With 1984 Approaching, What Must We Do?

Not so long ago, I was more frightened by Ted Cruz than by Donald Trump.  I saw Trump as completely erratic and without strong beliefs in anything but himself, whereas I knew the threat of Cruz’ reactionary vision.  After Trump was elected, I worried that the real Republican strategy was to help Trump be elected, then to impeach him and install Mike Pence in his place.  Pence seemed like another version of Cruz but more in keeping with the Tea Party and the current Congress, which would make him more dangerous. Together they would tear down civil rights, health care, climate advances, and so many other hard-fought progressive victories.  But Pence is also preferable to Trump.

There is a good chance that Trump is rapidly moving this country towards authoritarian government.  Lest you think I’m being hysterical, that there are too Constitutional and cultural restraints on this kind of move, wouldn’t you wager that, under Trump, authoritarian governance has 10% potential?  If so, we need to prepare ourselves.

Almost all modern images of an authoritarian future begin with 1984, which is now the best selling book at Amazon.com.  At core, Orwell’s vision targets information control (through “Newspeak”) leading to mind control (through “Thought Police”).  Big Brother speaks and the population must believe him—or else.  In a parody of Nazi and Communist propaganda, 1984 tells us that “War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength.” In other words, you can invent any version of the truth and impose it on an intimidated populous.  Trump means to intimidate us.

Trump’s talking head, Kellyanne Conway, offers a contemporary application of this logic by framing lies as “alternative facts.”  Trump’s investigation of voter fraud, which would lead to voter suppression might represent a concrete intervention by the ‘thought police.’  And he’s pushing the investigation in the face of virtually everyone, including the most right wing Republicans, like Jason Chaffetz.  Trump, the bully, will try to push past all opposition.

Trump’s binge of executive orders, without the consultation of Congress, or attorneys to check their legalities, or the cooperation of the people who would be charged with implementing them—without any effort to build consensus—speaks eloquently to his disregard for democratic process.  The use of a private security  service may auger the development of a personal militia.  So, too, the threat to bring federal troops to Chicago.  Bringing the Voice of America onto American soil may enable direct propaganda. I could go on but I think we can agree that the seeds of tyranny are being sown and the need for a massive response from all those who believe in democracy is urgent.

What, then, is to be done.  An opposition movement is already emerging, led by Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution,” by the organizers of the Women’s Marches, by MoveOn.org, by the ACLU, and by People for the American Way.  There are news organizations, like Politico, Think Progress, Slate, The New York Times, and the Washington Post that are gearing up for the opposition.

Almost everyone agrees that the long game requires organizing at the local and state level.  There is no other way to reverse the impact of gerrymandered districts on equal rights and protections under the law.

We need to organize to build a sense of solidarity, strength, and forward motion—and to gain confidence through numbers.  We need to turn ourselves on the way we did during the twin fights for civil rights and the end to the Vietnam War. Just marching together with so many thousands this last weekend furthered the sense that we are a movement.  Opposition to Trump and right-wing Republicans may unite progressive forces far more powerfully than the fight for specific issues like equal educational opportunity and climate repair.

We need to build rapidly and intentionally—before Trump’s authoritarian potential is entrenched. To do so, we need to know ahead of time, how and when to act, and we need to act in the most leveraged ways.  Here are a few suggestions.

First, we need to draw some clear lines in the sand so that we won’t have to figure out how to respond each time Trump transgresses democratic process and principles.  Crossing those lines will indicate that Trump has gone too far, and we must act.

Second, we must oppose every transgression. I read today that the Democratic Party is contemplating a “scorched earth” approach, which means opposing almost everything that Trump proposes.  It means refusing to normalize him.  It means giving up the folly of trying to negotiate with him—or with the Congress.  It means every bit the same kind of cross-the-board opposition as we saw from Senator McConnell and the Tea Party.  We need to act in this way for its own sake and in order to buy time for the Progressive opposition to gain strength.

Third, we need to utilize every possible way to oppose conflicts of interest that are already rife in the Trump administration.  His world-wide holdings make the United States incredibly vulnerable.  How much money and how many troops will we have to dedicate to protect them.  We need to have Trump in court every day, every day.

