We have been somewhere near here before—Reagan in the 1980’s; Bush the Second in the 2000’s. Donald Trump is certainly more crude and cruel than these past presidents, but he is also far less ideological. He has no apparent core values so who knows how much he actually believes all the hateful rhetoric, crazy conspiracy theories, and unrealistic policy proposals he spewed out in his toxic campaign. His instability is certainly cause for grave concern for all of us, especially anyone in vulnerable communities; but that very inconsistency also means that he changes his mind and his message with the winds, and always professes a willingness to make a deal.
So, as someone who has studied and taught American History for more than three decades, and spent my entire “voting life”—all 40 years—as a proud independent, I offer four modest proposals for progressives in these coming years of living dangerously under Donald Trump.
1. National political reporter Salena Zito of The Atlantic said it very well: we should “take Trump seriously, not literally.” Yes, we need to call him out when he makes ‘un-Presidential’ statements or, even worse, takes actions that demean the office and undermine our basic standards of civil liberties and democratic governance. But we do not need to hyperventilate over every damn stupid and offensive tweet, as ugly as they may be. Save your outrage for the important issues, we will have many big fights on policies that could reshape the nation for a generation or more.
2. Speaking of policymaking and legislation, we should take a lesson from the conservative playbook but try to be even smarter and more strategic. Progressives need to resist as vigorously as possible bad legislation that strips medical insurance from millions of Americans, or denies the reality of climate change. But we also need to be open to genuine compromises if this guy really wants to make deals, rather than mindlessly opposing every proposal with the name Trump on it. He has said he wants to spend money on infrastructure, protect Social Security, and question foreign interventions. Who knows if he means any of these things, or if he will cave to political pressure in his own party? But we lose nothing by calling on him to put real proposals on the table.
3. Progressives need to push for new political leadership in this nation. We need people with passion and the ability to show all the disaffected in our nation—regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation—that the way forward is to unify first around the demand for clean politics and effective government. The Progressive Party more than a century ago understood that you cannot reform society until you reform politics and government itself, which can then pass the necessary legislation to move the nation forward. We also need to talk loudly and boldly about economic policies—yes, it is still the economy stupid—that have a track record of actually fighting poverty: higher minimum wages, paid family leave and sick days, and the right to form unions and collectively bargain. Certainly these ideas are not new, but they need to be put front and center and spread all over the nation to every struggling community and household.
4. The legendary labor activist Joe Hill said it best a century ago when he faced a firing squad in Utah after his conviction on a trumped up (yes, pun intended) charge of murder: “Don’t waste anytime mourning. Organize!” Build on the strong networks—social and otherwise—that already exist among those committed to social justice in its myriad forms. Keep pressure on Democrats, especially in the U.S. Senate, to hold their ranks and put forward genuine enlightened alternatives to reactionary policy proposals; we don’t need any more “triangulation” to the mushy middle. Keep asking the Trump administration: have you delivered on any of your grand campaign promises? The Republicans now own this President and Congress; hold them accountable for their actions and make them pay for their mistakes
History teaches us that political reactions often occur when movements for social and economic justice become stronger and frighten those who consider themselves to be privileged. We are still strong now and we can build on our strengths, even in the tough times ahead, through both strategic resistance and a willingness to keep envisioning and articulating a better world for everyone.
David Zonderman teaches American labor history at North Carolina State University. His opinions are his own.