of this.
Given these stories are, for many of us, part of the very air we breathe, Trump really shouldn’t come as a shock. A billionaire president who boasts he can grab women by their genitals while calling Mexicans “rapists” and jeering at the disabled is the logical expression of a culture that grants indecent levels of impunity to the ultrarich, that is consumed with winner-take-all competition, and that is grounded in dominance-based logic at every level. We should have been expecting him. And indeed, many of those most directly touched by the underbelly of Western racism and misogyny have been expecting him for a long time.
So maybe the emotion beneath what some have been calling “shock” is really, more accurately, horror. Specifically, the horror of recognition that we feel when we read effective dystopian fiction or watch good dystopian films. All stories of this genre take current trends and follow them to their obvious conclusion—and then use that conclusion to hold up a mirror and ask: Do you like what you see? Do you really want to continue down this road? These nightmare futures are horrifying precisely because they’re not shocking—not a break with our underlying stories, but their fulfillment. I’ve come to believe that we should see America’s first nuclear-armed reality-TV president in a similar fashion: as dystopian fiction come to life. Trump is a mirror, held up not only to the United States but to the world. If we don’t like what we see—and throngs of us clearly do not—then it is clear what we need to do.
We have to question not only Trump but the stories and systems that ineluctably produced him. It’s not enough to superficially challenge him as an individual, foul and alarmingly ignorant though he may be. We have to confront the deep-seated trends that rewarded him and exalted him until he became the most powerful person in the world. The values that have been sold to us through reality TV, get-rich-quick books, billionaire saviors, philanthrocapitalists. The same values that have been playing out in destroyed safety nets, exploding prison numbers, normalized rape culture, democracy-destroying trade deals, rising seas, and privatized disaster response.
At the same time, perhaps it’s OK—healthy, even—for us to be just a little bit shocked by Trump. Here’s why: Those stories that produced him were always contested. There were always other stories, ones that insisted that money is not all that’s valuable, and that all of our fates are intertwined with one another and with the health of the rest of the natural world. The forces Trump represents have always had to suppress those other, older, and self-evidently true stories, so that theirs could dominate against so much intuition and evidence.
The persistence of these other stories should remind us that, while Trump is the logical culmination of the current neoliberal system, the current neoliberal system is not the only logical culmination of the human story. Which is why part of our work now—a key part—is not just resistance, not just saying no. We have to do that, of course. But we also need to fiercely protect some space to dream and plan for a better world. This isn’t an indulgence. It’s an essential part of how we defeat Trumpism.
Killing the Trump Within
For me—and this may sound a bit strange—Trump’s rise has also prompted a more internal kind of challenge: It has made me determined to kill my inner Trump. We have already seen that the new regime in Washington has led a great many people to try to understand and overcome our own latent biases and prejudices, the ones that have kept us divided in the past. This internal work is crucial as we come together in resistance and transformation.
There are some other, often overlooked ways that many of us can do more to confront our inner Trump—something, anything, that’s just a little bit Trumpish in our habits. (And to be clear: I’m not saying these omissions make all of us responsible for the outcome of the 2016 election—this is not about who voted for whom and why.) Maybe it’s the part whose attention span is fracturing into 140 characters, and that is prone to confusing “followers” with friends. Maybe it’s the part that has learned to see ourselves as brands in the marketplace rather than as people in communities. Or the part that sees other people doing similar work not as potential allies in a struggle that will need all our talents, but as rival products competing for scarce market share. (Given that Trump’s presidency is the culmination of corporate branding’s insidious colonial logic, perhaps it’s past time to leave all that behind.) Or maybe it’s the part that can’t resist joining a mob to shame and attack people with whom we disagree—sometimes using cruel personal slurs, and with an intensity set to nuclear. At the very real risk of bringing on the kinds of attacks I’m describing, is it possible that this habit too is uncomfortably close to the tweeter in chief’s?
Or maybe it’s the part that is waiting for a billionaire to ride to the rescue, except this one will be kind and generous and concerned about climate change and empowerment for girls. The liberal billionaire savior may appear very far from Trump, but the fantasy still equates great wealth with superhero powers—which, once again, is just a little too close for comfort to His Majesty of Mar-a-Lago.
