'Social Self-Defense': Protecting People and Planet Against Trump and Trumpism
These are the times to try our souls...
Donald Trump and a powerful collection of anti-social forces have taken control of the U.S. government. They seek permanent domination in service of their individual and class wealth and power. Trump’s presidency threatens immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, workers, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others. Indeed, it threatens all that holds us together as a society. We the people – society -- need to defend ourselves against this threat and bring it to an end. We need what resisters to repressive regimes elsewhere have called “Social Self-Defense.”
"Social Self-Defense means we’ve got each others’ backs."
The term “Social Self-Defense” is borrowed from the struggle against the authoritarian regime in Poland forty years ago. In the midst of harsh repression, Polish activists formed a loose network to provide financial, legal, medical, and other help to people who had been persecuted by the police or unjustly dismissed from their work. Calling themselves the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR), they aimed to “fight political, religious and ideological persecution”; to “oppose breaches of the law”; to “provide help for the persecuted”; to “safeguard civil liberties”; and to defend “human and civil rights.” KOR organized free trade unions to defend the rights of workers and citizens. Its members, who insisted on operating openly in public, were soon blacklisted, beaten, and imprisoned. They nonetheless persisted, and nurtured many of the networks, strategies, and ideas that came to fruition in Solidarity – and ultimately in the dissolution of repressive regimes in Poland and many other countries.
From the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, thousands of people began to resist his agenda. Demonstrations against Trump broke out in American cities; police chiefs, mayors, and governors declared they would not implement his attack on immigrants; thousands of people signed up to accompany threatened immigrants, religious minorities, and women; technical workers pledged they would not build data bases to facilitate discrimination and deportation. Discussion of how to resist the Trump regime broke out at dining room tables, emails among friends, social media, and community gatherings.
It is impossible to know whether the Trump regime will rapidly self-destruct; successfully impose a reign of terror that dominates the U.S. for years or decades to come; or deadlock indefinitely with anti-Trump forces. We do know that the future of the planet and its people depends on resisting and overcoming Trump’s agenda. The struggle against Trump and Trumpism is nothing less than the defense of society – Social Self-Defense.
Donald Trump is a self-aggrandizing person pursuing his own wealth and power. The Trump administration is filled with people pursuing their personal interests and those of a mélange of political cliques, corporations, industries, and foreign countries. Trumpism also incorporates a broader rightwing vision of restructuring the institutions of society to eliminate all barriers to the self-aggrandizement of the rich and powerful.
Donald Trump is adept at singling out individuals and institutions, from political opponents to journalists to a hapless beauty pageant winner and a local union leader, for slander and abuse. He is a master of playing off different groups against each other: white workers against African Americans, established residents against immigrants, men against women, Christians against Muslims, Americans against Chinese. However, Trump and Trumpism go beyond attacks on particular groups: They are undermining the foundations of a free and ordered society. They are dismantling the basic practices that make life something other than a war of all against all. And they are hell-bent on destroying the natural conditions on which our life on earth depends.
Social Self-Defense is the protection of that which makes our life together on earth possible. It includes the protection of the human rights of all people; protection of the conditions of our earth and its climate that make our life possible; the constitutional principle that government must be accountable to law; and global cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.
"In the face of the Trump assault, protecting individuals, groups, and society as a whole go hand in hand."
In the face of the Trump assault, protecting individuals, groups, and society as a whole go hand in hand. The attacks on individuals and groups are a threat not only to those directly targeted, but to our ability to live together in our communities, our country, and our world. It is a threat to all of us as members of society. Protecting those specific constituencies who are most threatened is crucial to protecting our common interests as people. Social Self-Defense means defending those who are threatened as a way both to defend them from injustice and to defend our common interest as people—as members of society. Social Self-Defense means we’ve got each others’ backs.
The manifestations of Trumpism did not start with Trump’s election; recent years have seen denial of rights ranging from mass incarceration to police militarization to soaring expulsion of immigrants to restriction of the right to vote. The struggle for a more just society has also been intense -- indeed, the emergence of Trumpism is in substantial part an attempt to quell the rising tide of Black, Latino, low-wage worker, LGBTQ, climate protection, and other movements. Social Self-Defense represents a continuation as well as a reconfiguration of those movements. If Trump’s election has a silver lining, it could be the emergence of a Social Self-Defense strong enough not only to defeat Trump but to implement a long-term vision of how to protect and restore our planet and its people.
The First Responders: Social Self-Defense has begun
From the day Trump was elected, millions of people began to resist him and his agenda. Their actions provide a preview of the future of Social Self-Defense.
Less than 24 hours after the election results were announced, there were 350 protest gatherings around the country in response to a call by MoveOn and allies. In the succeeding five days, thousands demonstrated daily in the streets. 8,000 people filled Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In New York, thousands more demonstrated outside Trump Tower. Protesters also turned out in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Las Vegas, Providence, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.
