I confess my reaction on Election Night, when it first looked like Trump might get in the White House, was sheer panic. It was a bit like Philip K. Dick’s “Black Iron Prison” closing down. On a personal level, I was about as terrified as the night I was arrested and put in jail.
Now, a few weeks after, I still have a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach anticipating the next four years. But I’m a lot less terrified (although I never forget that for a lot of less privileged folks it’s always been a Black Iron Prison, and the downside possibilities of a Trump presidency are a lot scarier for them).
For one thing, it looks like there are significant structural constraints on a fascist power grab, no matter how authoritarian Trump is. The biggest single constraint is that (as Benjamin Studebaker points out), unlike Hitler, he can’t take advantage of Article 48 in the German Constitution to declare an emergency, criminalize the Democratic Party and remove court oversight of cases involving civil liberties.
And Trump didn’t get elected because either he, or the white nationalist ideas of his strongest supporters, were especially popular. In fact he’s probably going into office with the highest negatives of any new president in the past century. He got a minority of the popular vote, and was able to beat Clinton mainly because she was such a lousy candidate in her own right that Democratic voters stayed home by the millions.
So Trump’s starting out already as unpopular as Bush was on the eve of 9/11, when he was widely written off as a one-termer. And he’s only likely to drop further in popularity once he enters office. He’s no longer competing against another unpopular politician — he’s only running against himself now. With every gaffe, every display of incompetence or disorganization, every policy failure, he will only become more unpopular.
The likelihood of a successful fascist power grab is further limited by Trump’s own lack of interest in governance, and the incredible levels of division and disorganization among his subordinates.
Trump himself seems to have been surprised — and somewhat dismayed — by his victory on November 8. To all appearances, he wants only to hide out in Trump Towers, talk to his staff by phone half an hour a day, and speak to the occasional rally. And of course, leave all the wonky stuff like policy briefings and, you know, actually paying attention to things or anything that looks like work, to his subordinates.
As for those subordinates, they’re split between fascists or extreme social conservative authoritarians like Bannon, Pence, Giuliani and Clarke, and mainstream Republicans like Priebus. And they’re essentially working against each other, operating in broken-back fashion with no clear central direction.
It’s a fair guess that significant factions within the Deep State (the permanent apparatus of the CIA, NSA, Pentagon and State Department) will be hostile to Trump from the outset. There were credible rumors of this in 2004, in response to Bush’s bullying of the intelligence community and cherry-picking of intelligence, his incompetence in Iraq, and the administration’s treatment of Richard Clarke and Valerie Plame. This time we can plausibly expect the war of leaks and sabotage to be even greater — along with more generalized sabotage and public relations warfare by the rest of the civil service. And given Priebus’s lack of administrative experience, and the incompetent ideologues Trump is selecting for his other Cabinet positions, it’s safe to say this gang of clowns will be eaten alive by bureaucratic warfare.
And that’s not even considering the likely feuds that will erupt when Paul Ryan and the Congressional Republicans discover Trump’s not interested in a conventional GOP austerity agenda.
Getting back to the whole fascist power grab thing, probably the scariest plausible scenario is someone like Giuliani, Clarke and/or Arpaio being put in charge of Homeland Security, the Justice Department and/or FBI. And the potential for Senate Democrats not only to filibuster Trump’s nominees but to take advantage of the Senate’s weak party discipline and secure a flat-out rejection by peeling off a few Republican votes, looks quite good.
On the whole, the structural possibilities for authoritarian clampdown were much greater after 9/11, when 90% of the country rallied around Bush and the Democratic Congressional leadership seemed ready to rubber-stamp a Reichstag Enabling Act, were probably much greater than they are now.
The same constraints on Trump’s ability to consolidate power or to achieve his agenda, along with the likelihood that his unpopularity will only increase, make it a pretty good bet that he will be swept out in 2020. Outside the 20-30% of the public who are Trump’s most diehard supporters — fully deserving of the “deplorables” label — the American public consists entirely of people who either voted for Clinton, held their nose and voted Trump because they considered him marginally less repulsive than Clinton, or considered both Clinton and Trump to be so repulsive that they voted third party or stayed home.
