January 11, 2017
When I was 13, I told my father that if he ever hit me again, I’d kill him. There were reasons he beat me, he said. To make me get better grades. To make me do my chores faster. To make me more “respectful.” But really, he did it because he could. He was bolder and stronger; that boldness, that strength, gave him permission to do whatever he wanted—until the day I met him with a boldness of my own. My heart became a shell ringing with the old dark song of fight, fight, fight as I watched his face cycle through expressions—the expected shock and anger segueing to a mild sort of bemusement before settling, finally, on an indignant resignation. We both knew, now, what I would do to fight back, to survive—even if that meant using his violence against him. In this cold brutality, we understood each other. He never hit me again.
I’ve thought about that moment with increasing frequency as the doomsday clock ticks ever closer to Donald Trump’s inauguration. The PEOTUS reminds me of the worst parts of my father: his boorish conflation of might with right, and that bristling, Id-driven fixation with his own power—as evidenced by his campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and his sick display of piss-play on the bed where the first African-American president and First Lady laid their heads. And the Republican legislature that has fallen into a jack-booted lock-stop behind him has always, at its core, shared his bloodlust for punishment—for making the uppity “Feminazi” and Black Lives Matter crowds, the unholy queers and the lazy poor suffer unto death—even it has dressed this bloodlust up in the tidier suit of “religious freedom” and “the free market” and, of course, that stale old chestnut of “family values.” Within days of starting their new session, Congressional Republicans are spinning the glass and lowering the jar over us—and I remember, in a visceral, physical way, what it was like to live in a place where I couldn’t breathe. I remember the lesson I learned as I stood in the kitchen, eyeing the knives: To survive, I had to become my enemy.
This is a lesson that many members of the Left—with their talk of “Love Armies,” repeated calls to understand the Trump voter (as if white rural isolationist were some new species in need of anthropological study), and flocking to Facebook pages like Pantsuit Nation, which has become a maudlin pageant of “good white folks” trying to out-enlighten each other by recounting stories of the one time they helped a Muslim woman in a grocery store—need to learn. Democrats and progressives have long trafficked in platitudes about the nation’s better nature, about “going high” when our Right-wing foes “go low.” This belief that the value and virtue of our ideas would ultimately triumph over the kidney punches and all-out knees to the groin that an increasingly radicalized Right wing has leveled since members of the Republican legislature met on the night of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and decided upon a policy of obstruction has, ultimately, failed to win the day. Watching President Obama’s farewell speech, I saw a woman in the crowd with a sign reading, “Hope Lives.” We need hope. But more than that: We need teeth.
Even the initial impulse to understand “what went wrong”—as if what went wrong were not only a sustained smear campaign against Hillary Clinton herself, but against liberal values; turning concepts that should be appealing even on the surface, like not going bankrupt from health-care costs or enjoying full protections under the law, benefitting from a subsidized community-college education or simply, at this point, not being atomized in a nuclear attack, as benchmarks of elitism—betrays a fatal difference between us and them. As Kara Brown writes, “The other side—on their talk shows and Facebook pages and Twitter accounts—they aren’t worried about our economic anxiety or the fear behind our decision-making. And they aren’t talking about loving us.”
Empathizing with one’s oppressor is kissing the boot-heel on one’s neck—and I, for one, have no taste for leather. So, like many other people who are fighting for air, I write my members of Congress, I call very loud and vociferous bullshit on that dude from high school who can’t believe that his tax dollars are gonna go to building the wall, and I plan to march on Washington. These actions are dignified and effective—as evident in the deluge of outraged citizenry who curtailed the GOP’s plans to go Snidely Whiplash on the Office of Congressional Ethics. Yet, sometimes, this is just sticking our fingers into the leaking dam of our democracy—it may hold back the flooding, but holding back the flood is not victory. And victory may require standing across from our enemies and saying, in a language they can understand, that we will end them.
Republicans have already written that language of resistance in the tea-party playbook. Politico writer Michael Grunwald describes Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s style of governance, which was empowered and emboldened by a new strand of conservatism—not your grandfather’s conservatism, which had some pretense to intellectualism and humanity, but a blunter, more brutish conservatism that smothered any attempt to offer federal aid to the people and institutions who were most financially devastated by the Bush years (like, say, bankrupt homeowners and the auto industry)—as “kicking the hell out of Obama all the time, treating him not just as a president from the opposing party but an extreme threat to the American way of life.” This is painful to read— Barack Obama offered us a role-model president, a man of unflappable dignity and empathy, who called himself a feminist and openly gave a damn about women and girls; who gave LGBTQ service members the right to serve without hiding; who strove to give us health care and income-based student loan repayments; and who cried over the murdered children of Sandy Hook. And it is especially painful given that Donald Trump is actually an extreme, perhaps obliterating, threat to the American way of life. Given the Republican promises to sharpen the pitchforks of independent investigations as soon as the celebratory confetti fell around hypothetical President-elect Hillary Clinton’s shoulders, every Democrat in the House should be colluding to draw up articles of impeachment against Trump—because even if these articles can’t get a Senate supermajority, the gesture itself not delegitimizes Trump in the early stages of his presidency, it builds a barricade around the GOP agenda for months upon months, news cycle upon news cycle. It’s about Even Steven.