Donations poured in to organizations that would protect Trump’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union received $7.2 million from 120,000 people in the week after the election to defend the rights of “immigrants, transgender individuals, Muslims and reproductive rights groups,” and to fend off any plans to expand stop-and-frisk nationwide. Planned Parenthood received 128,000 donations – thirty times the normal rate - in the week after the election, and reported an eight-fold increase in applications to volunteer. Eleven thousand people signed on to donate monthly to the Sierra Club, nine times the previous record. On November 9 the Anti-Defamation League received fifty times its normal donations.
Kayla Santosuosso, deputy director of the Arab Association of New York, launched an effort to recruit escorts for people who might be affected by hate crimes and threats. "In the back of my head, I thought I'd make this Google Form and at the very least we'll have this list of 50 people that I can connect." Within a few days, more that 5,500 people had signed up to accompany vulnerable individuals - people of color, Muslims and LGTBQ New Yorkers. More than 30,000 non-Muslims pledged to register themselves if Trump’s proposal to require all Muslims to register is implemented.
In response to a call by Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander more than 1,000 Brooklyn residents gathered November 12 for the first of a series of #GetOrganizedBK meetings. The organizers said, “We must show up for New Yorkers facing hate-speech and hate-crimes welling up in our streets, subways, and schools.” Groups involved included Planned Parenthood, NY Immigration Coalition, 350 Brooklyn, and the NY Civil Liberties Union.
The resulting #GetOrganizedBK Facebook group described itself as “a hub for individuals, activists, organizations and community leaders to join together in our resistance.” Actions listed in early December included hosting a letter writing dinner for 12 friends who sent 100 letters to elected officials opposing Trump appointments; a petition to the New York Times asking that the euphemism “alt-right” be replaced by more accurate terms like Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and fascist (days later the Times did so); donation of 38 boxes of Kellogg’s cereal to a women’s shelter to help people in need and to support Kellogg for pulling ads from Breitbart; initiation of a Sister District Project to reach out to red districts around the country; organization of social workers and attorneys to help vulnerable immigrants; a “Kids Speak Out Against Hate” event; and a Candlelight Vigil to Resist Intolerance. At another community meeting, Mayor Bill De Blasio vowed that the city would block a Muslim registry, provide abortions if they were outlawed by the Supreme Court, not comply with any new federal stop-and-frisk directives, and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Similar self-organization happened across the country. In Los Angeles, according to Armando Carmona of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a 500-strong popular assembly was held just days after the election. "Folks shared testimony, personal experiences and their understanding and analysis of what's happening." There were “breakout groups to think about how to do more assemblies in our own communities, how to organize know-your-rights workshops, how to develop legal defense strategies and how to generate awareness” of the challenges ahead. In Montpelier VT—a city of less than 10,000—140 people showed up for an emergency community meeting organized by the Green Mountain Labor Council, AFL-CIO “to affirm values of tolerance and social, economic and climate justice” and discuss “actions we can take to protect our communities, defend democracy, and build a Vermont and country that works for everyone.”
“When they come for one, they come for all of us”
On December 1, World AIDS Day, 11 activists backed by demonstrators held a sit-in at the office of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. “Paul Ryan and Tom Price’s corporate health care dreams are a nightmare for people with HIV,” said Bryn Gay of the Treatment Action Group. “Their deadly budget plan is an unprecedented attack on people with HIV” and “we won’t accept millions of people having their access to health care cut off in exchange for a tax cut for billionaires.”
On November 29, workers in 340 cities joined “Fight for 15” actions to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to organize. They included McDonalds employees in more than 300 cities, other fast-food workers, home health care workers, Uber drivers, and baggage handlers and cabin cleaners at nearly 20 airports nationwide, including 500 who went on strike at Chicago's O'Hare. Fight for 15’s Scott Courtney said, “fifteen” has become “bigger than a number.” It’s “a symbol of opposition and resistance now - to Trump and his ilk.” (Shortly thereafter Donald Trump announced that his secretary of labor would be Andrew Puzder, head of the fast food chains Hardee's and Carl's Jr., who has opposed raising the minimum wage even to $10.10.)
As Trump announced climate change-denying cabinet appointees and plans to dismantle climate protection programs and accelerate fossil fuel development, climate protectors organized to circumvent his plans from below and above. In the aftermath of the election, the Illinois General Assembly voted to approve a Future Energy Jobs Package, proposed by grassroots groups in the Fair Economy Illinois Coalition; the bill invests $500,000,000 in new and targeted low-income solar programs, low-income energy efficiency programs, job training for work in the solar industry, and community solar programs. The U.S. Mayors’ National Climate Action Agenda (aka #ClimateMayors), representing 31 million constituents, wrote Trump calling for support for climate action at the local level. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed that if Trump withdraws the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, the hundred-plus mayors who have pledged to implement the accord should seek to join it in place of the U.S. government. When Trump’s transition teams proposed to eliminate NASA climate research, California Governor Jerry Brown replied, “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.”
