When I first started writing for RI Future about volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign about a year ago, I noted how great it felt to be voting for a candidate and not against one, and how exciting it was to organize in favor of a better future, not just against a political adversary. For most of the Sanders campaign, that was the tone, “a future to believe in.” The positivity of progressive grassroots organizing, coupled with some historic primary wins, was addicting. Back then, hoping for a peaceful Bernie presidency, I wasn’t thinking at all about the reality of a Trump administration and how best to resist it or dismantle it. I hadn’t even heard of the alt-right, knew almost nothing about anti-fascism, and had no idea as to how different protest tactics work for different situations and causes and to achieve specific objectives.
I’ve learned a lot since November 8, 2016.
Circumstances have demanded as such for all of us, even for Trump supporters who are realizing that their candidate will abandon his promises and fail them. Huge numbers of everyday Americans who hold mainstream liberal political views have suddenly found themselves pushed into the realm of activism, and the many that already were deep in activist work are even deeper, facing tougher odds and more difficult challenges than before. Those furthest to the fringes of the left and right are literally charging into the fight. Political violence is already happening more and more often, instigated by both sides.
Truthfully, we have never lived in a world without political violence. Though it may be distant at times, even on the other side of the planet in the forms of war or acts of terror or genocide, it has always existed to achieve political goals. Mass shootings and police brutality and militarization are political violence, and so were lynch mobs. So is mass incarceration and systemic racism, and so is every act of hate speech and every protest-turned-melee. Trump’s executive orders have already resulted in political violence in the form of deportations and ICE raids and a botched counterterrorism raid in Yemen that killed children and a Navy SEAL. Instead of a working for a future to believe in, I’m seeing an ugly future as it is right now.
Both the right and left are guilty of committing political violence at protests, and both have instigated it. However, racially-motivated shootings and murders have happened, often accompanied by some kind of xenophobic plot, as well as bomb threats against Jewish community centers, desecration of Jewish cemeteries, and arson of black churches. Meanwhile, radical leftists are mostly known for punching Richard Spencer, getting in fist fights with Trump supporters, and breaking some Starbucks windows, which, while illegal, don’t classify as violent hate crimes like right-wing violence often does. Antifa are known to go so far as to commandeer a rolling dumpster and send it flying at a police barricade, even to charge, unarmed, at a line of fully-armed and armored riot cops, but they don’t maim or torture or kill in the name of racial superiority. Their right-wing counterparts, like the KKK and neo-Nazis, do, and they do so wantonly.
It’s uncertain to say how closely allied to the “traditional” American hate groups the alt-right is, but there’s plenty of ideological common ground. Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and tries to be seen as a “peaceful” professional, also openly argues for the superiority of the white race, culture, and identity, and believes in the post-American formation of a white ethnostate. He’s argued that the Civil Rights Act was a total failure and that racial progress is impossible, instead favoring “peaceful ethnic cleansing” and permanent segregation, if not destruction, of other races. He’s claimed that Neo-Nazis hate him, and maybe that’s true, but he must like the way they think. And a lot of young, white conservatives, even friends of mine who I never thought to be racist, have come to believe in the hateful garbage that Spencer spews and even defend him as an “intellectual.” The rise of Trump has coincided with the rise of white nationalism, and it is truly a great danger to our culture.
Something that I learned through the Sanders campaign, something that can confront and even diminish that danger, was how to work toward inclusiveness in our politics, not division and hate. While I was aware of white privilege and that I benefit from it, I wasn’t aware of exactly how much that benefit is, and I wasn’t aware of the terrible consequences it has. I very quickly learned that it was important for me, as a straight white man, to listen much more than I speak so that I can understand the struggles of marginalized communities and learn, from them, how best to help them in those struggles. I also learned when to speak up for what’s right. I learned what it meant to be an ally, and how to continuously work toward being a better one, because when alliances are formed and we stand together, according to Bernie, “there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”
I still believe that to be true, even when faced with the fascist rise and rule of Donald Trump. The left, fractured by infighting about tactics and objectives, will grow stronger again, and when it does, it needs to stand undivided in a symbolic, meaningful, and effective way in order to truly resist the brand of American fascism that Trump and his supporters seem willing to unleash upon the nation. There is much to be gained from learning about leftist politics and anti-fascist strategies and tactics, even the radical tactics, because they can and do work under the appropriate circumstances, for certain causes, in order to achieve specific objectives. If you see someone wearing a mask at a protest, rather than worrying about what they’ll do or if they’ll make “us” look bad, talk to them and see what they think because we’ll need their help to impede systems of authoritative power that have already let Trump do some of his worst.
The resistance, while strong, must take an important step forward and resist beyond symbolism and despite media narratives and optics, which can divide and destroy movements. It is one step to agree to oppose Trump and to make that statement known in large numbers. Yet the much larger and more important step is to organize and execute direct actions that work, physically, to dismantle Trump’s power, to deny white nationalists the chance to mobilize and gain influence, and to advance the causes of marginalized communities and keep social progress moving forward. While we can and should always advocate for a better future, a deadly political adversary also deserves our very best challenges.