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An Activist's Guide for the Trump Years

A 10-point plan for politicians, the press and everyday citizens

Jan. 3, 2017
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Many Americans would not be surprised if on Jan. 20 Vladimir Putin administers the oath of office to President-elect Donald Trump, the Ku Klux Klan youth choir regales the inaugural crowd with a stirring rendition of “Dixie,” the Chamber of Commerce orchestra performs “Hail to the Chief” and the inaugural party is catered by Carl’s Jr. (whose CEO, multi-millionaire Andrew Puzder, a foe of the minimum wage, is Trump’s nominee for secretary of labor). ExxonMobil (whose CEO, Rex Tillerson, is secretary of state-designate) and Goldman Sachs (whose president, Gary Cohn, will be director of Trump’s National Economic Council) could pay for the whole thing.

There’s a Pete Seeger song that begins: “You know it’s darkest before the dawn. And this thought keeps me moving on.” If ever there was a time to heed those words, this is it.

There were some bright spots this election:

  • Voters in Arizona, Washington, Colorado and Maine voted to raise the minimum wage.

  • South Dakota defeated a ballot measure to lower the minimum wage even though Trump won there.

  • Voters in Arizona’s Maricopa County defeated anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio by a landslide 59% to 41%, aided by the 130,000 new Latino voters who registered to vote in the last year.

  • Virginia defeated an anti-union “right-to-work” ballot measure.

  • In many battleground districts, voters elected progressive Democrats and/or defeated right-wing Republicans. Josh Gottheimer, for one, defeated seven-term Rep. Scott Garrett—an extremist Republican and a founder of the tea party—in New Jersey’s 5th Congressional District.

  • In North Carolina, which went for Trump, Democrat Roy Cooper won the gubernatorial election, beating incumbent Pat McCrory (who now has signed legislation stripping power from the governor’s office before his successor is sworn in).

  • The number of female, black, Asian and Latino officials elected this year reached an all-time high.

Activists around the country—young and old, reformers and radicals—are now trying to figure out not only how to fight Trump and Trumpism, but also how to think strategically about building a powerful progressive movement based on action and informed by past and recent activism. Progressives should expect the unexpected, be agile and flexible and invest in rebuilding progressive organizations’ capacity.

So here is my 10-point “to do” list for fighting for working people.

1. Don’t Forget: Trump Does Not Have a Mandate.

Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by close to 3 million votes. Only 27% of the nation’s 231 million eligible voters voted for Trump. In the first election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act, Republicans intensified their voter-suppression efforts, targeting black and Latino communities in key battleground states. More than 40% of eligible voters did not vote; most non-voters were low-income, minority and/or young Americans who, had they gone to the polls, would have voted Democratic. Polls also show that even most Trump voters do not agree with much of his policy agenda. A CBS survey showed about one-quarter of Trump voters said he is not qualified to be president. Seventy percent of all voters said immigrants without documents should be able to apply for legal status rather than be deported.

2. Challenge Trump’s Nominees.

Progressive activists, liberal watchdog groups and think tanks, congressional Democrats and responsible journalists have a rare opportunity, prior to and during the hearings, to challenge Trump’s Cabinet nominees and other high-level appointees as incompetent and unqualified. As a group, they represent a Hall of Shame of greedy billionaires, right-wing lunatics, scam artists and military mad hatters. Rather than see each nominee as an individual, they should look at the overall pattern of Trump nominees as lacking experience and caught in multiple conflict-of-interest webs, like Trump himself.

One, Trump’s nominee for treasury secretary, banker Steve Mnuchin, purchased a bank, OneWest, through a sweetheart deal with the federal government; it then repeatedly engaged in predatory lending, racial discrimination and aggressive foreclosures, earning censure by judges and government regulators and Mnuchin the nickname “foreclosure king.” Senate Democrats have launched a website asking people who were hurt by OneWest Bank’s foreclosure practices to share their stories.

Commerce Secretary-designate Wilbur Ross “made a fortune purchasing bankrupt businesses and flipping them for a profit,” according to Forbes, which earned him a reputation as a “vulture investor.” In 2006, after Ross purchased the International Coal Group, 12 coal miners suffocated after an explosion at its Sago coal mine in West Virginia, which had a history of safety violations. Earlier this year, his private equity firm, WL Ross & Co., agreed to pay a $2.3 million fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission for failing to properly disclose fees it charged investors.