The People’s Climate Movement organized protests, demonstrations, and rallies for the first 100 hours after Trump’s inauguration to tie together climate protection and protection of those Trump plans to attack. “We will not allow climate deniers to threaten the planet. We will not allow attacks on immigrants, communities of color, women, LGBTQ and workers to become the new normal.” 170 university presidents urged Trump to take action on climate change. At the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, hundreds of scientists, answering a call to come “out of the labs and into the streets,” demonstrated to protect climate scientists and climate policy against Trump’s climate change denialism.
"Forces too numerous to list have lined up to fight Trump’s cabinet nominations."
Within a few weeks after the election, more than eighty thousand people had listed themselves on Facebook as planning to attend the Women’s March on Washington, on January 21st. Rev. Al Sharpton announced plans to lead a protest on the grounds of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial on January 14th, six days before the Inauguration. Rev. Dr. William Barber, initiator of the North Carolina Moral Mondays actions, launched a campaign for a nationwide boycott of the state to oppose its legislature’s attacks on minimum wage and employment rules, gerrymandering, discrimination against transgender people, and snatching away of the powers of the newly elected Democratic governor. As tech CEOs met with President-elect Trump, community, faith-based, and labor organizations that represent tech industry service workers formed Silicon Valley Rising, warning that “Trump’s policies present a dire threat to the lives and well-being of workers and contractors across the tech sector … be they immigrants, women, workers or Muslim Americans,” and are calling on tech companies “to play a leadership role in resisting unjust policies if they are put forward by the Trump Administration.”
Canada, France, and other countries are considering sanctions in response to Trump’s impending climate-destruction juggernaut. “A carbon tariff is an option for us,” said Mexico’s environmental secretary Rodolfo Lacy Tamayo. “We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries.”
In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, a group of prominent environmental, trade union, civil rights, progressive, women’s, gay, and other groups initiated a United Resistance Campaign based on a Pledge of Solidarity and Resistance Against Trump. “We pledge to stand together in support of racial, social, environmental, and economic justice for all, and against Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, homophobia, sexism, and all those forces which would tear apart a democracy of, by, and for ALL the people.” Signers pledged “to act together in solidarity” whether in the streets or in the halls of power. “When they come for one, they come for us all.” A national #Earth2Trump Resistance Roadshow “building a network of resistance against President-elect Trump’s attacks on the environment and civil rights” left the West Coast heading to the inauguration promoting the pledge. Senators Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders and Representative Nancy Pelosi asked Democratic members of Congress to organize rallies around the country on January 15 “to vigorously oppose the Republican plan to end Medicare as we know it and throw our health care system into chaos.”
Meanwhile, forces too numerous to list lined up to fight Trump’s cabinet nominations. For example, 350.org organized a “Day of Denial” and called demonstrations in 50 states to tell Senators to vote against Trump’s climate denier cabinet appointments. The Working Families Party began holding weekly “Resist Trump Tuesdays” actions at every local congressional office to demand that they publicly denounce Trump’s cabinet appointees. More than 1,000 law professors issued a statement opposing Senator Jeff Sessions’ nomination for attorney general. NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks and others were arrested, handcuffed, and hauled away in a police van when they sat in at Sessions’ Alabama office.
Less than a week after the election, thousands of students staged walk-outs on more than eighty campuses nationwide demanding their schools refuse access to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, continue to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and protect students regardless of documentation status. Less than a week later the presidents of 180 colleges and universities issued a statement in support of DACA. “To our country’s leaders, we say that DACA should be upheld, continued and expanded.” This is “both a moral imperative and a national necessity.” A score of universities—including the entire California State University system, Portland State University, Rutgers, Yale, Brown, Pomona, Reed, and Columbia—pledged non-cooperation with immigration enforcement, specifically prohibiting immigration agents from entering campuses and refusing to share information about students’ status without warrants or court orders.
More than 500 counties and cities already have policies limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities. Despite Trump’s threat to defund “sanctuary cities,” Politico was unable to find a single city that is reconsidering its sanctuary policy as a result of the election. On the contrary, at least 37 cities have reaffirmed their positions and at least four cities have newly declared themselves sanctuary cities since Trump’s election. Jim Hart, the County Sheriff of Santa Cruz County, wrote an open letter that was sent to parents saying school children are “expressing concern about being detained and deported at school.” He assured the community that “Sheriff’s Office personnel do not and will not investigate immigration status.” It is the job of local law enforcement “to make sure our community members are safe and our children can attend school without fear. This is our job and this is what we will continue to do.”
