Activist Strategies

I’ve just read Rules for Resistance: Advice from Around the Globe for the Age of Trump. And I can’t recommend it highly enough. The majority of the book is a collection of articles that came out between November 2016 and January 2017, by authors who have lived in autocracies throughout the world. They recognize what Trump is trying to do; apparently it’s not all that original. They draw some unsettling parallels between him and especially Italy’s Berlusconi and India’s Thackeray. And they give some advice. (Note that this this is a long post—as it’s a kind of book report. But as it marches along, it tries to detail some basic things we can do as we face the latest episode of what is a long tradition of political manipulation.) TO RESIST TRUMP, THE WORLD SAYS WE MUST DO THE FOLLOWING:

1. WE MUST NOTICE THE PATTERN. People like Trump rise to power by convincing a large portion of the population that they suffer from a problem—or a set of problems. (The economy is bad. We face untold terror threats. Our cities are devouring themselves.) People like Trump say that they alone hold the solution to the problem. (I’m a businessman who can fix the money. Not even the generals know ISIS like I do. We have to get tougher on crime.) And people like Trump cap their movement by identifying enemies of the cause. (She’s a nasty woman. Elites have forgotten you. Mexicans are rapists. We need more loyalty.)

2. WE MUST NOTICE THE KILLING OF THE TRUTH. As they lodge their accusations, autocrats attack the truth-tellers almost at the start. They shut out news carriers from certain press events. (Consider the March 10 meeting with Russia, where Trump let Russian media in but not our own). They monkey with social media. (Consider Trump’s blocking people on Twitter). They accuse news outlets of spreading fake news. (Consider the Times and the Post.) They threaten reprisals (such as seeking to soften the libel strictures). And they even make noises about leaks and media treason (by referring to the 1917 Espionage Act). Autocrats usually replace fake news with their own brand—such as Fox and Breitbart. They typically appeal to emotions instead of reason. They lie and lie—and they don’t care that they get caught in the lie, but keep repeating the lie like a mantra or a slogan. And they do all of this in service to the pattern I mentioned above. 

3. WE MUST NOTICE OUR ROLE IN SAVING THE TRUTH. Journalists will continue to become enemies of the state as long they continue to expose the truth. In light of all that, the press should strengthen its union, set aside some kind of legal-aid fund for especially the smaller outlets, stop competing in service of the scoop and to start cooperating in service to the country. That’s good advice, but perhaps not immediately applicable to those of us who work only through social media. But the next suggestion gets us all: Amid umpteen accusations about fake news, you better be sure that your news is real. It doesn’t matter if you’re circulating a meme, or telling about what happened at a protest, or writing about a corporate policy. Do the work of checking the story’s source, and the story’s date, and the story’s details, and the facts that are especially the most appalling. Fall for any propaganda—on our side our theirs—and you become part of the propaganda. And the autocrat will happily label you as such.

4. WE MUST NOTICE OUR ROLE AS THE ENEMY. Journalist or not, you are what’s wrong with your country. That’s what the pattern says. You oppose the autocrat’s agenda, and he will therefore paint you as opposing both him and the victims he’s working to “save.” Now the reality is that as long as you stand up for the truth, you will oppose the autocrat. And that’s good. But as soon as you start to denigrate his victims, you play only deeper into the autocrat’s hands. This is so hard, because there are so many things—such as bigotry—that we must oppose at every turn. But this book asserts that as soon as we point at the other group of people, and blame them for all this mess, we are feeding the autocrat’s own narrative. He’s been telling them all along that we hate them. 

5. WE MUST NOTICE THE ROLE OF THE SOLUTION. The trick, God help us, is somehow to protect those endangered by the autocrat’s policies while not condemning the average dude who’s fallen for the guy who passes the policies themselves. And honestly, I don’t know how we do that. I once read about a village in France that saved 3000 Jewish children from the Nazis, all while never harming a Nazi. Instead they just prayed for the Nazis to stop ruining their own souls. Maybe the saints among us can do that. But for the rest, the book simply tells us to be the solution to the issue that the autocrat has identified as our country’s gravest threat. The autocrat’s pattern hinges on a problem—poverty, terror, crime. We have to make those things better—not just for us, but for the other guys. Harder still, we have to show the other guys we are part of the solution. And we have to overcome their prejudice enough for them to see it. This sounds nearly impossible—but here’s what happens if we fail: The autocrat will keep the ability to determine when the problem is “solved.” And that means it will never be solved, because 1) the autocrat really has no idea how to solve it and 2) he has no desire ever to solve it, because the struggle against the problem is what gives him his power. That’s why the problems are usually sweeping and abstract: The war on terror. The war on crime. The war on fiscal irresponsibility. “Our enemies are waging war on Christmas!” “Our enemies are waging war on Family Values!” “Our enemies are waging war on the American worker!” Those who oppose the autocrat have to find concrete, workable resolutions in the face of this baloney: maybe better cooperation with Muslims as a means of defeating extremists; better solutions to poverty and better policing of guns; better control of corporate interests in government; better distribution of wages. Or if you don’t like these ideas, come up with some of your own. We can debate the solutions all day. The point is that we have to come up with something real. Because if we don’t, the abstraction of the problem will only broaden its definition of those who cause the problem. War on terror = war on Muslims. War on drugs = war on blacks. War on fiscal irresponsibility = war on Democrats. “Our (progressive) enemies are waging war on Christmas!” “Our (LGBTQ) enemies are waging war on Family Values!” “Our (educated) enemies are waging war on the American worker!” Some of these problems, such as terror and poverty, will never entirely change. But the resolutions do. And either you and I find a way to reach them, or the autocrat will manipulate his followers until they might eventually reach what was once called the final solution.

(Originally posted August 18, 2017)