If some of these impulses and stories seem hardwired in us, it’s not because we’re terrible people. It’s because so many of us function within systems that are constantly telling us there are not enough resources for everyone to thrive, so we’d better elbow our way to the top, whatever the costs. Willingly or not, anyone who consumes and produces media swims in the cultural waters of reality TV and personal branding and nonstop attention-splintering messages—the same waters that produced Donald Trump. There are different parts of that fetid swimming pool, to be sure, and some people are in zones with no lifeguards and with way more waterborne diseases than others—but it’s still hard to get genuinely outside the pool. Recognizing this can help clarify our task: To have a hope of changing the world, we’re going to have to be willing to change ourselves.
The good news is that as we de-Trump—perhaps resolving to spend a few more hours a week in face-to-face relationships, or to surrender some ego for the greater good of a project, or to recognize the value of so much in life that cannot be bought or sold—we might just get happier. And that is what will keep us in a struggle that does not have a finish line in sight and, indeed, will require from us a lifetime of engagement.
We can fight the global rise of right-wing demagoguery in two possible ways. There’s the establishment option embraced by centrist parties the world over, which promises a little more child care, better representation of women and people of color at the top, and maybe a few more solar panels. But this option also comes with the same old austerity logic, the same blind faith in markets, the same equation of endless consumption with happiness, the same Band-Aids on gaping wounds.
There are many reasons why this limited vision is utterly failing to stop the surge of the far right around the world, but the main one is this: It does not have nearly enough to offer. It does nothing to address the real and legitimate grievances that super-charge the search for scapegoats, nor does it give the people most endangered by the rising right enough hope for a better future. A society with extreme inequality, unmasked neofascist tendencies, and an unraveling climate is sick, and neoliberalism, as one of the major drivers of all of these crises, is grossly inadequate medicine. It offers only a weak “no” to the forces responsible, and it lacks a “yes” worth seizing.
A great many of us are clearly ready for another approach: a captivating “yes” that lays out a plan for tangible improvements in daily life, unafraid of powerful words such as “redistribution” and “reparation,” and intent on challenging Western culture’s equation of a “good life” with ever-escalating creature comforts inside ever-more-isolated consumer cocoons, never mind what the planet can take or what actually leads to our deepest fulfillment.
And perhaps we should thank Trump for this newfound ambition, at least in part. The shamelessness of his corporate coup has done a tremendous amount to make systemic change seem more necessary. If titans of American industry can eagerly line up behind this man, with all of his viciousness, venality, vanity, and vacuousness; if Wall Street can cheer on news of his plans to let the planet burn and the elderly starve; and if so much of the media can praise his cruise-missile strikes, ordered over chocolate cake, as “presidential,” well then, a great many people are coming to the conclusion that they want no part of a system like that. With this elevation of the basest of figures to the most exalted of positions, the culture of maximum extraction, of endless grabbing and disposing, has reached some kind of breaking point. Clearly, it is the culture itself that must be confronted now, and not policy by policy, but at the root.
What we have seen with insurgent left candidates and parties in the United States, Britain, Spain, France, and elsewhere are not perfect politicians or perfect platforms that have everything figured out. Some of the figures who have led these runs sound more like the past than the future, and the campaigns they have built often do not mirror the diverse countries they seek to govern, or at least not enough. And yet the very fact that these long-shot candidates and often brand-new political formations are coming within an arm’s reach of power—repeatedly stunning pollsters and establishment analysts—is proof of a very important fact, one that has been denied and suppressed for the many decades of neoliberalism’s stranglehold on public discourse: Progressive transformational change is popular—more so than many of us would have dared imagine as recently as just a year or two ago.
Here is what needs to be understood in our bones: The spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of evidence. What for decades was unsayable is now being said out loud by candidates who win millions of votes: free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as technology allows, demilitarize the police, prisons are no place for young people, refugees are welcome here, war makes us all less safe. And the crowds are roaring their agreement. With so much encouragement, who knows what’s next? Reparations for slavery and colonialism? A Marshall Plan to fight violence against women? Prison abolition? Democratic worker co-ops as the centerpiece of a green jobs program? An abandonment of “growth” as a measure of progress? Why not? The intellectual fencing that has constrained the progressive imagination for so long is lying twisted on the ground.