Fourth, we need to speak truth to power.  We need to say what we see.  We need to deny the Trump-Bannon-Conway lies and disable the disinformation machine that they have been building.  Bannon tells us to “shut up.” We have powerful communication tools.  We must speak up.

Fifth, we need to paint the picture of Trump as Big Brother.  He has survived all of the other portraits—sexist, narcissist, liar—you name it.  But not Big Brother, which should frighten both left and right.  Neither want their rights of free speech and free action abridged as much as he intends.  Or maybe, in order to challenge his narcissism, Trump should be portrayed as Little Brother.

The most important strategic aim is to keep Trump off balance. Any serious challenge to his fragile ego (his TV ratings or finger length) throws him.  We saw that when Hillary Clinton defeated him in debates and beat him in the poplar vote.  We see that now when he is confronted with the far greater size of the Women’s March.  He and his Inauguration organizers were “losers.”  Trump can’t stand to be a loser.  When he is threatened in this way, he lashes out, he blusters and blunders.  He makes mistakes.  He will make mistakes that lead even Republicans to call for impeachment.

Impeachment must be our short term goal.  It will not lead immediately to the realization of progressive goals but it will buy time.  And it will fire up a united Progressive movement.  That seems to me the best we can aim for right now.

13 thoughts on “With 1984 Approaching, What Must We Do?”

  1. having children on fed govt small insight there is a lot of quiet internal resistance and alt tweeter sites, etc Also yes local govt is part of the resistance and in that vein you might consider JALSA Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Justice. I have come to agree with you abjout Pence surprising even me..


    1. There have been many surprises in a field that I thought I understood from the beginning. One thing that has not surprised me is how all those Republicans who professed to despise and disagree with Trump are now cow-towing to him.


  2. Your litany of “we need to’s” is powerful, and the items are right on. But the proponents of progress and rationality are sadly structure-free these days. The problem is not what but how. The Democratic Party is in shambles, with no leadership and no vision, no revised plan to reach all the people who didn’t vote or at least didn’t vote our way. No one – no one! – has stepped forward to be the face of unified resistance, to say ‘rally around me for the time being, while we scramble to get our act together.’ There are strong silos, like those of the ACLU and OurRevolution, but there is no unity or purposeful action across a broad front. Unity is leverage. We all get fifteen emails a day exhorting us to send more money to this group or that group, as though money and not message was the problem in the debacle. We’ve now lost the Supreme Court for a generation. The next opportunity to regain the Congress is virtually here, and the odds are heavily against us. The next census, and thereafter the next redistricting, is around the corner: time is very short. And as we know, the outcome of “1984” is not a happy one….


    1. I agree with everything you say, Bob. One of the most alarming is the weak, weak bench of young and progressive leaders. The only people you see really standing up are Warren, Sanders, and Jerry Brown, though I do feel that local leaders, like Marty Walsh and the Somerville mayor have shown some backbone. My hope is that, as protest turns into movement, there will be some coalescing of opposition. But we should remember that there were zillions of splinter groups in the anti-war and civil rights movements, and their collective impact was still impressive.


  3. Thanks for a well stated case for what to do next. The biggest threat lies with the prospects of rapidly moving this country towards authoritarian government. We need to move beyond only “progressives” to instead bring together progressives, centrists, moderate republicans and conservatives, able to look beyond ideology and policy differences, to defend a democratic America.


    1. I think you’re right, Mario. One reason I think we need to focus on freedom of speech is that I think–or, at least hope–that it will draw from all of America’s groups.


  4. I don’t agree with copying Republicans. What they can do, Democrats cannot. Here is the reason: Republicans have made it their strategy to claim that government is the problem. If government DOES NOT work, they win — it it works, they lose. That’s why for them, scorched earth is a winning strategy. For Democrats, it may give them a few points in the rat race, but medium term just makes the Republican case: government does not work for people.

    I’d rather see Democrats call out Trump for all his lies and foibles and weaknesses and mental problems, but step back and let him govern. Then the catastrophes that will inevitably come are on him.

    When Bush wrecked the economy, Republicans had the audacity to blame it on the Democratic spending when the 2008 financial melt-down hit. Republicans, who caused the disaster and whose own president and treasury secretary called for emergency spending, voted no, knowing well that Democrats would do make the hard choices. And then they blamed them for it. A strategy of scorched earth now would do the same — allow Trump, the master blamer, to blame the Democrats for all that went wrong with his “policies.”