Some 450 congregations of diverse denominations have offered to provide some form of sanctuary, ranging from living space to financial help to transportation to school. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles passed a resolution calling for "holy resistance" to Trump's immigration proposals and declaring itself a "sanctuary diocese.” In Brockton, MA four churches have pledged to take in immigrants fearful of being deported. "If you need a safe place, once you enter the doors of this building, you are safe," said the Rev. Abraham Waya, pastor of Central United Methodist Church, which can shelter 100 people. "We will host you and take care of you for as long as it takes."
Volunteers for Philadelphia’s New Sanctuary Movement, which includes 17 churches and two synagogues, increased from 65 to more than a thousand in the two weeks after Trump’s election. "We have an emergency hotline that people can call if ICE shows up, and it is staffed 24/7," said director Peter Pedemonti. "Our plan is to have an alert system so that if ICE comes to get someone, everyone shows up at their house as soon as possible to pray, sing and film ICE. The purpose is to accompany and show solidarity with the family and to pressure ICE not to do this."
In the U.S. Congress, Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are crafting a bill to shield children living in the country illegally from being deported if they grew up in the United States and have stayed out of trouble. California state Senate President Kevin de Leon has filed legislation to prevent state and local law enforcement agencies from working with federal immigration officials to deport undocumented immigrants. It would also prohibit state and local law enforcement agencies from enforcing immigration laws in public schools, hospitals, courthouses, and other “safe zones.”
The strategy of Social Self-Defense
These actions appear to be on the way to being the greatest outpouring of civil resistance in American history. They target nearly every aspect of Trump’s devastating and wide-ranging agenda. But the Trump regime will soon control the major governmental levers of power in the U.S.: the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and presumably the Supreme Court, not to mention the military, the national security agencies, and the federal bureaucracy. Under such conditions, how is Social Self-Defense possible?
"The depredations of the Trump regime will not be able to continue for a day without the cooperation of some and the acquiescence of most of those whose lives and future they are destroying."
Gandhi once wrote, “Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.” The depredations of the Trump regime will not be able to continue for a day without the cooperation of some and the acquiescence of most of those whose lives and future they are destroying. Trump will only be able to continue his destructive course if others enable or acquiesce in it. Social Self-Defense can defeat Trumpism without weapons or violence if it can withdraw that cooperation.
We have no way to know how long it will take to overcome Trump and Trumpism. His regime and its successors could last for decades – consider Mubarak or Berlusconi. Alternatively, they could rapidly succumb to popular disenchantment and internal contradictions. While elections two and four years from now provide important milestones, the timeframe for the struggle against Trump will depend primarily on the gradual or rapid development of a Great Repudiation in which the American people decide to act decisively to eliminate him.
Trump’s defeat requires a shift in power away from him and his supporters to his opponents. That process starts with a cumulative disillusion and repudiation – apparently already under way. It requires an on-going expansion of Social Self-Defense in civil society and government. It must make Trump’s actions increasingly ineffective—neutralize them. It needs to undermine Trump’s wobbly pillars of support. The result may be in effect a period of dual power, in which Trump remains in office but he is unable to implement his agenda because of popular resistance. Depending on circumstances, it may also require peaceful “people power” uprisings like those that have removed dictatorships and reestablished democratic processes in many countries around the world. Sooner or later the transfer of power will need to be ratified by popular elections.
Social Self-Defense is not an organization—it is a set of practices to be engaged in by myriad organizations, hopefully in close coordination with each other. It draws both on established and newly emerging organizations. The community assemblies in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Montpelier, and many other locations illustrate how new organizations can arise for Social Self-Defense—often interpenetrated with existing ones. Other examples of self-organization: A group of young millennials agreed to set aside $20 a week each for travel and bail for when they may need to go to a demonstration and risk arrest. And the immigrant youth organization Cosecha is establishing a network of “activist circles” that each consist of anywhere between 3 and 150 people. Social Self-Defense need not become a single organization or umbrella group. But it requires that pre-existing issue- and constituency-based groups expand beyond their accustomed practices to act in concert with each other to resist the Trump agenda.
"The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people."
Social Self-Defense requires coordinating three strategic objectives. First, minimize the damage Trump does to people and planet. Second, terminate the Trump regime ASAP. Third, lay the groundwork for expanding protection of people and planet. These are part of a continuous process: Slow the Trump assault by pushing back; then begin to roll it back; ultimately evacuate him from the stage of history.
The goal of action is not so much to affect current national policy, but to reach the hearts and minds of the American people. They must be persuaded that Trumpism is bad for them personally; bad for the groups of which they are part; and bad for society as a whole. They must be able to see that better alternatives are possible and that their action can make a difference.
