It’s time to sweat the small things.
In the years before November 8th, 2016, progressives found it easy enough to relax in the knowledge that the Obama administration, and the coming administration of presumptive 45th president Hillary Clinton, would maintain a status quo that, while not perfect for everyone, was more or less steering the nation in the right direction. Sure, there were intractable problems, but our institutions were strong and getting stronger; Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter were putting a needed and appropriate amount of pressure on Clinton to nudge her gradually toward progress. In short, it was easy enough for many Americans to go about their business and their daily lives without thinking terribly much about politics. (Of course, many people of color, religious minorities, women, and the LGBT community already knew better.) That has changed.
Everything is political now.
With Donald Trump’s ascendency, the philosophy which he espouses — the toxic mélange of racism, sexism, isolationism, and authoritarianism writ large, what is now being called Trumpism — has brought the worst elements of society crawling out of the woodwork. Now, for the first time since the civil rights movement, fascists, neo-Nazis, Islamaphobes, the hateful fringe of the religious right, and no less than the forces of the Klan are on the rise and intent on expelling, imprisoning, or systematically intimidating and attacking people of color, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, women, academics, and the press. They hope to repudiate every person, institution, and idea that exemplifies America’s pluralistic and inclusionary nature that many of those who had lapsed into passivity over the past few years found so comforting. Trumpism, with its rejection of science — particularly climate science — and its professed love for and carelessness about the tools of war, represents a profound existential threat, not just to the American people, but to the entire planet.
When the alt-right (a euphemistic and misleading moniker for modern-day Nazis) can hold a conference in Washington D.C. and excitedly discuss the mainstreaming of their ideas without being represented to the rest of the country by the media as prima facie crazy, then suddenly fighting against the forces and ideology of hate in the world has become everyone’s problem. When Steve Bannon, the movement’s very own Rasputin, will have cozy digs in the West Wing, then it is time for every formerly complacent American to be alarmed.
When someone like Trump (a fan of optics, who nonetheless chooses to live at the top of a black tower) can sit perched above Manhattan, tweeting away, and know that he has kindred spirits in the likes of Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Rodrigo Duterte, the AfD in Germany, and Jobbik in Hungary, pushing back against the voices of hate becomes a global battle.
Everything is political now. No one can simply go about their business and assume that democratic institutions will prevail, or trust in the better angels of the American people when such a potent symbol of hate sits in the Oval Office. The Republicans — with only a handful of possible exceptions, such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul — are lining up behind Trump without any significant protest, intent on using their newfound governing majority to reverse the progressive gains of the Obama years.
The Democrats aren’t much better. For decades the party has embraced big business and failed to nurture and protect organized labor. It has, post-Obama, offered up identity politics without any kind of underlying ideology that would give voters something to cast a ballot for. Accordingly, they failed spectacularly in the election. And now that they have lost all hold on the government — the Presidency, the Congress, and most likely the Supreme Court, as well as the overwhelming majority of state legislatures — the Democrats are panicking. Some are offering obeisance to Trump, saying that they’ll welcome working with him on certain policy proposals — as if a public works projects didn’t fuel Mussolini and Hitler’s support as they mapped out their fascist agenda. There’s no doubt that Trump will use even the whiff of bipartisanship to claim broad support for all of his policies. Others on the left have decided that it’s time to eat their own, preferring to endlessly debate whether Bernie Sanders may have been a better candidate on November 8th, or whether the “Bernie Bros” enthusiasm for their own candidate hurt Clinton’s chances. That’s over now.
Where does all this leave us? The parties can’t be relied on to fight the good fight, and there won’t be another national election for two years. So, in the meantime, no one can let the small things slide. When someone blazons a graffiti swastika and “Go Trump!” on a playground in Brooklyn, you can no longer chalk it up to a snotty 14-year-old who doesn’t know better. You have to protest and rally and make it clear that sort of imagery isn’t welcome. When someone on the train assaults a fellow-straphanger with racist words, you must intervene. When hate itself is presented as a legitimate political ideology, you must reject the very premise of the argument. Taken individually, these are all small things. But the nasty thing about small things is that they add up. Failure to fight the small fight turns into death by a thousand cuts. Each little capitulation and compromise gets added to the ones before until you find that you are arguing about degrees — how exactly is the most humane way to round up Muslim immigrants? — rather than about the basic evil of the larger plan.
For the time being, this is the way forward for the left: avoid compromises that leave you compromised. “One must remember that in choosing he lesser of two evils, one still chooses evil,” Hannah Arendt notes. In the end, we must fight the small fight in the hope that those victories add up to something bigger.
Header image: “Land of Many Uses” by Jules de Balincourt, 2003.