Puzder, CEO of the company that operates Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s restaurants, is Trump’s pick for labor secretary. The Department of Labor found violations—including wage theft offenses such as failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime—in 60% of its inspections at these two fast-food chains. Puzder has opposed raising the minimum wage, enforcing Obama’s overtime rules and mandatory sick leave. He’s blamed Obamacare for causing a “restaurant recession” even though, as The New York Times noted, “there is no evidence that health care reform has harmed job growth, and there is certainly no evidence of a restaurant recession.”

Besides having absolutely no experience in government, much less with housing policy, Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Ben Carson opposes one of HUD’s key missions: to challenge racial segregation and discrimination. Last year he denounced a HUD plan with Dubuque, Iowa, to ensure the city didn’t discriminate against African-Americans in distributing federally funded housing vouchers as “what you see in communist countries.” He mocked a HUD rule designed to help municipalities use data to “overcome historic patterns of segregation” as “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality” and as “failed socialist experiments.” But what’s really dangerous is Carson’s opposition to gay rights (he compared homosexuality to bestiality), and his support for lunatic conspiracy theories, such as his contention that President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder were part of a communist conspiracy to subvert America. He claimed Darwin’s ideas about evolution were part of Satan’s plan and at the 2016 Republican convention he said late community organizer Saul Alinsky (about whom Clinton wrote her senior thesis in college) was a follower of Satan. For over a decade Carson shilled for nutritional supplement company Mannatech, whose illegal marketing schemes claimed its products help overcome ailments including toxic shock syndrome, heart failure, asthma, arthritis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Attention Deficit Disorder and lung inflammation, as well as AIDS and cancer. Even after the company was sued, Carson continued to speak at company meetings and appear in commercials. But in a GOP debate, Carson claimed he had no affiliation with the company.

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, a close ally of the fossil fuel industry, is Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt is totally in sync with Trump’s views about climate change, which Trump has called a “hoax.” Both would like to severely weaken if not entirely dismantle the EPA and cancel America’s commitment to the Paris climate change accords. In an article in the right-wing National Review earlier this year, Pruitt wrote: “Scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind”—a view that flies in the face of the scientific consensus. Pruitt joined with other state attorneys general who worked with the nation’s energy companies to fight Obama’s environmental regulations. A coal lobby spokesperson called Pruitt a “defender of states’ rights and a vocal opponent of the current administration’s overreaching EPA.”

Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, was fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. For years he has promoted what The New York Times called “unsubstantiated claims about Islamic law’s spreading in the United States and about the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya.” He has used Twitter to push crazy conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, including a fake news story claiming that New York police and prosecutors had found evidence linking Clinton and some of her top campaign staff to a child sex trafficking ring, money laundering, perjury and other felonies. Flynn’s penchant for lying led his one-time employees at the DIA to call his falsehoods “Flynn facts.”

Senate Democrats have a responsibility to expose this web of ignorance, incompetence and intolerance, grill the candidates at the hearings and challenge the fundamental legitimacy of Trump’s administration. Along with progressive watchdog and activist groups, they should map the corporate bigwigs in Trump’s world—who they are, what they own—and make their businesses toxic targets of protest. They should follow the example of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who during hearings before the Senate Banking Committee about Wells Fargo’s bogus bank and credit card account scandal, questioned CEO John Stumpf with such ferocity and detail that he was forced to resign. Activists and citizens should pressure their senators to vote against these nominees. Keep Trump on the defensive.

3. Don’t Normalize Trump.

Journalists should not normalize Trump. They need to get over their addiction to reporting everything he says and persisting in the allegedly even-handed “he said/she said” formula that creates misleading reporting. And they should continuously fact-check his statements and lies. During the campaign, the media let Trump set the agenda. His every statement and tweet—no matter how trivial or false—became news, and reporters rarely challenged his lies. With a few exceptions, news outlets failed to focus on his ignorance of basic policy ideas and his outrageous track record of business malfeasance. At no point did the media report on how his global business interests would compromise his presidency.

After the election, there were instances of change. Last month, for example, The New York Times put this headline on a lead front-page story: “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally.” But most of the time the media still let Trump get away with lies. They duly reported his boast about saving more than a thousand Carrier Corp. jobs in Indiana, but neglected to report that the deal was not as good as Trump claimed it to be. The Washington Post’s recent story on the CIA report about Russian interference in the election quoted Trump as saying, “The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’” The Post let the false Electoral College comment pass without challenge, and allowed Trump and other Republicans to cast doubt on the CIA report’s validity. That’s like giving equal weight to those who deny climate change and those who say it’s real.