This requires reaching out beyond the initial anti-Trump base. For example, people throughout the country could support Fight for 15 to organize in the depressed, low-income areas that swung for Trump in 2016. The fight to preserve health insurance could similarly concentrate on protecting people in poor rural and urban counties. In the face of Trump’s dubious promises to restore coal mining, a group of senators introduced the RECLAIM Act to provide $1 billion to create new jobs and economic opportunities in communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry through the reclamation of abandoned coal mines.
Every victory is valuable both for what it accomplishes in itself and as a building block for the ultimate defeat of Trumpism. Social Self-Defense defines its own criteria of success. Protecting one immigrant from attack or deportation is a victory. So is exposing one brutal act of repression or securing medical care for one person who has been denied it. The most important criteria for success are the growth of the movement and the expansion of public support.
It will take months or years for the Trump regime to eviscerate, coopt, or eliminate the institutions that might resist it. There are still courts, legislatures, local and state governments, legal, educational, labor, media, and other civil society institutions. People power needs to be expressed not only through direct action, but through supporting and rebuilding those institutions willing and able to resist Trumpian tyranny. While there is at present little possibility for an “inside game” that attempts to influence the Trump administration from within, cooperation with anti-Trump politicians and institutional leaders is essential to the success of Social Self-Defense. The success of Social Self-Defense will depend on combining civil resistance in social institutions and the streets with political resistance in the institutions of government.
Such a strategy is already being forged by the First Responders.
Social Self-Defense in the political arena
We want our elected representatives to help defend society against Trump’s attacks.
Although Democrats are in the minority in both houses of Congress, they still have significant powers. They can hold hearings on appointments, legislation, and executive policy; speak out and campaign around the country against Trump’s actions; in the Senate they can filibuster; if President Trump commits high crimes and misdemeanors that provoke public and congressional outrage they can move to impeach him. We want them to use every available power to expose, condemn, slow down, weaken, and to the extent possible halt Trumpism’s anti-social plans. That includes resisting appointments, executive orders, legislation, and Trump’s often anti-democratic and outlandish pronouncements. We want our representatives to build a unified force to oppose Trump’s agenda and to hold each other accountable not to sell out.
"[Democrats] must split the Republican Party by making Republican officeholders fear they will pay politically if they don’t break with Trump."
An immediate objective is to take back the House and/or Senate in 2018. That requires driving down Trump’s public support. Anti-Trump representatives need to show the disastrous effects of Trump proposals and expose Trump’s corruption and stupidity.
They must split the Republican Party by making Republican officeholders fear they will pay politically if they don’t break with Trump.
Many Democrats have already stated that they are willing to work with Trump, at least in limited areas like infrastructure and trade. But there must be redlines for any cooperation. There can be no compromise when it comes to human rights, protection of the climate, constitutional limits on the power of government, or global cooperation to protect the human future. Even Trump’s most attractive programs are likely to be laced with threats to equality for women and minorities, labor rights, and the environment – and if so there can be no support or compromise. And any cooperation with Trump’s agenda—or even failure to oppose it—risks legitimizing and normalizing his regime and offering him credit for winning bi-partisan cooperation.
Congressional Democrats can also begin laying out attractive alternatives that meet the needs of those to whom Trump appealed but who he is now dissing. Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign laid out a progressive program that had wide support, not only within the Democratic Party but even among many people who eventually voted for Trump.
What our representatives do will depend heavily on what the people do. We need to define the Trump agenda not as a slight variation on “normal politics” but as an attack on society. We need to use petitions, letters, calls, and social media to urge government officials, the media, and institutional leaders to deny that Trump’s agenda is anything but an attack on human rights, the natural environment, constitutional government, and global survival.
We need to protect the protectors, ensuring money and support for those in Congress, local and state government, and the political system more broadly who are demonstrably fighting Trump. Advocacy groups need to collaborate and form broad coalitions to fight each of the elements of Trump’s agenda.
Citizens in safe progressive Democratic congressional districts need to direct resources to support Democrats and fight Republicans in marginal districts, both by providing resources to candidates and by supporting issue activism.
Finally, Democrats who may be tempted to compromise with Trump must be made to realize that they will be risking their own political future to do so. Advocates for Social Self-Defense need to develop means to pressure Democrats to find their backbone: For example, they can issue multi-issue ratings of courage vs. cowardice in standing up to Trump—with the obvious implication that money and support is more likely to flow to the resolutes than to the wishy-washies.
What Social Self-Defense is defending
While Trump and Trumpism threaten individuals and specific groups, they also threaten the essential principles that make it possible for people to live a life that is not nasty, brutish, and short. Defending these principles is a common interest— indeed necessity—for all of us. Conversely, defending the rights and wellbeing of every individual and group is central to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all.