    So let him govern … and fail. Of course, the country and many people will suffer, but I am afraid that is unavoidable anyhow.


    1. Thomas,

      Mostly I agree with you. We don’t want to become what we disagree with or despise. Mostly I’m with Michelle Obama: when they go low, we go high. However, when people cross a certain line, you must act. I don’t like war, but under certain circumstances, there is no alternative. we may be entering such a circumstance.


      1. For me this is not a question of morality, but goal-oriented pragmatism.

        The issue is what we call in polisci “tragic brilliance.” It comes from development theory and says this: Democracy is considered a successful system of governance because the interest of the governing and the governed overlap. If I want to be re-elected, I must do what’s in the interest of many/most of my constituents, which in general is in the interest of the country overall. But smart leaders can pervert this idea.

        In Mexico, the PRI turned this upside down and said roughly this: We will stay in power anyhow, so if you don’t give us 2/3 of the vote in this town, we make you suffer for the next few years. In India, another expression of tragic brilliance was strategic scarcity. We offer fewer hospital beds or school spots than needed, and then we give it to our people only. So either you vote for us, or you won’t get a bed or a seat in school.

        In both cases, the rulers rewarded themselves not for good, but bad governance.

        I see a third expression of tragic brilliance in the Republican Party. Since Reagan, their mantra was “government is never the solution; it is always the problem.” So Republicans can make the argument that if things do not work out well, people should vote for them as they will reduce the negative impact of this horrible government (nowadays generally called “Washington”). So Republicans — in a clear case of tragic brilliance — do not want things to work. They were terrified of the Affordable Care Act, which was Romneycare nationally, for if it succeeded, how would they continue to claim that government never works? And they opposed any economic stimulus after Obama came in, because a growing economy would not have made their case in the midterm.

        But now they have Trump, who trumpets his ideas over social media every hour of the day. And they have a Republican House and Senate. So they own “Washington.” The scorched earth approach that was suggested would allow them, if things don’t work out (as they won’t) to blame the opposition for their meddling, rather than owning their failure.

        This is why I would suggest abstaining from votes — while pointing to their folly 24 hours a day. Not quiet abdication, but letting them own their failures while pointing out the follies of their ways 24/7.

        Long explanation, but I am an academic.


      2. Thomas, I’m happy to have Republican governance fall on its face; I’m happy to have them hang themselves, as they seem to do with regularity. But the results of poor governance are not necessarily reported that way. We have such a bifurcated, even splintered, press, and people read only those who support their opinions. Victory and defeat are frequently played out only in the eyes of the beholders. That’s why I referred to 1984. Trump–and others–will lie and lie again, then lie again, believing that he will eventually create the grounds on which decisions are made. He’s explicit about this in his book, The Art of the Deal. So I’m not sure that “tragic brilliance” is such an apt strategy in this case. But it is fun to contemplate.
        Thanks very much for your note. I’m an an intellectual if not an academic and and perfectly happy with long explanations.



  5. I agree totally with Thomas. Doing what the McConnell and the Tea Party Republicans did will only hurt the Democrats. We need to let Trump and his allies hang themselves. There was a very interesting piece on this topic in Huffington Post yesterday that basically said that the young people – who are needed in leadership positions in the Democratic Party are not al all on board with the strategy you outline, Barry. It’s worth a read.


    1. Hey Steve,

      I am familiar with the strategy you mention. Letting people hang themselves (on their own petard, as it were). But there is a line–or lines– that, once crossed, renders that strategy impotent. We have had the great good fortune of not facing authoritarian government in the USA–except somewhat during World War I, a much forgotten time, since we helped win that war. You can hope that Trump and his crew will defeat themselves–and I love the current protest over immigration restrictions; I love that he may already have gone far enough to defeat himself–but you also need to draw some lines to say two things: this is too far; if it goes further, we won’t be able to just protest.



    2. I think that you–and maybe those young Democrats you are referring to–are operating in what might be called a “normal” political climate. This is not normal. It calls for an extraordinary response.


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