Isolating Trump and his hardcore base from the other 70-80% of the population, and shifting Trump’s reluctant voters to outright hatred of him, shouldn’t be very difficult at all — he’ll do most of the work for us himself. And it’s a pretty safe bet that all those 2008 and 2012 Obama voters who cost Clinton the election by staying home will not be staying home in 2020.
The marginal Trump voters who only just barely voted for him will start getting buyer’s remorse pretty quickly as soon as the first fuck-ups in office get started. The Democrats and independents who hated Trump but were too disgusted with Clinton to bother voting will be lined up around the block in 2020 just to get him out and replace him with somebody, anybody. It will be the national body politic’s analog of projectile vomiting to get rid of a toxin.
Win or lose, Trump was bound to bring to a head the civil war within the GOP that will result in its collapse into a regional party of angry white men.
And meanwhile, we’re seeing the beginnings of a generational shift in the Democratic Party. In the 2016 primaries something like 70% of Millennials supported Sanders against Clinton, and their alienation from Clinton was probably a major contributing factor to her defeat. And he got roughly 45% of the total primary vote to her 55%. By 2020 another four-year cohort of Boomers and their elders who disproportionateley supported Clinton will have died off and been replaced by a cohort of young people, which will shift the balance further to the left. Already, in some of the states where Sanders won the primaries, there have been successful efforts to shift control of the party machinery from Clinton to Sanders backers. So even if — as is almost certain — the coalition that removes Trump still has the Democratic Party at its core, it will be a coalition significantly to the left of the one that nominated Clinton.
So what can we do in the meantime?
I. Resist, Resist, Resist
According to Milton Mayer, in They Thought They Were Free, a sense of normalcy prevailed during Hitler’s early consollidation of power that most people today would find hard to believe. Each new step was incremental, seemingly minor when taken in isolation, and presented by the authorities as a matter — often a regrettable mater — of necessity. Usually the new step was taken without much in the way of public notice or objection. And if there was any significant public uproar, the government would temporarily back off and try again later.
So clearly, our first task is to fight the sense of normalcy at every step, and at every step to organize and add our voices to the largest possible public outcry in protest.
Fortunately, this is easier than usual in the present situation. To repeat my points above, Trump is more unpopular going into office than any president-elect in living memory, public opinion is highly polarized, and his popularity is almost guaranteed to go down steadily from his first days in office.
What’s more, it’s no exaggeration at all to say that Trump himself is cartoonish in his thin-skinned reaction to any form of opposition or criticism. He’s a thin-skinned ignoramus who has spent his life in a protective bubble, surrounded by people who are afraid to tell him anything he doesn’t want to hear. As Trump himself said, regarding leaked DNC memos in which Neera Tanden and others made critical comments on Clinton’s “sub-optimal political instincts,” he’d have fired anyone who talked to him that way.
This is a man who still mails pictures of his hands to a journalist who commented on his short fingers over twenty years ago. The Clinton campaign was able to use this personality trait against him to great effect. It was enough to simply mention someone whose criticism the Trump campaign wanted to deflect attention from, and Trump himself — rather than simply ignoring it and letting the news cycle move on — would spend the next week reminding the press about the issue by obsessively venting his sense of personal grievance on Twitter. The kinds of mockery on Saturday Night Live that seven previous presidents all accepted as part of the job have him tweeting in outrage at all hours of the night.
As comic creator K. Thor Jensen observed on Twitter, “It’s becoming ever more obvious that Trump will lash out and shit the bed whenever he feels any pressure, so PRESSURE HIM CONSTANTLY.”
Trump was reportedly not just dismayed, but floored, by the mass demonstration against his appearance in Chicago last march. When his election was met with a nationwide wave of protests, he responded with tweets about how “unfair” it was — followed the next morning by mealy-mouthed praise for the protestors’ public spiritedness and a promise to “unify” the country. Look back on that bit above about the Nazis pulling back temporarily in the face of public outrage.
So we need to swarm the authoritarian state every single time it steps across the line, not only with sheer numbers but with the maximum possible horizontal cohesion across civil society, and between social sectors and movements. The classic model of “community campaigns” against corporate malefactors, resurrected by OURWalmart, is a good example. So are Occupy, Black Lives Matter and NoDAPL, and the nationwide solidarity networks in support of them. The wave of demonstrations after the election, and the planned demonstrations and general strike for Inauguration Day, are hopeful signs for the future.