As the Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights points out, “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.” Similarly, the protection of the earth from devastating climate change and other environmental destruction is essential to the preservation of ourselves and our posterity. The fundamental principle of constitutionalism—that governments and their officials must be ruled by law—is necessary in order to prevent tyranny. The recognition that human beings are part of one species and must share one planet is necessary to prevent efforts to advance one nation, people, or other group by destroying others.
"Defending the rights and wellbeing of every individual and group is central to preserving the rights and wellbeing of all."
These principles provide a basis for unifying the struggle against Trump and Trumpism – indeed they are already emerging in one form or another in the resistance that is already under way. They provide a way to ground the objectives of the anti-Trump movement in the most fundamental principles.
These principles can define not only what Social Self-Defense is fighting against, but what it is fighting for. They provide the ultimate grounding for the case against Trumpism. They can serve as the basis and justification for alternatives proposed by progressives and others. And they provide “red lines” that must not be crossed in any kind of cooperation with the Trump regime.
Human rights: International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney observes that Trump’s comments that there should be a religious test imposed on entering the U.S., or that there should be state-sponsored torture, or that families of suspected terrorists should all be killed are all “violations of international human rights” and the values that underlie them.
A high proportion of Trump’s and the Republican Party’s other proposals are likely to result in deprivation of human rights as well. Their housing, education, healthcare, and other social welfare proposals will result in deprivation of the human rights to housing, education, and healthcare. Their proposals to dismantle labor law will eliminate the right of workers to organize, bargain collectively, and undertake concerted action -- and their basic human rights to freedom of speech, assembly, and expression. Their proposals to further restrict the right to vote undermine the fundamental right to equality. The list could go on to include discrimination against LGTB people, women, racial and religious groups, and other infractions too numerous even to list.
Social Self-Defense means protection of human rights.
The earth: Our individual and common life depend on our natural environment. Trump’s assault on every aspect of the environment has already begun. His proposals for expanding fossil fuel production and burning spell catastrophe for the earth’s climate. His appointees to head the EPA, Department of the Interior, Energy Department, State Department, and other agencies have dedicated their lives to destruction of the environment as a means to private enrichment.
As a recent federal court decision makes clear, “the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” A stable climate system is quite literally the foundation of society, “without which there would be neither
civilization nor progress.” According to that decision, protection of the “public trust” – the essential natural resources on which human society depends – is so basic that it need not even be written in the Constitution, for it is assumed to exist from the inception of humankind.
Social Self-Defense means protecting the public trust and a climate system capable of sustaining human life.
Government under law: Richard Nixon notoriously said, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” This is the doctrine of tyranny, against which society has struggled since the era of the “divine right of kings.” Donald Trump propounds the same constitutional doctrine, for example in his statement that, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” While constitutional interpretations can differ, a doctrine of unlimited presidential power is tantamount to tyranny.
As constitutional law teacher Garrett Epps recently wrote,
Donald Trump ran on a platform of relentless, thoroughgoing rejection of the Constitution itself, and its underlying principle of democratic self-government and individual rights. True, he never endorsed quartering of troops in private homes in time of peace, but aside from that there is hardly a provision of the Bill of Rights or later amendments he did not explicitly promise to override, from First Amendment freedom of the press and of religion to Fourth Amendment freedom from “unreasonable searches and seizures” to Sixth Amendment right to counsel to Fourteenth Amendment birthright citizenship and Equal Protection and Fifteenth Amendment voting rights.
Social Self-Defense means making governmental institutions and officials subject to law.
One people, one planet: Donald Trump’s bellicose threats and insults to other countries and their leaders pave the road to war. His threats of unilateral economic aggression pave the way to international conflict, trade wars, and downward global economic spirals. His repudiation of global efforts for climate protection pave the way for both American self-destruction and the destruction of the rest of humanity.
It is a truism that the world today is too inter-dependent for any one nation to provide for its own wellbeing unless it also assures the wellbeing of the rest of the world community. The problems of individual nations, races, and religions cannot be solved by making economic, military, or environmental war on others. Security and environmental wellbeing require global cooperation.
Social Self-Defense means international cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.
What can we expect of the Trump regime?
The election of Donald Trump is part of a larger political development that includes Brexit in Britain, the rise of LePen in France, and the emergence of repressive racist, nationalist, xenophobic rightwing regimes in Poland, Turkey, Brazil, India, and elsewhere. In most cases these are regimes that have the trappings of democracy – political parties, elections, and the like – but in which government is used by self-aggrandizing leaders and cliques to perpetuate and expand their own wealth and power.
These regimes typically combine charismatic leaders, traditional conservative forces, and multiple forms of political repression. They make appeals to non-elite constituencies based both on economic interests and on nationalist, racist, xenophobic, misogynist, homophobic, and other appeals to hate and division. The recent wave of such regimes has been in part a response to the catastrophic consequences of corporate-led economic globalization, manifested in the Great Recession and the growing inequality and rapid deterioration in economic conditions for a large segment of the working class in the countries it affected.
