Scattershot versus Coherent Strategies in Combating Trump
My seventh foil against which I want to put forth my own position is the advice that those opposed to Trumpism rely on the multiplicity of strategies that will emerge from the grass roots. Thomas Friedman responded to Trump’s victory by advocating and promoting “multiple strategies.” I disagree. Not because I believe this will not happen. It will. Many individuals and small groups will respond to their angst, their terror, their despondency at a Trump presidency, not by praying and hoping that the leopard will change his spots, not by hoping that he will self-destruct, for he surely will do that eventually (but at what cost to the rest, to America and to the world?), and some will escape into their inner selves, even if simply by stopping watching news and public affairs shows, and others by choosing exile. There are many who are considering leaving America, mainly but not just immigrants from Muslim countries. Some will even move.
However, none of these personal choices will deal with and confront the problem. They are illusory escapes, perhaps necessary to get some sleep at night. But some detached and unemotional analyses are equally escapist. Last night I broke my vow to stop watching news and public affairs shows. After all, they only churned my stomach, stoked my rage and enhanced my despondency. When a commentator moralizes and advises Trump what he should do, I feel like barfing. As Kant wrote, a belief in morality per se is a precondition of having a moral universe in the first place.
I watched Don Lemon on CNN. Without being present, Trump monopolized the show – his failure to denounce the alt-right, his tweet about the short speech the actors in Hamilton addressed to VP-elect Pence, who respected and defended the right of the actors to say what they did and did not take any personal offence. This was contrary to the president-elect’s denunciation of the speech, declaring it offensive, that it made the theatre an unsafe place and demanding an apology. I could just hear Pence’s brain cells working overtime and salivating at his personal prospects when Donald Trump finally explodes his narcissistic blimp of a body because he has such as thin skin. I believe Pence may be envisioning his succession as he foresees Donald being impeached. The discussion of Trump’s appointees on the Lemon show and of his conflict of interest because of his refusal to place his assets in a blind trust, offered grist to the mill of my indignation, but the moralizing or outrage of the commentators did little to enlighten me in contrast to the one panelist who spent his time to detail some of Trump’s legal and political vulnerabilities.
But I took a lesson from my masochistic self-indulgence. We must be disciplined and not allow ourselves to become obsessed with Donald Trump’s personality and his failings, which only have the effect of increasing his support and his popularity. It was the biggest mistake of the campaign. Donald Trump is not qualified to be president. Donald Trump does not have the temperament to be president. But he is. He won. His personality, however, must be taken as an unchangeable given rather than offer opportunities for moralizing and advising how Trump should behave. He won’t change so forget it. We must simply use whatever is at hand in strategic ways to undermine his hold on the office.
But I am getting ahead of myself. We must focus on alternative policies and programs that have broader and sounder appeal. Donald Trump gained the presidency legitimately according to the existing rules of the game. That must be respected. But not his personality. Not his policies. Not his practices. Focus on the issues and allow his character to be mocked by others.
My preoccupation with climate change and the challenge of Trump in promoting the destruction of the world stirred up in me both despair and desperation, apathy and self-pity. The despair was justified as I thought about how much more of our planet will be destroyed because of Donald Trump, how many fewer refugees would be helped because of Donald Trump, how many more millions would suffer from his policies, and, whereas in the short term his policies of lower taxes and huge infrastructure investments may spur a growth in the economy, the long term increased debt problem will be left to the next president.
But that is exactly what Trump’s pronouncements and policies were intended to do – induce despair. Analysis showed me there were other options. Trump is akin to a Machiavellian tyrant, indifferent to criticism and even hatred, as long as the tyrant or would-be tyrant sows seeds of fear and distrust, thereby preventing or inhibiting coalitions forming to oppose him. If problems are intractable, if we come to believe there is nothing we can do, we are defeated before the horses are out of the gate. Cynicism breeds passivity.
