How shall integrity face oppression?
— W. E. B. Du Bois
Welcome to Trump’s America. In the dark times ahead, all the obscenities of our society will increase. Overt racism, misogyny, and homophobia will intensify. The crudest forms of nativism will surface. Poverty and infant mortality will rise. Our barbaric mass incarceration system will expand. Our miserly healthcare system will contract. Plutocrats will loot public education. The most retrograde judges will take the bench.
There is little need to recount these realities. We know them all too well. In many respects, the era of our fears has already arrived. A president glided into office on a wave of hope, yet the country continued to lurch toward degradation. We saw a police empire fortified with military equipment and empowered to butcher black people everywhere and maul peaceful protesters at Standing Rock. We saw a criminal syndicate known as Wall Street rescued from the collapse it deserved with wealth generated by the labor of the working classes. We saw the unfolding of a campaign of tyranny against whistleblowers and other custodians of democracy.
Even before Trump’s ascendance, the United States was a deportation regime, a callous machine ejecting thousands of refugees who had fled the social chaos exacerbated by our international policies. Before Trump our bloated surveillance state had tightened its grip on the thoughts and expression of the American people. Before Trump our march toward ecological suicide had become a reckless trot. Before Trump our oligarchs had launched oil wars and drone strikes at will, plunging some of the oldest and most beautiful civilizations on the planet into disarray .
Now, as a vulgar megalomaniac enters the nation’s top office, we are glimpsing the depths of dystopia. Liberal elites continue to prognosticate about Russia and the deplorables and identity politics. They can no longer conceal the true nature of our crisis. Subjected to the most extreme forms of capitalist greed, the United States has become an asylum of ignorance and inequity. Great swaths of its people are mired in bigotry and economic desperation. Many lead isolated lives, hypnotized by a vapid popular culture and the false promises of nationalism and fundamentalism. They are dying younger and suffering more. Yet most are fierce patriots, defenders of a country that has discarded them.
Meanwhile, the gears of globalization continue to churn. Eight billionaires, we have just learned, control the same wealth as half of the inhabitants of the planet combined. What spectacle capitalism produces! What indecency!
Faced with such conditions, many Americans simply yield to despair. Fatigue sets in. There is widespread dread and disgust, but among the oppressed, exhaustion is the most corrosive emotion. Many working people simply recoil, clinging more firmly to myths about our democracy’s resilience and virtue—narratives steeped in the very notions of American exceptionalism that fueled Trump’s populist upsurge.
Then there are those who refuse to accept such fictions. Today we embark on a new period of mass resistance. We no longer can ignore the historical significance of the age in which we live. We reject both the bluster of the new administration in Washington and the feeble indignation of the Democratic Party. We resolve to launch and sustain a democratic movement that can combat the politics of reaction and usher in the unthinkable: an American spring.
We pledge to obstruct the agenda of the ruling class and its right-wing collaborators. We join those courageous elements that have resolved to render themselves ungovernable. Drawing on radical traditions of mobilization, from autonomous worker campaigns to black freedom struggles, we vow to confront the forces of repression. We call for direct action and civil disobedience. We call for walkouts, work stoppages, and other acts of disruption. We need a general strike to inspire further dissent and provide a principled alternative to resignation.
But we cannot simply agitate. We must organize. We need forms of upheaval that revitalize grassroots institutions and enable broad transformation. We need uncompromising movements rooted in the lives and realities of working people. These struggles must shun the corporate priorities of the Democrats and galvanize people in their neighborhoods, workplaces, and homes. They must energize racial justice crusades. They must bolster efforts to rebuild the labor movement along the lines of class militancy.
Our battles must prove adaptive and ecumenical. They must draw on multiple theories, modes of analysis, and sources of knowledge. They must project humane visions of freedom fashioned by non-elites. They must center the leadership of women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks, even as they forge the larger alliances necessary to contest genuine power.
Of course, none of these goals are new. For decades social movements have attempted to construct such multidimensional coalitions, often with only sporadic success. Given this historical record, the aftermath of Trump’s victory may seem like an inauspicious moment in which to craft a leftist insurgency.
But radicals and progressives must recognize creative possibilities. The rise of Trump has alienated legions of Americans. Many young people have grown profoundly estranged from existing political and economic structures. They crave social critiques that can restore clarity and relieve their sense of dislocation. Now is the time for the left to advance, not retreat. We must reclaim “hope” from the clutches of liberal centrism.
We must also model the transition to a just society. As Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah once wrote, “A revolutionary ideology is not merely negative. It is not a mere conceptual refutation of a dying social order, but a positive creative theory, the guiding light of the emerging social order.” In the cultural desert of Trump’s America, we must address people’s need for collectivity and grace. That means developing worker cooperatives and mutual aid organizations that help ease the stress of austerity measures. It means forming parallel institutions that transmit values of solidarity while exposing the sterility of capitalist individualism.
This is only a hasty outline. The intricacies of local campaigns must be resolved in the context of struggle. We must never underestimate the threat of authoritarianism. Yet we do not doubt that our fate is in our hands. We refuse to submit to moral paralysis. We refuse to relinquish our human rights. This is our time, our moment of decision. It is not Inauguration Day. It is our Day of Independence.
Russell Rickford is an associate professor of history at Cornell University. He is the author of We Are an African People: Independent Education, Black Power, and the Radical Imagination. A specialist on the Black Radical Tradition, he teaches about social movements, black transnationalism, and African-American political culture after World War Two. Follow him on Twitter @Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.