Resisting the Trump Agenda is Social Self-Defense

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.”

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 Trump was elected, millions of people began to resist 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. Donations poured in to organizations that would protect Trump’s victims.  Within a few days, thousands had signed up to accompany vulnerable individuals – people of color, Muslims, and LGTBQ people. In Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and elsewhere large public meetings of a thousand or more organized communities for on-going resistance.

Police chiefs, mayors, and governors declared they would not implement Trump’s attack on immigrants. Technical workers pledged they would not build data bases to facilitate discrimination and deportation. Workers in 340 cities joined “Fight for 15” actions to demand a $15 minimum wage and the right to organize in what one organizer called “a symbol of opposition and resistance” to “Trump and his ilk.” 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. 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.

These actions and innumerable others target nearly every aspect of Trump’s devastating and wide-ranging agenda. They appear to be on the way to being the greatest outpouring of civil resistance in American history.

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.

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 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. 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 strategy of Social Self-Defense

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?

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 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.

Social Self-Defense requires combining civil resistance in social institutions and the streets with political resistance in the institutions of government. It depends on individuals and communities who will take direct action to impede the round up immigrants; demonstrate at MacDonald’s’ when Fight For 15 activists are victimized; and shut down streets and buildings to protest anti-people, anti-planet actions by Trump’s minions.

It also depends on a savvy political strategy. We want our elected representatives to help defend society against Trump’s attacks. 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.

An immediate objective is to end Republican control of 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. 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 legitimating and normalizing his regime and offering him credit for winning bi-partisan cooperation.

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.

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.

[Excerpted from a longer piece “Social Self-Defense: Protecting People and Planet against Trump and Trumpism” available, with footnotes, here.]

Jeremy Brecher is an historian and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new, post-Paris edition of his Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival was published by Routledge.