Though I initially reacted emotionally, I eventually recovered and retained my cool. I must think strategically. I must think in positive ways, though I cannot think positively of Donald Trump given both his record, his willfulness and his determination to do what he does and hang the consequences. After all his followers would have elected him, as he claimed, even if he had shot and killed someone on Fifth Avenue in New York.
However, ideological condemnations without concerted action are a non-starter, even when the depiction of The Donald is correct. But so are wait-and-see approaches. One panelist adopted precisely that stance and was forcefully criticized by another panelist. After all, The Donald has not exactly hidden his identity. In fact, it is on constant display in his appointees, in his inclusion of his daughter who is charged with running his business in a meeting with the Prime Minster of Japan. An anarchic approach or a laissez-faire approach to resistance will also fail, with the opposition to Trump in more disarray after two years than now.
Thomas Friedman (TF) has offered another strategy. Let the many flowers of opposition bloom and the myriad of strategies emerge. TF argues that Trump will be more aware of the value of the optics if there’s a groundswell of outcry and opposition. However, and again, one of the data points we have on The Donald, and it’s a big one, is that his ego is the size of a blimp. He may be very thin skinned. But a fight, often ones he instigates, only energizes him. He is not a wilting flower who will leave the field at the outrages he perceives against his presidency. Rather than his not liking the bad press he generates, as long as the press covers him continually and constantly, he will feed off that.
TF advises Americans to continue to make bad press so The Donald will want to create a countervailing response. But look what happened when he responded to a very civilized short speech to Tom Pence with pretended outrage and how that shifted the conversation drastically away from the news that he had paid $25 million to settle the suits against Trump University. Did anyone comment on how cheap he got off, what a sweet deal he had negotiated? The participants in the class action suit will average $4,000 in recompense, a pittance compared to what they shelled out and the suffering they went through. It is no more than the legal fees Donald would have paid out and the expenditure is tax deductible. The amount not only would not come near to covering the plaintiff’s losses but would not even compensate them for the time spent on the suit and opportunity costs they suffered by enrolling in the fraud that was Trump University.
I agree that we need multiple strategies at the same time. But they must be given some coherence. They will need leadership and coordination. They will require a subdivision of labour and talent. They will require prioritization. We will have to decide what is most necessary, what is possible to change, and where our capacities can best be deployed. Most of all, unlike the election in 2016, we must always keep in mind what is at stake – our values and our world.
TF is correct in asking. “Where the leadership is going to come for all this is totally unclear. The Dems are in complete disarray and are going to be so for a while. And the lesson from Occupy is that bottom up won’t sustain itself.” The latter is true, but the former need not be. The Democrats have demonstrated in the past that they can pick themselves off the floor, dust themselves off and organize a comeback. There is no other potential for leadership. The myriad points of opposition will be too disaggregated and too contentious to offer direction.
Further, as the Berlusconi nine-year dynasty in Italy showed, the Italian President survived in office largely because of the incompetence and disarray in the opposition. As Luigi Zingales warned. “If you think presidential term limits and Mr. Trump’s age could save the country from that fate, think again. His tenure could easily turn into a Trump dynasty.”
“When the state entrusts itself with a cause – whether based around religion or ethnic identity [in this case, male white nationalism] – citizens are no longer individuals pursuing their own conception of the good life; they are part of a larger brotherhood, entrusted with a mission to reshape society.”
TF is correct on other grounds. “Liberals have a real problem with this, which is why they have trouble with the politics of meaning, especially the kind that served up neoliberalism techno-solutions that no one understands to large scale problems (and why Obamacare, despite the hopes when it passed, has proven so unpopular). No one actually feels the horror of climate change because Hillary dressed it as ‘belief in science.’ Actually, you could rescript it as belief in the planet, belief in your kids, belief in the beaches you like to walk on or belief that someone else’s village in Africa should not have to empty out just because we can’t think of another way of stopping the emptying out of West Virginia.”
But this tact fails because it repeats the tendencies to place the blame primarily on Hillary’s shortcomings when those shortcomings compared to her strengths were the least of the problems in opposing Trump. Further, if we shift the blame and the responsibility, in the end, the result will be more frazzled nerves, an inadequate and incomplete analysis and an inchoate and very vague counter-strategy stressing crying out and protests, the very methods that my first correspondent several blogs ago regarded as futile.