4. Focus on Real People.

Reporters should focus on how Trump’s rhetoric and policy ideas affect real people. Major media outlets should keep a daily tally (and human stories) of how Trump’s policy proposals—like eliminating Obamacare, weakening the EPA and the National Labor Relations Board, slashing the Dodd-Frank law and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, expanding private for-profit charter schools, privatizing government functions and deporting immigrants—will hurt real people, remove important protections for consumers, workers and the environment, and redistribute income upward.

They also should maintain a running count of hate crimes and violence triggered around the country by Trump’s election and rhetoric—perhaps in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which regularly reports on hate crimes, bigotry and bullying directed at immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Jews, gays and lesbians, the disabled and others. And the media should not allow Trump to get away with his impulsive, childish, authoritarian and narcissistic bullying, often via Twitter, of anyone who criticizes him. They should not, as Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen suggested, “treat Trump’s actions as a topic of political debate” but instead “as evidence of his derangement.”

5. Protest and Engage in Civil Disobedience.

Anti-Trump rallies and demonstrations across the country on Inauguration Day should be just the beginning of an ongoing campaign of protest and civil disobedience to challenge and obstruct Trump’s initiatives. Americans need to channel their anger into strategic and constructive dissent, which has a long tradition in our country’s history.

Not everyone has to be on the front lines. People can donate (or increase their contributions) to organizations engaged in active opposition to Trump and the GOP agenda, such as Planned Parenthood, SPLC, Sierra Club, NAACP, Black Lives Matter, Human Rights Campaign and others.

But millions of Americans need to take to the streets regularly, reminding their countrymen and women that Trump’s plans for the country violate American values and will greatly harm the vast majority of Americans. Moreover, protests should challenge Trump’s entire agenda. Too often, activists retreat to their separate issue silos. But people concerned about workers’ rights and economic justice, women’s equality and the right to choose, immigration rights, challenging racism by police and the criminal justice system, LGBT rights, voting rights, gun safety, educational equity and environmental justice must stand together, support each other and join each other’s demonstrations.

These protests must target members of Congress, demanding they oppose harmful legislation, corporations and business lobby groups that peddle political influence to advance a right-wing agenda. For example, millions of Americans who live in Republican House districts—many of whom voted for Trump or did not vote—will be harmed if Trump is able to eliminate Obamacare; a campaign to pressure those House members to oppose the Trump plan could have an impact.

Further, activists should target Trump’s business empire, which he refuses to divest from, claiming disingenuously that it will be run by his children without his knowledge or participation. They should boycott hotels, casinos, luxury apartments, golf courses and consumer products affiliated with his brand. If Trump has truly divested from these interests, it won’t hurt him. But if he squeals and impulsively attacks those involved in the boycott, we’ll know he still profits from his global business empire. Some legal experts have argued that Trump’s business investments could violate the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause if he continues to benefit from deals with companies controlled by foreign governments while in office. It could even be grounds for impeachment.

6. Oppose Trump’s Infrastructure Plan.

The first major legislative battle is likely to be over Trump’s infrastructure plan. The anti-Trump coalition should unite to oppose this corporate welfare scam, which the con artist is selling as a large investment to “rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals.” On the surface, it looks like a job-creating liberal initiative, but as always, the devil is in the details—and the details are incredibly bad. Trump’s plan is based on a report by his advisers Peter Navarro (a conservative economist recently appointed as his key trade adviser) and Commerce Secretary-designate Ross (see above), which calls for $1 trillion of spending over 10 years, funded largely by private sources that would be repaid with tax credits and usage taxes (such as toll roads).

As Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote, the Trump plan is “basically fraudulent,” a scam that would “enrich a few well-connected people at taxpayers’ expense while doing very little to cure our investment shortfall. Progressives should not associate themselves with this exercise in crony capitalism.” Trump’s plan involves “huge tax credits: billions of dollars in checks written to private companies that invest in approved projects, which they would end up owning.” Krugman also points out the Trump plan won’t address infrastructure needs that can’t be turned into profit centers. “Our top priorities should include things like repairing levees and cleaning up hazardous waste; where’s the revenue stream?” Krugman calls the Trump scheme a “gratuitous handout to select investors.”

