You wait ages for an anti-Trump coalition, then two come along at once

12 Feb

Do you know the one about the two Jewish men stranded on a desert island? Twenty years go by, then one day a ship comes towards the island. The captain comes ashore and is amazed to find that they have built three beautiful synagogues – one on the south of the island, one on the north of the island, and a third on the east of the island. “Tell me,” says the captain, “why do you need three synagogues?” They look perplexed that he should even ask such a question, and patiently explain: “There’s one for each of us and one that neither of us would be seen dead in.”


On Thursday I went, on behalf of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, to an organising meeting of an incipient coalition called Stop Trump, which was to be publicly launched the same evening (though I didn’t get to the launch itself). This is an immediate and ongoing task, which will need every bit of energy, intelligence, creativity and persistence we can muster.

I was impressed with the way the meeting was organised – based on a broad range of activist groups, with people genuinely encouraged to voice their views, listen to others and widen their vision. The discussion included the first few careful steps in a delicate process of negotiation to find common ground between groups and individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, cultures and views. One of the participants was a representative from a group that was organising another meeting the following day to launch a separate Stand Up to Trump initiative, and a number of other participants were also going to be involved in that. So we were all hopeful that the commitment to embark on the difficult process of finding a way to collaborate would be echoed at that discussion.

There were points of agreement and disagreement at the Stop Trump organising meeting, but people were, for the most part, listening to each other and considering the issues thoughtfully. Some of the discussion was uncomfortable, and heralded more complex and difficult negotiations to come in order to create a coherent movement – or perhaps a looser, less definable set-up that encourages outside-the-box initiatives by people none of us have heard of – from a range of disparate groups and what may appear to be competing initiatives.

Those of us who have been around the left for a long time need to look, listen and learn – and particularly to reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and what we even mean by success. Is a march of 20,000 a success simply by virtue of the numbers? What is the impact of three people replacing adverts in the tube with anti-deportation posters? How can we maximise the effect of a vigil? And if a tactic works once, does that mean we should keep repeating it? Is a flashmob worth all the organisation and training?

The protests so far, here and across the USA, are having an effect. We have something to build on – and that something is the inspiring and often spontaneous variety of actions that people are taking. They are opposing Trump in the streets, at the airports, in their workplaces and on social media. It’s happening at every level of American society. School children are sending his representatives packing. Factory workers have forced him to cancel visits. Foreign-born delicatessen workers have closed their shops and come out on the streets. Senior journalists in respectable publications are attacking him. CEOs of global corporations are challenging his actions. The opposition is at every level and in defence of all the people and institutions under attack. All of that is making a difference. No one is dictating its form and the people protesting have a good understanding of how the different issues are linked to each other.

The Women’s March was interesting from this perspective. Why did all those people come out of their houses without receiving daily exhortations from an established organisation to “make this demo massive”? In fact, there was a great deal of ambivalence to start with, but they came out despite – and to give the lie to – some rather dodgy utterances from organisers they’d never heard of, because they were angry, they knew what they were angry about and it was a chance for women and men to protest across the world in their own voices, and make it their protest. We all surprised ourselves, as well as the police, the organisers and Trump and May.

It is this mosaic of responses – and the sense of power that people have over their own actions – that makes it so effective.

Of course we need to be united in the sense of not competing with or undermining each other – but unity is a difficult business. We all say we want unity, but simply declaring that over and over again in rising decibels, is both dangerous and useless. We should be able to unite in action if we recognise that this can only come from a grown-up conception of the complex, empathetic and imaginative process that is required to develop fruitful working relationships. We need to start by acknowledging that there may be deep differences of opinion and of approach that either need to be resolved or put on one side for a while. A thin veneer of unity will not withstand the attacks that Trump is mounting against us and our world.

We need to resist the temptation to impose a spurious unity on this incipient movement, based on either lowest common denominator politics or by focusing on one single issue and relegating others. Instead we need to nurture and encourage the energy and understanding that so many people have of the connections between all the attacks Trump is making, and the determination to fight back in defence of all the targets simultaneously.

The people who have been on the protests and who are arguing this out on social media get the link between Trump’s hatred of women, his racism and his attacks on the judiciary; they know why he is going for Muslims first, and why he has gathered neo-Nazis around him; they understand how his destruction of the environment relates to the struggles of indigenous people and the poorest populations; they can see all too clearly why he is sabre-rattling and threatening war – and they understand the voracious corporate greed underlying all this.

This understanding is precious and it comes from below. So I was surprised that Stand Up to Trump has defined its first public meeting as a “summit”. I may be wrong, but this seems to imply a top-down approach, which prioritises leaders and experts. If so, I hope instead that I and other people will be able to put the case there for grasping the great opportunity we have here to draw on the varied, imaginative and creative, intergenerational grassroots activism we have seen over recent years, and assessing how we can amplify the energy that’s bubbling up from below. Slogans and speeches are the end of the process, not the beginning.

There are deep cultural and political differences between us. None of us can predict whether these differences can be resolved or respected – but if we have the maturity and sensitivity to face up to them, they could be a source of strength and inclusivity. One of the points of disagreement is about the significance given to famous individuals in any political movement. Some people argue that celebrities are needed to get people – and particularly young people – in through the door. Others point to a danger that these “names” become confused with the movement itself and both they and the participants have an inflated idea of their role in it and try to colour it and control it. To a degree, both of these are right. In an online discussion about all this, one friend argued for celebrities, recalling the influence of Tony Benn on her and other young people when they were in their teens, encouraging them to become activists and change the world. I take her point about young people being attracted and reassured by names they know, and Tony Benn changed many people’s lives and perspectives. But although he was very famous, and his name was an attraction, he influenced his audiences because he didn’t see himself as a star or picture himself leading the masses to glory.

The reason why everyone who heard him speak remembers what he said is because he was brilliant and enlightening; although he had his own characteristic turns of phrase, he was never predictable, vain or self-congratulatory. If anyone disagreed with him, he didn’t override them, publicly attack them or get insulted. He didn’t think he was beyond criticism but listened to, respected and learnt from other people, however old or young and whatever their background.

Famous people do have a role but they need to be there because they have something real and specific to contribute – not just as a marketing device. And if experienced activists have a role, it is to prioritise and facilitate the difficult, messy and painful process of finding common ground, to create contexts in which we can all open our minds to new ideas and develop the strength and motivation to act.


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