We must recognize the strength of Donald Trump. He may not read at all, he may have a concentration span of no more than fifteen minutes, he may be a fabulist far more prone to spreading myths than enunciating the truth, but his gut instincts are very strong. And Trump is magnetic, not only to his supporters, but to the chattering classes. After all, look at how few recognized his power while being sucked into being entranced by it, even its ugliness. Liberalism may be flabby, but it’s all we have. But Liberalism will be like a phoenix rising from the ashes, as it always has been, when confronted with that which threatens its very existence, our values and our political culture.
So where do we start? Not with Hillary. Not with the shortcomings of the Democratic Party. We have to start with recognising what we did wrong. We have to acknowledge that among the large cohort of committed people, most of us were complacent. I could offer the excuse that I am a Canadian and was only watching the election from a distance. But that is a cop out. If I thought the future of the world was at stake, why did I not volunteer and go work in the election. I went south in the sixties to help in the civil rights movement. And I had much less time then. After all, I am now retired. I have the time. I went to an Obama meeting in Princeton back in 2007. In this election, I contented myself with commenting and criticizing from the sidelines.
So I have to start by analyzing why I allowed myself to be fooled by the polls, why I slipped into squelching my fears and expanding my hope. The Obama doctrine had, as such ideas are wont to do, turned in on itself. And all of Obama’s and Hillary’s pleas about the urgency of turning out to vote, insisting that the outcome was now in our court, counted for too little. Hillary perhaps could not arouse our enthusiasm. But Trump did, but for the wrong goals and policies. Was that not sufficient reason to motivate ourselves? Why blame the leader?
Further, we must not substitute hope for a fear that we can bring that change about. We must believe in a better future and not simply hope for one. We must detour around despair and work out the solutions we must bring to bear on the myriad of problems.
After we faced up to and acknowledge our own failings – and the above just hints at my own – we have to create small communities of opposition and dissent where critiques, tactics, strategies and priorities can be considered. We have to share our thoughts. For politics in the end is always a communal and not an individual enterprise. Shared beliefs, convictions and practices are the foundation of politics and provide the glue to fight for change and the achievement of new goals.
Most important, though these initial suggestions are preconditions, we have to reach out and get to know those who voted for Trump. For many who supported him were correct in being angry at our indifference to and our sense of superiority over them. We have to go to the suburbs, go to the small towns and engage the other in conversation, learn who they are and the source of their discontent at the direction and speed of globalization and the threats they experience to the way of life they have and that they feel is under threat. We have to learn why one Trump supporter voted for the Donald because he spoke like him and shot from the hip in expressing his gut feelings rather than conclusions resulting from considered analysis of actual facts. We have to learn to listen and hear and to translate what we hear into workable policies.
In parallel, we must prepare for non-violent guerilla warfare. We know that Donald Trump will move to eviscerate policies and programs dedicated to combating climate change. Most targets have already been identified. We must look at the myriad of legal and political ways those attacks can be disrupted and slowed down. At the same time, we must recognize that some policies of Donald Trump may unintentionally favour the battle against human induced climate change, such as some approaches to deregulation. We must not assume that government regulation is an idol, the be-all and end-all of how to deal with climate change. And if private sector initiatives can help in the battle, then that help should be solicited. If the biggest oil and gas field in the U.S. has just been identified in Texas that is of excellent quality, then we cannot simply denounce fossil fuels. We must recognize their attraction, recognize the power of the interests behind their development, recognize that those who drive long distances to and from work want cheap fuel, and, most of all, we must identify the competitive advantage of recyclable sources of energy when operating on a level playing field and even identify to what degree and where existing fossil fuel stocks can complement the development of wind and solar energy.