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit research center, warns that it is “simply a way to transfer money to developers with no guarantee at all that net new investments are made.” Moreover, any Trump plan is likely to emulate George W. Bush’s corrupt and inefficient post-Katrina reinvestment plan, which ignored competitive bids and handed megacontracts to political cronies like Halliburton, once run by then Vice President Dick Cheney. Trump will almost certainly try to circumvent or overturn the long-standing Davis-Bacon Act, which requires contractors to pay decent wages on federally funded construction projects. What’s needed is a straightforward infrastructure plan similar to the one that President Franklin Roosevelt created to help lift the country out of the Great Depression. It is OK if the federal funding goes to private contractors, but it must include clear rules to make sure it creates good-paying jobs and is done through competitive bids.

7. Obstruct Trump’s Presidency.

People who live in large blue states like California, New York, Washington, Minnesota and Illinois have a particular opportunity and responsibility to obstruct Trump’s presidency. The day after the election, California Senate Leader Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon issued a combative pledge to defend the state’s progressive policies against assault by the Trump administration and to serve as a counterweight to the president-elect. “We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress,” they said, and introduced the California Values Act, a bill that would prohibit using state and local resources for mass deportations or for any federal mandate that might divide Californians on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigration status or national or ethnic origins. California Gov. Jerry Brown also vowed to fight Trump, saying, “We will protect the precious rights of our people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time—devastating climate change.” Brown, de León and Rendon are setting themselves up to follow the example of Texas, whose GOP leaders and corporate lobby groups antagonized President Obama with pugnacious lawsuits designed to stymie his liberal initiatives.

Blue states and liberal cities like Los Angeles, New York, Minneapolis, Chicago, Seattle and others can declare themselves “sanctuary” states and cities, vowing to resist cooperation with federal immigration officials seeking to deport undocumented immigrants, and fight any Trump administration attempt to undermine their progressive environmental, minimum wage, workers’ rights and anti-discrimination laws. Progressives must support elected leaders who take on Trump and hold them accountable when Trump seeks retaliation with threats to withhold funding. Cities and states also can withdraw their massive public pension funds from gun manufacturers, energy corporations that profit from fossil fuels and drug and insurance companies that lobby to kill Obamacare.

8. Exploit Republican Infighting.

The progressive anti-Trump movement should take advantage of infighting among Republicans, conservatives and business groups. Many Republicans who reluctantly endorsed Trump during the campaign disagree with his policy ideas and are disgusted by his personal behavior and business practices. Trump will inevitably say and do things that will embarrass Republicans and make it harder for them to win re-election. House Speaker Paul Ryan has his own right-wing agenda that overlaps but is not totally in sync with Trump’s promises during the campaign.

Many Trump voters will soon suffer from some form of buyer’s remorse or oppose some of his words and deeds. For example, a substantial portion of the 62.9 million voters who supported Trump are white evangelical and born-again Christians. They feared Hillary Clinton would appoint Supreme Court justices who would affirm Roe v. Wade and same-sex marriage, while overturning the Hobby Lobby ruling allowing employers to discriminate based on religion. But many of these white conservative Christians, as well as tea party followers and others who voted for Trump, will pressure their senators and representatives to oppose him on other issues. They may also urge especially the right-wing Freedom Caucus members to bring down Ryan if he seems to compromise his ultra-conservative agenda. Though many corporate leaders support Trump’s plan to reduce taxes and regulations, they also are concerned about his reckless ideas on trade and foreign policy, and his narcissistic tendency to seek retribution against anyone who criticizes him—such as his tweet threatening to cancel Boeing’s contract to build a new Air Force One plane soon after company CEO Dennis Muilenburg was quoted in a newspaper story expressing concerns about Trump’s trade agenda.

9. Mobilize for the Next Elections.

Progressives and Democrats should start organizing now to win back the House and gubernatorial seats in 2018, laying groundwork to retake the Senate and the White House in 2020. Democrats need to gain 30 seats in 2018 to get a 218-seat majority. Some doubt this is possible with so many gerrymandered districts. But that task will test the ability of key Democratic constituency groups—including the AFL-CIO and major unions like SEIU and AFSCME, Planned Parenthood, Sierra Club, NAACP, immigrant rights groups, the Human Rights Campaign, the major community organizing networks (People’s Action, Working Families Party, Center for Popular Democracy, Center for Community Change) and the liberal billionaires affiliated with the Democracy Alliance—to work together. They should jointly identify 30 congressional districts where Republican candidates won by the narrowest margins this year, as well as another 20 districts where they need to defend Democrats who won by slim margins.

