It may well be that no outrage yet carried out under the Trump regime has so galvanized popular disgust and opposition as the decision to implement a policy of separating children from parents when they arrive at the Mexican-US border. Although the news reports from the detention centers are not as revealing as they could be because the various governmental departments are prohibiting filming, those reports are chilling enough. But more powerful still are new audio recordings which capture the real terror in the minds and hearts of kids caught up in the madness. If you haven’t listened yet, here’s a clip:
Let’s leave aside the various twists and turns of the Trump regime’s official representatives or spokespersons (like the hapless Sarah Sanders). Instead, I suggest that we need to focus our attention on the virtuous opponents of the Trump policy—the liberal politicians and advocates who dominate the liberal cable TV talk shows. As they insist that “we” have to do something, they also make sure to urge viewers of the importance of registering and voting to run what they now routinely describe as supporters of the “Trump cult” out of office come November. They may or may not be successful in those efforts. But, succeed or fail, they will all but certainly strengthen the determination of what is more or less accurately referred to as the “Trump base.” The members of that “base” will not be driven into the woods by votes.
I think it helps to look at voting as a form of symbolic speech. It is not especially about doing anything. Indeed, talking seldom convinces anyone of anything. On the other hand, activity has a way of confronting individuals and either scaring them off (as apparently has happened with the various elements of the alt-right in the wake of the Charlottesville demonstrations a year ago) or startling them into doing something they never thought possible. As has been said often enough, it’s easier to imagine someone changing his mind after he starts acting differently than to imagine that he’ll start acting differently after he changes his mind.
The campaign against the reactionary character of the Trump phenomenon has to be taken into the communities from where it draws its strongest support. Such a campaign should be intentionally provocative and confrontational and make every effort to split apart family members, friends and neighbors by the force of direct action. That’s what happened in the case of the opposition to the war in Vietnam—parents and children stopped talking to each other; church members switched their congregations; construction workers in New York attacked protesters. But not too many years later, the parents and kids found their tongues again and even some construction workers changed sides.
Something of even greater potential would be undertaking such a campaign in workplaces with efforts to initiate strikes against one or more of Trump’s misdeeds. Imagine what might happen—in many workplaces, there will of course be Trump supporters and they will find themselves faced with a direct challenge from people they work side by side with everyday. What might they do? Will they join the strike? This argument is grounded in a conviction that what people say does not represent a full accounting of who they are and who they might become. What they think is often different from what they say and what they do is often enough different from what they think.
I have to acknowledge at least one instance where my argument didn’t hold water. During the course of the Southern civil rights movement, the scenes of protesters being arrested, beaten and, in some cases, murdered broadcast on the nightly news had the effect of partially breaking up the block of white folks who had previously been prepared to go along with Jim Crow segregation—but those white folks mostly lived outside the South. Inside the old Confederate states, broad support for white supremacy remained intact. Very few white Southerners were willing to cross the race line. People, including many young people, were more than willing to taunt, curse at and spit upon black children as they walked into schools. And truth be known, some of the same kinds of scenes were reenacted on the streets of Boston in the mid-1970s.
In the years since, much has changed. Within the past couple of years, for example, protests against police murders in places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana have drawn significant support from local white folks. This suggests that we can start from a different place and that we can expect to find people ready to break with the prevailing “Trump is right” sentiment inside Trump territories if they have an opportunity to do so.
For them, simply voting in the privacy of a voting booth against legislators who support Trump will represent a very dim protest indeed. Furthermore, given the inevitable pressures in campaigns, the great majority of Trump-opposing candidates will urge their supporters to refrain from any actions considered to be too extreme—lest they jeopardize the possibility of electoral victory. Just when we need more to be done, we will be advised to do less.
That is a great peril for as one principled thinker once proclaimed: “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”