Every time the feds coordinate another attempted crackdown like the November 2011 assault on Occupy camps — roundups of undocumented immigrants, mass arrests of Black Lives Matter activists, etc. — every major city in America needs to be shut down. And every local police station, mayor’s or governor’s office cooperating in such an action needs to be so swarmed by demonstrations, phone calls, faxes, emails, and social media storms as to be paralyzed into inaction.
And as C4SS Director William Gillis says, the swarming needs to be extended to mainstream politicians and media outlets that waver in their opposition or help to normalize creeping authoritarianism. “Force those politicians and apparatchiks supposedly in the opposition to hold an absolute line, as if it were life and death (because it is).” When the New York Times or CNN quotes a Trump lie as straight news without prominently identifying it as a lie, the authors and editors need to be swarmed on social media — every single time — until they dread the inevitable deluge of critical responses from their readers more than they do losing “access” to the White House.
II. Exploit Divisions Within the System
The first order of business is to exploit the formal divsions — between parties, functional branches of the federal government, and the various geographical levels of government — within the state.
I’m not even going to get into ideological divisions within the anarchist community about whether we should soil our hands through political involvement. Lobbying to help draft legislation, or running candidates in the electoral processs, is mostly a waste of time for anarchists. Pressuring, from outside, the weakest links in the system most certainly is not.
To the extent that executive power grabs, especially odious political appointees or noxious pro-corporate legislation can be slowed down or stopped by Democratic obstruction, it is imperative that we take advantage of it. The nomination of a figure like Giuliani or Clarke for FBI or Homeland Security (or Trump’s actual choice of Sessions for Attorney General), should result not only in the swarming of the Senate telephone system with demands that every single Democrat either grow a backbone or look forward to our votes for a left-wing challenger in the primaries (we don’t actually have to even vote — just threaten it), but the swarming of moderate Republicans with demands to break ranks and help Bork the nominee.
Legal challenges to lawless executive actions and police state legislation, at all levels of the federal court system, are also important. So are acts of resistance at the state and local level, like LA, NY and Philadelphia’s promises to remain sanctuary cities and de Blasio’s stated intent of destroying databases that could be used to identify undocumented immigrants. Those who enage in such actions should be met with praise and encouragement, and those who collaborate with the Trump regime should be attacked and organized against on exactly the same terms as Trump himself. That means doxxing and publicly shunning mayors, police chiefs, etc., and randomly swarming them at their homes, country clubs, offices, favorite restaurants and places of worship — until they’re afraid to show their faces in public.
But the most important divisions within the system that we can exploit are inherent in any authoritarian system, by virtue of its own authoritarianism. Authoritarian systems, by their very nature, cannot afford to be permissionless. Because they are built on fundamental conflicts of interest between their leadership and those who carry out the day-to-day tasks of running the machinery, they cannot afford to trust their subordinates with any autonomy or discretion. Those who possess all the Hayekian distributed knowledge about the situation at hand, must be hamstrung by official procedures, because both they and the leadership know that their interests are diametrically opposed.
This means that, regardless of the functional role of the state in the capitalist system, it must be governed internally by standard operating procedures even when those procedures impede the political purpose of the state. Indeed many of the functionaries without whom the state could not keep running elevate adherence to such procedures above all else.
At the same time, the official legitimizing ideology — something without which no system of authority could survive — serves, to the extent that the state’s functionaries are genuinely socialized into it, as a further source of internal dissension.
Taken together, standard operating procedures and the official legitimizing ideology can be used to monkey-wrench the state. As I argued elsewhere, lobbying the state for positive reforms within the system is usually not cost-effective.
But outside pressure on the state as a side-effect of shifts in public consciousness and culture — and using that pressure to exacerbate and encourage the divisions that inevitably emerge within all elites — may be very fruitful indeed.
The same is true of the judiciary and particular segments of the state bureaucracy. Playing by their rules is a fool’s errand, as a means of advancing a positive libertarian agenda. But exploiting their rules against them is a powerful, low-cost weapon to impede their functioning.
