Who knew an act of civic engagement could produce such exhilaration and ambivalence?
A few weeks ago I attended a city council meeting in my upstate New York town of Ithaca, a liberal stronghold surrounded by rural expanses of Trump country.
A proposal that Ithaca become a sanctuary city—a place committed to non-cooperation with federal policies targeting people on the basis of race, immigration status, religion, and nationality—was to be discussed at the meeting, and a small army of residents had gathered to support the measure.
I see the sanctuary movement as a cause rooted in principles of human rights and dignity, so I was pleased with the turnout. Yet my delight turned to dismay during the public comment portion of the evening, as speaker after speaker approached the microphone to advocate sanctuary status in the jarring language of American exceptionalism, a discourse to which they instinctively and largely unconsciously turned.
The overwhelming theme of their arguments was, “This is not who we are as Americans.” According to those who addressed the council, the vilification of people of color by the highest authorities in the land and the persecution of immigrants and other vulnerable groups in the name of a virulent nationalism marked a stark departure from America’s true heritage of democratic inclusion.
I was perplexed. Even a cursory reading of U.S. history reveals a past crowded with episodes of mass xenophobia and official repression. The post-World War I Palmer Raids and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans are just two notable examples.
I recognize that sanitized narratives of American liberty may be used to bolster progressive as well as conservative causes. Yet what does it mean when opponents of the Trump administration deploy a version of the same nationalist mythos embraced by the right? How can the popular resistance to Trump pursue a genuinely anti-racist agenda while remaining so willfully blind to America’s legacy of white supremacy?
These questions are especially pertinent in the context of the recent wave of mass demonstrations across the country. From women’s marches to the women’s strike to the numerous student walkouts and airport protests against Trump’s immigration ban, we are witnessing the birth of the most widespread, progressive mobilization of our time. But can the popular upsurge generate real social transformation? What is the role of the left in a moment of upheaval that is largely devoid of explicit programs for radical change?
Most leftists readily acknowledge the limitations of contemporary protest. Inspiring though it may be, the Trump resistance exhibits many of the maladies of liberal thought. Even its slogans reveal political deficiencies. “Love trumps hate.” “Truth not lies.” The placards at many contemporary rallies call for a return to rationality, civility, and adherence to the American creed. Reliance on such platitudes suggests an unwillingness to confront power relations or address the hardening structures of race and class. Our national crises reflect the depredations of militarism, white nationalism, and finance capitalism, not mere lapses of goodwill.
While appeals to decency may provide powerful rhetorical devices, they can also obscure reality. We have never had clearer evidence that the American political establishment serves a vicious regime of market fundamentalism. But groping for lines of consensus, many Trump protesters favor affirmations of democratic virtue over a more cogent agenda of rebuilding the labor movement, dismantling prisons, and dispossessing the ruling class. Their pleas for peaceful dialogue too often ignore the systematic violence of capitalism. Their discourses of diversity too often elevate “tolerance” over the just redistribution of power and wealth.
Of course, liberal protesters are not the only Trump opponents who are guilty of narrow formulations. Some leftists have proven equally susceptible to provincialism. Despite the growth of what Seattle council member Kshama Sawant calls “a mood of rebellion on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War,” these radicals have chosen ideological purity over meaningful engagement with the forces of opposition. Faced with plans for last month’s “general strike” against Trumpism, they expended much energy lamenting the unpreparedness of organizers for a sustained campaign of class struggle. Other radicals shunned the recent Women’s March on Washington, citing its relative inattention to the needs of poorer and non-white women.
Such critiques are absolutely necessary. But they must be raised in the course of grassroots organizing rather than hurled from the sidelines. At the end of the day, the leftist tendency toward self-defeat is no less an obstacle to social transformation than is the naiveté of neophyte dissidents. In a time of widespread alienation from political and economic structures, too many leftists remain estranged from the front lines of revolt. Their lack of imagination has occasioned a failure of leadership.
What the left needs today is a renewal of its collective will. If we are to capitalize on the resurgence of protest politics we must meet people where they are. This is a time for principled battle. Political education is key. But now more than ever we need deeds as well as words. We must radicalize the resistance. We must form the vanguard of the “actually existing” struggle.
That means crafting the kind of socialist movement that can harness the moral impulses of popular agitation. We need crusades for reproductive rights. We need direct action campaigns that express solidarity with working people by disrupting deportation raids, combating Islamophobia, and physically defending trans people and the undocumented. When we fight on all fronts, addressing the lived experience of the everyday, we demonstrate that socialism is not a distant ideal but an expansive form of applied democracy.
As always, the task of the left is to discover creative possibilities amid the tumult of mass discontent. The Trump opposition is hardly the insurgency of our dreams. But it is the sea in which we must swim. If we can resist cynicism and piety, if we can organize rather than sermonize, we may discover in the contemporary ferment the inchoate elements of the future we must build.
*This article is published in collaboration with Truthout.