One goal of this strategy is to begin early in 2017 to identify “infrequent” and “marginal” Democratic-leaning voters in these districts, mobilize them around issues, register them to vote and, in November 2018, get them to the polls. This can’t be done by parachuting organizers into these districts a few months before the midterm House elections. Constituency groups need to invest, starting early in 2017, to target these 50 congressional districts with lots of money and organizers. At least three full-time organizers in each congressional district would wage issue campaigns for almost two years to pressure Republican incumbents to vote against the Trump/Ryan agenda on a few key topics—minimum wage, dismantling Obamacare and Trump’s infrastructure/jobs bill, along with localized issues. The dual goal: Peel off some Republican House votes to pressure them to vote for a compromise, and weaken them for 2018. At the same time, organizers would focus on registering new Democratic voters—including helping people get photo IDs in states where they’re required to vote.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party and progressive activists should identify candidates to run against Republican incumbents in the midterms. In some cases, they would be the same people who came reasonably close to winning the races in 2016. In others, they would find new candidates (like Jacky Rosen, who was recruited by the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas to run for Congress this year—and won). This could overlap with efforts to help elect Democrats in state legislatures and governorships, hold onto current Senate seats and pull together a progressive anti-corporate, pro-fairness Democratic Party policy agenda to resonate with more voters. The cost of this strategy is likely to be around $100 million.

10. Start Presidential Vetting Now.

Can Democrats find a presidential candidate who is both progressive and electable? Much depends on how much Trump damages the country and his reputation. One assumes Trump will run for re-election, but it is possible he won’t want to run again or that he will be impeached or dethroned by the Republicans after causing enormous chaos and intraparty division. In that case, the most likely GOP front-runners are Paul Ryan and Mike Pence. But it is not too soon for Democrats to start road-testing a policy agenda and strategy to win back the White House and Congress in 2020.

We need a movement that explains what it is for, not just what it is against. Simply attacking Trump’s corruption and cronyism further alienates people from the idea that government can be a force for good. So progressives need a government reform agenda that articulates the values of real democratic governance—such as campaign finance reform, voting rights reform and eliminating wasteful corporate welfare. This year’s Democratic platform was the most progressive in its history, but Hillary Clinton was unable to convey it to many voters—especially white voters in swing states.

A successful Democratic candidate in 2020 will have a record of accomplishment, play a key role leading opposition to Trump’s policy initiatives, be able to win the Democratic primaries dominated by liberal voters, inspire “irregular” but Democratic-leaning (black, Latino, young, low-income) voters to vote, and win back some white working-class Trump voters in swing states. A strong Democratic candidate can’t be too close to Wall Street or business, but must have a credible plan to expand jobs, improve the safety net for families, expand health care while limiting its costs (primarily by controlling drug and insurance prices), support expanded workers’ rights, protect women’s health care, favor limits on military-style assault weapons, address the racism throughout our criminal justice system (from cops to courts to prisons) and strengthen consumer and environmental protections. An electable Democratic candidate needs a combination of charisma and the ability to withstand the Republican attack machine and be free of personal controversy.

It’s a tall order. Only a few of the people mentioned as potential candidates—such as Sens. Warren and Sherrod Brown (Ohio)—can pass those litmus tests. A few others, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and newly elected Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), might meet these criteria.

But even a strong progressive Democratic candidate can’t win unless the party and its key interest groups and movements work together to build the infrastructure to attract and mobilize voters—including the many non-voters who stayed home Nov. 8. The absence of large membership organizations that represent millions of people and work together keeps the progressive movement from reaching its potential. Business lobby groups and Republicans have done a good job of weakening the largest of these organizations: the unions, which have 15 million members. But we learned from this election that some unions weren’t talking and listening to their members. There’s no shortcut; you have to talk to people. And we need much larger mass organizations to do that.

This article originally was published on BillMoyers.com.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame(Nation Books, 2012). His other books include: Place Matters: Metropolitics for the 21st Century (University Press of Kansas, 3rd edition, 2014), and The Next Los Angeles: The Struggle for a Livable City (University of California Press, revised 2006). He writes regularly for the Los Angeles Times, Common Dreams, The Nation and Huffington Post.

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