But these tactics—denying Obama any easy legislative victories and rebranding his successes in crass, negative terms (such as turning the Affordable Care Act into the nebulous “Obamacare,” thus wedding it to the president’s popularity, or lack thereof, forever and ever amen)—were nonetheless effective. Obama admitted as much on the Axe Files, the podcast hosted by his former top aide, David Axelrod: Their strategy was “if we just say no, then that will puncture the balloon, that all this talk about hope and change and no red state and blue state is proven to be a mirage, a fantasy.” In a bit of PR judo, Republicans turned Obama’s strengths—his appeals to hope, progress, and reconciliation—into a weakness, evidence of a “hopey changey” wishy-washiness and naiveté, that, more broadly, could be applied to liberals and progressives as well.
Of course, throughout the campaign, progressives endeavored to slather Republican representatives with the orange tar that is Trumpism. The message powering #LoveTrumpsHate and #StrongerTogether was that the better angels were on our side, that hearts and minds, and not the lizard brain, were essential to win. One could argue that this message wasn’t wrong—after all, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But Hillary Clinton will not be taking the oath of office on January 20. To deliver a congressional “shellacking” to Donald Trump, and a grand fuck-you to the GOP, akin the catastrophic purge of blue in the 2010 midterms, Democrats will need to channel the real meaning of the word on their “Nasty Woman” T-shirts and adopt messaging, that, like tea party’s, revs the dual engines of rage and fear—think of how the tea-partiers turned public discussion of the ACA into a macabre theater of beloved grandmas dragged in front of death panels.
This is not to say that we should forsake facts—if anything, we must be the dutiful bodyguards of the truth, protecting it from meme and pundit alike; but our facts must come with one-two punches. The first blow is the brutal truth: Paul Ryan’s Health Savings Accounts aren’t about affordable care—they’re simply deposit boxes for your own money to be used for your own health care, meaning that, if you are, like most Americans, saddled with house payments or student debt, or living paycheck-to-paycheck, you are shit out of luck—and chemotherapy, and hospitalization, and medications. And even if you’re able to supplement your account with health insurance, you’re still losing money that could go to your kids’ tuition, or that down payment on a mortgage. The second blow personalizes it: Paul Ryan doesn’t want your kids to go to college; he doesn’t want you to own that home you’ve worked your ass off for. Paul Ryan would have you dig your own grave. Take Ryan’s supposed strength—his wonkishness on all things finance—and flip it into a craven callousness about human life, and the American dream.
Some Democrats, from the grassroots all the way to the White House, are coopting the Republicans’ strategy. A group of 30 congressional and non-profit staffers have published Indivisible, a guide to using tea-party tactics to advance a progressive agenda. It includes everything from how to organize an activist group, get your member of Congress’s attention (for instance, activists are better off petitioning their own representatives, as opposed to representatives from other districts, since they can hold their votes as leverage), to protesting at a town hall (such as refusing to give up the mic if the congressperson hasn’t answered a question satisfactorily, scattering group members through the crowd, live-tweeting and contacting the press), and engaging in mass calls.
Sarah Dohl, one of Indivisible’s co-authors, told The Guardian that she saw these techniques applied directly to her boss, a Texas Democrat: “You’re trying to do things in your daily job—policy briefs, speeches—and you’re forced to take these phone calls and respond to emails and write letters … That’s why the tea party was so successful: It slowed federal policy-making to a halt.” It’s an eye-for-an-eye, plain and simple—and, like Beatrix Kiddo plucking Elle Driver’s beautiful blue eye straight out of the socket, it is meant to leave an opponent screaming and flailing. President Obama has counseled Congressional Democrats not to collaborate on any workaround that will allow Republicans to repeal the ACA—to make the GOP deal with the political fallout from stripping insurance from many of their core, red-state constituents. Today, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker is testifying against Trump’s nominee for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions—the first time that a sitting senator will testify against another sitting senator up for a Cabinet post. And then there is Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s overt trolling of McConnell, re-deploying, ironically enough, one of the first cannonballs the Republicans shot over on the other side of the aisle back in 2009.
Some on the left, like Jesse Ferguson, deputy national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, argue that deploying tea-party tactics is a matter of becoming the monsters we seek to fight. In his op-ed for USA Today, he writes, “If our only plan is to make government non-functional like Republicans did to us, then we will end up invalidating the basic progressive thesis: Government action can improve people’s lives.” For the record, I don’t believe that this should be the only plan: We need people who can galvanize and inspire, who can bolster existing movements to benefit marginalized people, who can carry the flame.
But we need, in equal measure, the people who will breathe fire—who will call out Trump for being a traitor, who will stand outside of the office of any Congressperson who votes to repeal the ACA with signs that read “killer,” and who will threaten to primary any Democrat who votes to confirm Trump’s appointees, whether to the Cabinet or the Supreme Court. We need people who are unafraid to say that we are right to flex our might, because we are in the right; because denying people their humanity, their autonomy, and their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is—and has always been—the greatest wrong. I did not become a monster when I told my father that I would kill him. I became a survivor. And that is what each of us, what progressivism itself, must become, if we are to endure the next four years, if we are ever to build something better.