One day soon, the most visible phase of this nightmare will end. The current occupants of the White House will leave, and all of their assorted enablers will disperse back into the world like fungus spores floating on the wind, all hoping for a cozy spot to flourish anew. It is our job, as a society, to deny them that. To deny them acceptance, peace, and the unearned sheen of respectability. To always, always, remember what they did.
Because the visible phase of the nightmare is not the whole thing. The past four years represent both a beginning of fallout to come, and a continuation of long-standing Republican policies and goals that are being wielded more brazenly than before. The idea that the United States government should protect the rich at the expense of everyone else, use police power to crush popular dissent, suppress the vote, steal elections, embrace racism, and ignore the human rights abuses of foreign dictators in exchange for business deals is all in keeping with the well established principles of the Republican Party (and many of its Democratic friends). Trump’s failures as a politician are personal ones. His narcissism and bizarre personality disorders ensured that he said the quiet part out loud in every case. The Republican establishment dislikes this trait of his not because they disagree with the substance of his actions, but because his crudeness can cause momentarily awkward public relations. They have long preferred their class war concealed by tastefully placed flags and their racism swaddled in Martin Luther King Jr. quotations. But Trump just offered the raw substance without the faux-gentility. And they were all happy to take it.
The consequences of all of this will be with us for decades. As a direct result of policies that the Trump administration has enacted, inequality will continue to grow, and climate change will continue to worsen, and families shattered by immigration enforcement will continue to suffer, and right wing judges will continue to restrict our rights, and the cheap corruption that has been so welcomed by the federal government will continue to leach democracy of its power. None of this will be over when Trump leaves the White House in disgrace. We face the grim task of trying to roll back measures that have made already existing crises much worse, and doing so in the face of Republican opposition that will not take a day off. We are about to be like passengers on a sinking ship who have finally been handed buckets to bail out the water, after the captain has sailed directly into an iceberg for fun, and then taken a nap. That is, politically speaking, our best-case scenario.
A key characteristic of broken political systems — a category that includes the U.S. political system in 2020 — that allows them to continue to function despite their obvious flaws is this: The people making the harmful decisions are personally insulated from the consequences of those decisions. Thus, the policy makers always end up on the winning side of economic inequality; the violence of the state and its police and soldiers is never directed their way; racism or other rampant forms of discrimination never keep their own kids out of the best colleges; the ravages of climate change don’t bother them much, because they can always move to a more pleasant spot. This ability to do things that hurt many people without ever feeling that pain yourself is an absolutely vital piece of all hierarchical systems that produce injustice. It follows that if you can make the people who make the decisions suffer themselves in proportion to how much they are making everyone else suffer, you will create a powerful incentive for them to stop making policies that promote suffering. If the lives and material conditions of our leaders were truly tied to our own, socialism would become popular faster than you can say “But officer, I’m white!”
Stephen Miller should never be able to dine peacefully in a nice restaurant as long as there is one family still experiencing the pain of his border policies. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump should not be able to go to fancy New York society events so long as Americans are still feeling the effects of the Trump administration’s class war. Steven Mnuchin should not be able to have a nice day taking in a ballgame, Betsy DeVos should not be able to enjoy a quiet cruise on her yacht, Mitch McConnell should not be able to have a fun outing to the Kentucky Derby. All of these people should be the subject of ridicule, derision and insults when they venture out in public. All of them should experience civil disobedience designed to prevent them from living calm and luxurious lives while millions of other people suffer in myriad ways because of what they have done. When you cannot vote for change because the districts are gerrymandered and the right to vote is suppressed, and you cannot appeal to the courts for change because the bad people wrote the laws and picked the judges, and you cannot buy change because economic inequality has been baked in to benefit a tiny minority, you have to get creative. You can and should be part of a movement, because movements can create real change in the face of all these structural obstacles. But in the meantime, when you see Kayleigh Mcenany having a birthday party in the back of a Washington, D.C. restaurant, you should gather your fellow diners and go back there and yell at her about what she has done until she is no longer having fun.
Violence is wrong, but making bad people unwelcome in polite society is the right and moral thing to do. If Dick Cheney is in your golf club, you need to go call him a war criminal to his face. If Kirstjen Nielsen is hired at your investment firm, you need to vocally ostracize her at work. If Sarah Huckabee Sanders is in the PTA at your school, you need to stand up and make her account for her lies right there in the PTA meeting. And if you aren’t rich enough to run into any of these people in your day-to-day life, you can always go and protest outside of their house, or crash their speaking events, or start loud P.R. campaigns against their future private sector employers. Though it may be tempting to think of these powerful people as untouchable, you should not underestimate the positive deterrent effect of instilling in these people the knowledge that their bad actions will result in an equal and opposite reaction, in the form of them never being able to go out to dinner in peace again as long as they live.
In the long run, refusing polite public treatment to people who have not earned it will tend to promote good government. It is, I assure you, the very least that they deserve. When the many servants of the Trump dynasty return to us, please don’t forget to do your part.
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In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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