The left-wing almost-wins of the past two years are painful, but they are not defeats. They are the first tremors of a profound ideological realignment from which a progressive majority could well emerge—just as geopolitically significant as the rise of authoritarianism and neofascism on the right side of the spectrum. Indeed, the weaknesses and missteps of these left candidates should be a cause not for despair but for genuine hope. It means that a much larger political tent is possible—it’s just a matter of collectively, and carefully, planting the right poles from day one. As many movement leaders are now arguing, a very good start would be accepting the premise that widening economic inequality and climate disaster are inseparable from systems that have always ranked human life based on race and gender, while the capacity to pit populations against each other based on skin color, religious faith, and sexuality has been the single most potent tool for protecting and sustaining this lethal order. And if the political formation that has the guts to say all that also has a bold plan for humanizing and democratizing new technologies and global trade, then it would quickly seize back populist ground from the right, while feeling less like a blast from the past and more like a path to an exciting, never-before-attempted future. A deeply diverse and insistently forward-looking campaign like that could well prove unbeatable.
If this sounds overly optimistic, remember: In the United States, the number of people showing up to join political movements is swelling to levels beyond anything organizers say they have seen before. Marches—for women’s rights, against deportations, and in defense of black lives—are seeing record numbers. Progressive political meetings, lectures, town halls, and assemblies are experiencing beyond-capacity participation. Something powerful is at work, and anyone who claims to know how far this can go should be trusted about as much as the pollsters who told us Trump could never win and Brexit would certainly fail. Building this broad tent in a time of siloed politics is hard work, requiring a willingness to honestly confront painful histories before progress is possible. And yet in this moment that combines such fearsome stakes with such fertile potential, what choice do we have but to try—to leap at every new opportunity as it opens?
For instance, after the Republicans’ first shot at dismantling Obama’s health-care program failed, the movement calling for universal public health care surged across the country, with the idea of Medicare for All making more sense to more people than it had in decades. Now the push is on for the model to be adopted in large states such as California, no matter what happens in Washington.
As Trump’s plans meet his surreal levels of ineptitude in executing them, more such opportunities will emerge. We can expect a similar shifting of the tectonic plates if the North American Free Trade Agreement is opened up for renegotiation. Trump’s actions will be a bitter disappointment to his working-class supporters, but the very fact of reopening an agreement we were all told was sealed indefinitely will also be a chance for unions and environmentalists to step forward with a blueprint for genuinely fair trade, and build support behind it. Each one of these openings—and there will be many—is an opportunity to get concrete about what a real alternative to right-wing populism can and should look like, a plank in a true people’s platform.
Just one last reminder: Trump’s disaster capitalists control a very powerful part of the US government—but they do not control everything. They do not control what cities and states do. They do not even control what Congress does a lot of the time. They certainly do not control what universities and faith institutions and unions do. They do not control what the courts do (yet). They do not control what other sovereign nations do. And they do not control what we do as individuals and in groups around the world.
Precisely because what is happening in Washington is so exquisitely dangerous, what all of us do with our collective power in these non-Trumpified spaces matters now more than ever. At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama memorably told the crowd, “When they go low, we go high.” She was talking less about deeds than about tone, and her family’s refusal to join Trump and his gang in the gutter. It’s time to transfer that ethos from tone to deeds: When they go low, everyone needs to aim high. In the many domains Trump does not control, we need to aim higher in our ambitions and accomplish more with our actions. We need to do more to prevent catastrophic climate change. We need to do more to create liberated cities for migrants and refugees. We need to do more to prevent military escalation. We need to do more to protect the rights of women and members of LGBTQ communities. As they go lower and lower, we need to shoot higher and higher.
For decades, elites have been using the power of shock to impose nightmares. Donald Trump thinks he’ll be able to do it again and again—that we will have forgotten by tomorrow what he said yesterday (which he will say he never said); that we will be overwhelmed by events and will ultimately scatter, surrender, and let him grab whatever he wants.
But crises do not always cause societies to regress and give up. There is also always a second option: that, faced with a grave common threat, we can choose to come together and make an evolutionary leap. We can choose, as the Reverend William Barber puts it, “to be the moral defibrillators of our time and shock the heart of this nation and build a movement of resistance and hope and justice and love.” We can, in other words, surprise the hell out of ourselves—by being united, focused, and determined. By refusing to fall for those tired old shock tactics. By refusing to be afraid, no matter how much we are tested.
The corporate coup that Trump and his billionaire cabinet are trying to pull off is a crisis with global reverberations that could echo through geologic time. How we respond to this crisis is up to us. So let’s choose that second option. Let’s leap.