This analysis must take place across the board. We know that Donald Trump will try, at the very least, to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal. We must identify legitimate areas that need attention, try to determine what may be negotiable, clearly spell out a bottom line even if it means siding with the Iranians, and, most of all, recognize the threat of the Iranian deep regime, not only because of nuclear arms, not only through the use of conventional weapons and support of “terrorists” and insurrectionists, but the threat to Iran’s own citizens. When the militants in the regime can organize and arrest most of the participants in negotiating the deal as “traitors” while the government in power signed the deal, then you know you have a formidable foe.
The same applies to every other field, mainly free trade and immigration. Trump can certainly be expected to act against both. Further, there are some areas on which Trump initiatives may have the packaging of left initiatives – such as Trump’s plans to go on an infrastructure building program. Investments in public transportation, roads, bridges, sewers, clean water and sewage plants, will generate economic activity, increase productivity and provide an additional source for taxes.
But the infrastructure program is one in name only, and not even one necessarily designed to produce jobs. After all, Ronald Klain, who oversaw the implementation of Obama’s infrastructure initiative in 2009, dubs Donald Trump’s infrastructure program a sham and a trap. The infrastructure program is “not really an infrastructure plan. It’s a tax-cut plan for utility-industry and construction-sector investors, and a massive corporate welfare plan for contractors” by providing tax breaks for private-sector investors, even on projects already approved, even on ones already underway. Some of the most needed infrastructure will not be repaired under the program – obsolete sewer systems and water works with lead piping. Since taxes will be definitely cut to help the very rich, deficits will increase sending interest rates higher thus endangering home ownership for young recent buyers.
In undertaking such a task, we must forgive our compatriots their failings, and even forgive ourselves. We are all fallible. To some extent, we are propelled by self-interest making a communal effort very difficult. We will also make many mistakes. But we must learn from the dot.com firms and learn to understand that in politics, leadership should go to those with vision who can tolerate risk and participants in the enterprise must be nourished in a culture that respects and even encourages risk. Commitment is a visionary enterprise. And it is the best way to defeat despair even when the hurdles are many and the prospect of many failures must be faced.
At the same time, there must be a focus on underlying political structures. The American system with its democratic monarch in the form of a very powerful president that traditional checks and balances most often controlled, will be imperilled by Donald Trump “doing his own thing.” The opposition must become conservatives who uphold traditions that protect democracy and human rights and do not pave the way for a rise of tyrants. On this and other themes, dissension among Republicans can be fostered.
Trump’s narcissism can play into the opposition’s hands. Throw a spotlight on the fact that, whether it is his VP or his nominees for various offices, Donald Trump does not take the time to introduce them to the public in an expansive way, but does so casually and informally lest the sun shine on another. Use such opportunities to stage alternative introductory sessions with expert guests to comment on the qualities of the appointees. Senator Jeff Sessions was named with a four-sentence quote delivered by email and without any statement of vision for the Department of Justice. Trump attends rallies that will reinvigorate him, not formal sessions of introduction that will inform the public further about his direction and ideas. Trump can be supported in some areas that put him at odds with economic conservatives, such as the reinstatement of the Glass-Seagall Act separating commercial and investment banking.
There are other very tough areas, like Israel/Palestine, where the division of the opposition is at risk. In such areas, careful consideration of all possibilities, realist appraisals of each of them and the search for a solution that is both principled and practical in light of the changing circumstances must be sought. Develop global partnerships with like-minded Europeans, Asians and South Americans.
Fight on the ground and in the trenches – such as over the extensive areas of conflict of interest – where there are reams of opportunities for legal and political challenges, from the use of Trump hotels for meetings and hosting overseas guests in them to the risk to foreign policy decisions because of Trump’s interests in that state. Use technology and, particularly, social and free media, much more wisely. Democrats outspent Trump 2:1 in media advertising while Trump used free media and had much more television exposure than Hillary.
Finally, pick a leader earlier, much earlier before the next round of congressional elections two years hence. Pick the transition team early as well so that the election is a vote for a group and not just an individual. Learn the role of a shadow cabinet from parliamentary democracies.
And be encouraged that this is but one of many pieces of advice on offer.