The state, like a demon, is bound by the laws and internal logic of the form it takes. As that evil goddess said in Ghostbusters, “Choose the form of the destructor.” When a segment of the bureaucracy is captured by its own ideological self-justication, or courts by the letter of the law they pretend to enforce, they can be used as a weapon for monkey-wrenching the larger system. Bureaucrats, by following the letter of policy, often engage in de facto “work-to-rule” against the larger system they serve.
The state, like any authoritarian hierarchy, requires standing rules that restrict the freedom of subordinates to pursue the institution’s real purpose, because it can’t trust those subordinates. The state’s legitimizing rhetoric, we know, conceals a real exploitative function. Nevertheless, despite the overall functional role of the state, it needs standard operating procedures to enforce predictable behavior on its subordinates.
And once subordinates are following those rules, the state can’t send out dog-whistles telling functionaries what “real” double-super-secret rules they’re “really” supposed to follow, or to supplement the countless volumes of rulebooks designed to impose predictability on subordinates with a secret memo saying “Ignore the rulebooks.” So, while enough functionaries may ignore the rules to keep the system functioning after a fashion, others pursue the letter of policy in ways that impair the “real” mission of the state.
At the same time, socialization to the official legitimizing ideology can be a source of cognitive dissonance within the machinery of authoritarianism. Vinay Gupta argued that this results in a “moral asymmetry in warfare”: “In a conflict, the side which can bear to define it’s goals clearly can then plot a strategy to attain them. It can win. You can’t win a war who’s purpose you cannot bear to define…”
This makes the system vulnerable both to loss of morale, and to outright defections from within, as we appeal to the individual consciences of state functionaries — to quote Gillis again, “working on counter-narratives and messaging, because we sincerely won’t win an actual ‘Let’s Imprison All The Dissent’ situation without at least some of the armed forces and militias having a crisis of conscience and rebelling against the Red Tribe.”
We, on the other hand, can organize permissionlessly because our movement consists of self-organized, stigmergic networks in which each person joins for their own reasons and participates voluntarily. There is no conflict of interest such as those that characterize authoritarian hierarchies, because no one is treated as a means to someone else’s end, and nobody is able to use authority to benefit at anyone else’s expense. We know what we’re fighting for and what we’re fighting against; it’s a fight we chose to take part in, eyes wide open, because of our own values.
And because we operate permissionlessly, every individual in a network can immediately develop innovations in response to the immediate situation as she sees them, share an innovation far and wide, use the feedback to develop new iterations of the innovation, with everybody’s ideas instantly becoming the common property of the network to be further developed by anyone with the skill and motivation to do so. In the meantime, in the authoritarian hierarchies we confront, every new iteration in this cycle is slowed down by the requirement for signoffs and approval, and degraded by interference from pointy-haired bosses. So we go through endless iteration cycles of development, feedback, improvement, feedback, etc., that instantly pass into our common toolkit, while we fight an enemy with the kind of stupidity parodied in the movie Brazil. We develop innovations and generational improvements with the speed of replicating yeast, and act many times faster than the enemy can react to us.
The advantage this puts us at, I described here:
We fight a system whose very nature is defined by exploitation, extraction and conflict of interest, which can therefore only function by deceiving its component members, threatening them with force, or impeding their use of their own full knowledge and judgement. We, on the other hand, fight to supplant it with a system based on reciprocity, solidarity and self-determination, and on the willing and fully informed participation of everyone involved. Who will win? It’s no contest.
III. Defend the Most Vulnerable
It’s no secret that a Trump administration will be a much bigger threat to some of us than to others. Trump has announced his attention of deporting at least a couple million undocumented immigrants — supposedly those with criminal records — early in his term. He’s called for a national registry of Muslim citizens and residents, citing FDR’s internment of Japanese-Americans as a favorable precedent. He’s praised the authoritarian tactics of the NYPD under Bloomberg and Giuliani, called for nationwide “stop-and-frisk” profiling, and is closely associated with mouth-frothing authoritarians like Sheriff David Clarke who regard Black Lives Matter as a “terrorist” movement and ISIS ally. The corporate thugs building the Dakota Access Pipeline and the police thugs backing them up have stopped even pretending to respect the minor scruples Obama has displayed, and resumed full-bore construction in confidence that they and other pipeline projects will have a blank check under Trump to ethnically cleanse Native Americans from their ancestral lands for the sake of fossil fuel company profits. And finally, Trump has surrounded himself with people — Vice President-elect Mike Pence chief among them — who support violently rolling back all the social gains that LGBT people have made over the past generation, as well as attacking what’s left of women’s reproductive freedom after years of chipping away at Roe v. Wade.