In the U.S., Republicans now control almost all the national governmental levers of power as well as a majority of state legislatures. Trump has largely unrestricted power over the executive branch, including the power to direct the armed forces, issue executive orders, set policy for government agencies, declare states of emergency, and order assassinations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, gives the President almost unlimited power to use force any place in the world at any time – and Trump has a cabinet-full of generals advising him about how to do so. Republicans in Congress control the Federal budget and legislative power with few legal limits except filibuster and appeal to the Supreme Court.
Trump’s career has been marked by willingness to flout legal and constitutional limits. His modus operandi is largely based on instilling stigma, fear, and distraction. He appears unconcerned with actual problem-solving. He is highly opportunistic; in fact, it would be difficult to find any consistent goal other than his own wealth, power, and fame. He is also highly erratic, engaging in unpredictable actions whose motivations beyond personal pique and vengeance are often obscure. He accepts no responsibility or accountability for his actions and their consequences. The almost unimaginable incompetence of Trump and the people closest to him makes outcomes even more unpredictable. There is every reason to expect that his behavior as President will continue or even amplify these traits; that, however, means that the details of his behavior will be unpredictable and in many cases enigmatic. Neither his signals nor his expressed policy statements necessarily predict what he will do.
The Republican Right, which controls both houses of Congress, is more predictable. It has consistently pursued an agenda that includes tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations; expanding military budgets; dismantling of government programs and regulations that aid the poor or protect the common good; suppression of civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism; disempowering organized labor, African Americans, and other groups that may oppose them politically; elimination of reproductive freedom and other rights of women; legally imposing religious norms and practices; and other policies too numerous and notorious to mention.
There are some areas where Trump’s past pronouncements and established Republican policy appear to be in conflict. Examples include international trade agreements and spending on infrastructure. Whether such matters will lead to significant conflict among Republicans that might weaken their unity and power remains to be seen. Trump’s cabinet appointments, however, suggest that most of his policies will represent traditional rightwing Republican programs carried to an extreme that ignores even the most certain and disastrous consequences.
One thing that virtually all Republican leaders agree on is the goal of permanent political domination. So a prime and unified objective of both “populist” and “conservative” factions will be transforming the political process to assure their permanent political power. That will undoubtedly include restricting the right to vote; strengthening the role of money in politics; shaping electoral districts to further favor Republicans; and protecting undemocratic institutions like the Electoral College. It remains to be seen how much it will also involve use of intimidation and violence, hacking or otherwise stealing elections, and court rulings that further skew representation.
Where Democrats win nonetheless, we can expect local, state, and national equivalents of the recent rubbishing of democracy in North Carolina, where the Republican state legislature called an emergency session to gut the powers of the incoming governor. In a Washington Post op-ed titled “The GOP coup in North Carolina previews what we’re going to see everywhere,” Paul Waldman describes legislation that will
cut the number of appointments the governor can make by 80 percent; make his cabinet appointments subject to state senate confirmation; transfer authority for the state board of education from the governor to the superintendent (a Republican ousted a Democrat this year in the election for that seat); move the authority to appoint trustees of the University of North Carolina from the governor to the legislature; and dilute the governor’s control over the state board of elections and mandate that the board will be chaired by a Democrat in odd-numbered years (when there are no elections) and a Republican in even-numbered years (when there are elections).
One way in which Trump differs from previous rightist Republican presidents like Reagan and the Bushes is a willingness to activate the masses; his style is closer to fascism than to conservative authoritarianism in that respect; Steve Bannon, his closest advisor, rather weirdly describes himself as a “Leninist”—presumably referring not to his political objectives, but to his approach to power. Senior Trump associates are already forming a group that will provide “a surround-sound support structure” to bolster Trump’s agenda. The “working motto” of this “outside hub” is “Unleash the Potential.”
President Trump will control many levers of power for repression. The FBI, the CIA, and the national security apparatus provides enormous opportunity for spying on, framing, and otherwise harming opponents and for provoking violence through agent provocateurs. Control of prosecutors and influence over judges will give wide latitude for legal repression—foreshadowed by Trump’s campaign promise to prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton. Equally important may be the discretionary power not to prosecute violent and illegal action. Such toleration could extend to individual acts of violence directed against members of racial and religious groups; impunity for mob violence; and winks and nods for militias, KKK, and similar groups. In other times and places such groups have often formed the basis for paramilitary forces and death squads. Terrorist attacks and alleged terrorist threats will offer opportunity for the many kinds of repression experienced after 9/11. Congress, too, has ways to get into the repression act: Newt Gingrich has already called for establishing an updated version of the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities.
