The election of Donald Trump is profoundly disturbing for many reasons: the process (e.g. fake news, probable Russian intervention, and the ugliness of the rhetoric) and the results (e.g. his nominees reek of crony capitalism). Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. It only slows the Trump agenda. We need to set a better agenda and derail the Trump agenda.
While I look to Sun Tzu (The Art of War), and Lao Tzu (Tao Te Ching) for direction, I also look to the modern contemplative-activists: Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, etc. In this essay, I’m using “Martin” as a stand-in or exemplar because MLK is the most widely known activist for this world view.
The racism and prejudice of many supporters made the news, but these weren’t enough to elect him. Trump also appealed to the left-behinds—those hard working people whose jobs, identity, and community has been lost to globalization, automation, and productivity increases. There are enough of them and they are angry to the point of violence or at least violent language. They are not the enemy but potential allies.
So what would Martin do? First—pray or meditate in silence. Gandhi is widely quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” MLK prayed on his own and in community with those working along side him. Use creative tactics: take the unexpected way, what Richard Rohr calls finding the Third Way, takes time spent in silence, patience, not simply reacting against. All of the people mentioned in the second paragraph spent a lot of time in prayer or meditation. It is necessary for creative planning, but also to stay centered in confrontations with others.
These people were kind, but not “nice”. They did not go along to get along, but neither were they violent. One of the tactics I learned in martial arts is to pull when pushed. Gandhi used this to excellent effect in a famous incident:
At one stage it became known to Gandhi’s followers that he was to be visited by a British official who would threaten him with prison if he did not give up some of his—to the British—subversive activities. They came to him excited and said, “We have a great idea: we shall put nails on the road he will be driving along and they will puncture the tires of his car so that he will not be able to get here.”
“You will do nothing of the sort”, said Gandhi. “We shall invite him in politely and offer him a cup of tea.”
Crestfallen, his followers obeyed. The official arrived and strode in full of imperial purpose.
“Now then, Mr. Gandhi, this so-called Salt Marching has to stop at once. I shall otherwise be forced to arrest you.”
“Well,” said Gandhi, “First of all, let’s have some tea.”
The Englishman agreed reluctantly. Then when he had drained his cup, he said briskly, “Now we must get down to business. About these marches …”
Gandhi smiled. “Not just yet. Have some more tea; there are more important things to talk about.”
And so it went on. The Englishman became increasingly interested in what the Mahatma had to say and eventually forgot completely about his official task, drank many more cups of tea and eventually went away, fully won over to Gandhi’s cause.
Notice how Gandhi did the unexpected, a necessary part of being a prophet, a change agent. He was setting the agenda, instead of the Englishman. The Salt March was both symbolic and practical, salt is life critical in a tropical environment. The British Empire had given themselves a monopoly. Gathering their own salt was civil disobedience and fulfilling the people’s need, not simple resistance.
During the campaign one of Trump’s popular proposals was spending a lot on infrastructure. It was needed and it would mean a lot of middle class jobs for a Presidential term or two. He has since backpedaled, proposing tax credits for private companies who do infrastructure improvement, not any actual Federal spending. One of the lessons I took from the Great Recession is that private industry has very little interest in improving infrastructure, even their own. The only way private industry will do things like fix the Flint MI water system is if they can jack the rates up. I’ve seen that here in Austin. The rich and middle class people fled Flint years ago. The people there can barely the current rates.
Bernie Sanders has re-introduced his $1 trillion infrastructure bill. This is pushing back on Trump, but it is also pushing or pulling forward. It also reinforces the evidence that Trump is not there for the ordinary people, just the rich. The rich have it made. Their water systems are fine thank you. There are other Trump campaign promises that benefit us all, not just the rich. We should get behind them.
Right now, Trump is setting the agenda and the liberals are resisting, responding, reacting. Some of his proposals, if real, are so egregious, they must be resisted or responded to, but much of it is “a tale … full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” He has already abandoned many of his campaign promises that fired up his base, but are unimplementable or like jailing the opposition, would set a precedent even he is unwilling to set.