The first order of business — something decent people shouldn’t even have to mention as a matter for discussion, but unfortunately we do — is for us to all agree that nobody is expendable. Recent calls by Freddie DeBoer, Mark Lilla and their ilk to “pipe down with the gay and trans stuff, because we don’t want to offend working class whites” are despicable.
This is a situation were Niemoller’s “First they came for the communists,” etc. quip comes into play. So does the Wobbly slogan “An injury to one is an injury to all!”
Besides being morally repugnant, treating “identity politics” as being in a zero-sum relationship to “class” is strategically just plain stupid. A “color-blind” and “gender-blind” economic agenda of opposition to the capitalist state, without addressing the needs of the most vulnerable among us, will simply leave divisions to be exploited by our enemies. That’s what happened in the ’30s, when the big southern land-owners exploited racial divisions within the tenant farmers union movement and split it right down the middle between black and white sharecroppers. That’s why employers have historically employed racial minorities and foreigners as scabs. If you don’t treat the concerns of the most marginalized groups seriously, why should they have any loyalty to you?
Either we treat class/economics and “identity politics” as mutually reinforcing parts of a common struggle against all forms of unjust authority and exploitation, or we’ll lose them both.
At every step, in every struggle, those of us with the most privilege should be lending our social capital and material resources to those with the least. That means white folks passing the mic to People of Color and amplifying their voices, uniting in solidarity with their struggles, and raising our own voices in protest and doing our best to obstruct when the state engages in repressive actions against immigrants, Muslims, and black people. It means the same acts of solidarity from straight cis males when the targets are women, gays and trans people. It means listen first and hardest to the racially and sexually marginalized in fights for economic justice, and first and hardest to the most economically marginalized members of movements for racial and gender justice.
It can mean things ranging from pro bono legal work, to those with tech skills sharing them with marginalized populations in need of things like encryption technology (or local wireless meshworks, if the Internet itself is compromised). It may even come to safe house networks.
In every case, it means — to repeat — that no one is dispensible. The repressive state will not isolate and peel off one marginalized group at a time. When it comes for one of us, we must treat it as an attack on all of us.
IV. Build for the Future
Douglas Rushkoff, in the latest edition of his email newsletter (“When Memes Fail Us,” November 27), argues that the very same forces — both structural, and in Trump’s own personality — that impede any fascist consolidation of power will also hasten the process by which the American national government becomes a hollowed-out state, so that creating the building blocks of the successor society will accordingly become that much more important.
On the bright side, I think running a government as large as ours is really hard. Trump’s obsession with his Twitter feed will keep him more than occupied over the next months of his presidency. The bigger issue is whether his hiring of people who have never worked in their assigned fields before (Ben Carson at HUD?) will lead to large parts of the government simply not working. It’s not a good moment to count on FEMA, the FTC, or Department of the Interior.
But a paralyzed, incompetent federal administration will simply require people to develop more local mechanisms for economic recovery, social cohesion, and mutual aid. This means red and blue people working together to maintain the basics of civil society, from food supply chains and healthcare to education and peaceful streets. With neoliberalism and supra-national corporations at bay for a moment, we may actually have more of an opportunity to develop bottom-up alternatives than we’ve had for a long time. The Depression spawned local currencies, farm cooperatives, and new mechanisms for distributed prosperity. Those of us with a foot in the real world stand a chance of building similar tools and networks, today.
The three previous sections all deal with approaches that, no matter how urgent, are mainly defensive. Our primary purpose, to which the bulk of our efforts are directed, continues to be the same as it has been: Building the new society within the shell of the old. And this is a program that will proceed apace, regardless of which political party is in power.
A Clinton administration would no doubt have been a more congenial environment in which to pursue this agenda, without either the increased threat of repression or the increased material pressure from social austerity and unemployment. But if anything, this material pressure will drive the rate at which we develop and adopt the building blocks of post-capitalist society, as a simple matter of necessity.