A likely tactic for Trump and his supporters will be to criminalize his opposition. While Social Self-Defense is an effort to protect and restore constitutional government, it is likely to be branded a criminal conspiracy. Those who oppose Trump and his agenda may well be targeted not only for persecution but for prosecution. Those who have been subject to such repression elsewhere have often been able to use “political jujitsu” to publicly define such abuse of law as one more crime of the regime.
In sum, the factors that are likely to determine the nature and course of the Trump era include Trump’s own idiosyncrasies; the Republican Right; the need and opportunity to use repressive and fascist techniques; unpredictable forces and events like war, foreign meddling, economic crisis and other “unknown unknowns’; and the actions of Trump’s opponents. For the time being, pro- and anti-Trump forces are probably both too strong for rapid knockout blows.
How might the Trump regime be terminated?
The defeat of Trump’s Republican congressional allies in 2018 and his own defeat in 2020 would be a great way to reduce their threat to people and planet, and it should be pursued to the extent possible. However, there are problems with pursuing it as the sole strategy. Trump and his allies have made clear they intend to restrict the ballot to establish their permanent political domination, and there are only limited forces to restrain them from doing so. The use of fear and terror have been common in the American past – the KKK, for example used systematic violence to disenfranchise black voters. Control of the courts and state governments provides ample opportunities for stealing elections. It is also not clear that, if defeated at the polls, Trump would leave office voluntarily; his refusal to state before the 2016 election that he would abide by the results, and his claim that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton, raise the question of whether he would accept defeat.
Tyrannical regimes from Serbia to the Philippines to Brazil and many other places have been brought down by “people power” -- nonviolent revolts that made society ungovernable and led to regime change. While the U.S. has a strong tradition of social movements based on people power, it does not have a tradition of using mass action and general strikes for the defense of democracy. However, in situations where democratic institutions have been so weakened or eliminated that they provide no alternative to tyranny, such methods have emerged and been used effectively.
Social Self-Defense against Trumpism is most likely to succeed through a combination of electoral and people power methods. The overcoming of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime in Serbia – while accomplished under circumstances far different from those in the U.S. today -- provides an example of how they can be combined.
Despite Milosevic’s circumventing of electoral laws, repression of universities and media, and ethnic cleansing, in 1998 Serbia was still holding elections of a sort. An activist group called Otpor formed around the goal of driving Milosevic from power and began hundreds of small actions of resistance around the country to counter pervasive fear of the regime. Its plan was that
activists would compel the regime to call elections; they would create massive turnout around a united opposition candidate; they would join other nongovernmental organizations in carefully monitoring election results so they could document their victory; and they would use mass noncompliance – leading up to a general strike – if and when Milosevic refused to step down.
In 2000, Otpor pushed 18 of Serbia’s squabbling opposition parties to form a coalition to support a unity candidate, promising to deliver 500,000 votes to the unity candidate but threatening to put 100,000 protesters at the door of any politician who betrayed the coalition. As elections approached, the regime called Otpor an “illegal terrorist organization”; police raided its offices and shut down independent radio and TV stations; an average of seven activists were arrested each day.
Meanwhile, the opposition organized ten thousand election monitors. They announced exit polls showing Milocevic had been defeated by a 50% to 35% margin. Instead of accepting the results, Milocevic refused to leave office and demanded a run-off election.
Otpor announced a deadline for Milosevic to concede and 200,000 people demonstrated in Belgrade. The opposition called on the population throughout the country to “perform any acts of civil disobedience they have at their disposal.” Miners struck; TV and radio stations opened their airwaves to opposition voices. As the deadline approached, cars and trucks filled the highways heading toward Belgrade. Police put up roadblocks and were issued orders to shoot, but seeing the size of the convoys they abandoned their barricades. Half-a-million people gathered in Belgrade. Police fired tear gas, but when the crowd stood its ground riot police began running away or joining the crowd. The opposition candidate declared victory and Milosevic accepted his defeat.
Hang together – or hang separately
Historians emphasize that there were great political divisions among the KOR activists who first developed the idea of Social Self-Defense. But they were able to act together around the specific agenda of resisting the Polish regime’s attacks on workers and society as a whole.
The individuals and groups who oppose the Trump agenda are as diverse as the targets that agenda threatens. Trump and his supporters have the potential capacity to play them off against each other and to make deals with them one by one. There will be enormous pressures on advocacy organizations, movements, parties, and even activists themselves to sell each other out.
Social Self-Defense is a means to unify ourselves around mutual aid and around our common interests. It defines Trumpism not only as a series of separate threats to different sectors, constituencies, and policy agendas, but also as a unified— and therefore unifying—common threat. It allows us to use each action and campaign against one or another Trumpite abuse as a way to strike a blow against the Trump project as a whole. It thereby provides a frame for solidarity.