Historically, it has always been in times of greatest economic pressure — from high unemployment or austerity — that the working class and marginalized populations have been most likely to find ways of meeting a greater share of their needs in the informal or social economy, through direct production for use, barter, sharing and the like. And it’s in such periods that they’ve been most innovative in creating self-organized institutions for pooling risk, cost and income, and sharing the spare capacity of capital goods like cars, power tools and the like.
Most recently, we’ve seen it in the areas of the European periphery hardest hit by the austerity policies of the European Union, like Greece and Spain. There’s been a huge impetus to the adoption of local barter currencies, hackerspaces, and all kinds of local institutions like cohousing projects for minimizing individual living costs and providing a social safety net.
Such expedients have been recommended by anarchists and socialists of the decentralist or libertarian variety for years, as means for working class survival and reduced dependence on the vagaries of capitalist employment. Self-help efforts — the school breakfast program, daycare centers — have also been used by groups like the Black Panthers Party to increase community autonomy and provide a social safety net directly accountable to the people it serves.
Back in the 1960s, Colin Ward supported things like neighborhood workshops and the informal exchange of services like childcare as means of self-help and solidarity for the unemployed and underemployed in the UK. The Radical Technology group in the UK did a great deal of practical work in developing technologies for relocalized production, soil-intensive horticulture, alternative energy, and so forth. The Adams-Morgan Organization in Washington DC experimented with arrangements similar to those recommended by Ward (along with DIY solar heat, basement trout farms and the like) in the 1970s, as recounted by Karl Hess in Community Technology.
In Neighborhood Power, Hess went on to advocate a model of community economic bootstrapping built around neighborhood workshops, repair shops and storehouses for defunct appliances, auto parts and leftover building materials. He promoted an economic development model that went from keeping appliances in repair, to custom-machining spare parts, to networked production of entire appliances — a model of economic development through progressive import substitution much like that advocated by Jane Jacobs.
This was, in fact, the origin of the Japanese bicycle industry, as Jacobs described it. European and American manufacturers were unwilling to locate bicycle factories in Japan in the early 20th century, so imported spare parts were extremely expensive. Local repair shops began to custom machine the most commonly demanded spare parts. Gradually the shops sorted themselves out into an ecosystem in which more parts were locally produced, individual shops specialized in particular parts, and networks of shops between them were capable of manufacturing most or all of a complete bicycle.
A community economic development model based on progressive import substitution, first through repair shops and custom machining of spare parts, then production of complete appliances, and of direct production for use outside the wage system, is many orders of magnitude more feasible today than it was in the 1970s. Open-source CNC cutting tables, routers, 3D printers, induction furnaces, and other machinery scaled to garage or tabletop production, most of these tools costing a few hundred dollars in materials, can together produce goods of a kind that used to require a mass-production factory. The Open Source Ecology project, with its demo site at Factor e Farm, has designed and prototyped most of an open-source Global Village Construction Set that includes not only such manufacturing tools, but farm and construction machinery (tractor, sawmill, compressed earth block machine, etc.).
The development of such cheap machinery, along with open-source production of information and culture, and highly efficient soil-intensive horticulture techniques with high outputs from limited areas like rooftops and vacant lots, has formed the basis for economic models centered on commons-based peer production. And these models, in turn, form the basis for proposals (like those of Negri and Hardt in Commonwealth, Holloway in How to Change the World Without Taking Power, and Mason in Postcapitalism) for creating the new society through exodus, letting the old state and corporate machinery rot and rust away, rather than trying to capture it through insurrectionist assault.
So to summarize, our task in the short term, on an emergency basis, is to impede to the best of our ability any attempt to expand state repression, and in particular to defend those most vulnerable among us.
In the medium and long term, it is what it has always been: To identify the building blocks of the future society currently being developed within the existing capitalist-state society, including both liberatory technologies and new cooperative social institutions, that offer to free us from the control of and dependence on the capitalist state; and to hasten their continuing development, their coalescence together into a coherent whole, and the phase transition to a society built around this new kernel of post-scarcity technologies and cooperative self-organization.
Our short-term task, of necessity, is to protect ourselves against the state, and the capitalist and social reactionary interests it serves. Our ultimate task, our real task, is to build a society in which they can no longer touch us.