Toward an Alert Democracy

trump-1843504_640“I just can’t do long rides on buses or sleep on church basement floors this time,” said one friend, as she ruefully assessed her capacity for political protest. She would march in Boston, not Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration; no overnights required.

We, the generation of the Sixties, had protested about many social and political issues over the decades – against the social conformity of the 1950’s, for civil rights, for an end to the Vietnam War, for women’s rights and gay rights, for protection of the environment. In our day protests were often raucous and violent, with police in full regalia, wielding truncheons and shooting tear gas; protesters fighting as well, and often dragged off to prison. It took strength of soul and body to protest.

Now we are in our late 60’s, 70’s, even 80’s. We may look young – hair suspiciously near its original color, dressed in Spanx-enabled slim pants and jackets, moving along briskly thanks to physical therapy and regular exercise. But our joints ache when we get out of bed in the morning; we reach for the Advil. We have less energy; on some days naps are needed. We suffer the remains of various surgeries; muscle twinges and reduced range of motion. Some of us are ill. For years many have only sporadically been politically active.

Despite aches, many people my age went to the Women’s March in Boston for at least a while, and afterwards were exultant as they reported packed subway cars, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, fields of pink cat-ear hats, an array of pithy signs. One favorite of many: “IF YOU THOUGHT I WAS A NASTY WOMAN BEFORE …. BUCKLE UP, BUTTERCUP, I’M NOT DONE YET.”

Helpful police. The joy of being with so many people who shared our values. No violence. It was the best of what demonstrations could be. This time we were grandmothers, there with our daughters and granddaughters, teaching the children the importance of having a voice. The younger generation turned out in force. “The great awakening of the millennials,” quipped one friend. Trump is such a powerful threat to our way of life, our democracy, that it seemed imperative to get active again. Age affects what we can do, but not what we care about.

While over the years many of us have demonstrated, written letters and checks, and marched for particular causes, the basic principles of our liberal democracy had seemed secure. We had taken the Constitution for granted as a social contract among us, limiting the authority of government. We had assumed a three-part government in which each part served as a check on the power of the others; the rule of law, not personal influence, in everyday life; equal protection of human and civil rights for all people; the power of reasoned argument based on evidence; tolerance and civility in public debate. Trump posed a fundamental threat to this system.


Anxiety wound its arms around me shortly after ten on election night, when Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow looked at the map, jaws dropping, as they realized what was happening. Their experts were stuttering. States that had been predicted to go for Clinton were still too close to call. This wasn’t supposed to happen. They called the election for Trump at 2:30 am. We all knew long before that.

A large red dragon, snorting steam, spewing obscenities, and smelling of pitch landed with a thump in the middle of my living room. The air became hot and acrid, burning my eyes, my throat, my lungs. Sparks flew. Claws shredded my skin. My entire being screamed as I dove under the bed. Once I found the courage to crawl out my head ached for days. I was emotionally raw and vaguely nauseous. I crept around my apartment; being quiet was all I could do. When I ventured outdoors the world was very still. I trembled with emotional exhaustion as I went about my errands, still moving slowly. Friends and neighbors greeted each other with a pale, “How are you?” and responded with faint shrugs and near-whispers, “Let’s not talk about it right now.”

Our world was about to be turned inside out, in a crude and cruel direction by someone ignorant, vulgar, vicious, bigoted, and out of control with his tweets. So much for civil discourse. To “Make America Great Again” he promised to throw out “the millions” of illegal immigrants who were “taking American jobs”, re-write regulations for corporate taxation to “bring jobs back home”, build a wall between the US and Mexico, and tear apart Obamacare. The “Great America” he evoked was the America of the 1950’s and earlier. While appealing to many, his promises would not solve the problems they faced and were a betrayal of the equal treatment for all and due process of law that we had worked for, for decades. Weeks later we still despair.

In addition to shock, there was loss. We had expected that the Obama agenda would continue, more or less, under Clinton’s leadership, albeit with less fluid intelligence and finesse. In any case we would have lost Obama, himself. That loose-limbed and graceful, oh, so cool, guy. Warm, authentic, with a great big smile; easily able to do commercials for toothpaste companies if he ever found himself out of political work. He represented the irrefutable fact that our nation could elect a black President. An iconic picture of Obama showed him in his office, bending down so that a young black boy could feel his hair. Later interviewed, the boy said, “I wanted to see if his hair felt like mine. It did.” But we also lost the general agreeableness of his policy stances, his respect for Constitutional order, and his balanced intelligence, to be replaced by chaos, bigotry, tweets by the thousands, and inhumane policies.

So we got angry. We must fight again. From our country’s origins it has been clear that Democracy must be worked for and not taken for granted – a fact more obvious in some times and places than others.

It’s a hard thing to say, but protest should be easier this time. Coming out of the ‘50s it was all ideals and passion. Now many of those ideals have been at least partially realized; we have very specific images of what our society can be, and millions of people have experienced it. Women can be treated equally in the workplace and even have high-level careers – we know what that looks like; gay couples can marry and raise families – we know what that looks like; people of color do have equal rights to live where they want, get an education, hold good jobs, and vote – we know what that looks like. While these rights have been emergent and some are not yet fully realized, two generations of women and men have grown up assuming the society they have experienced is the way life is. They don’t remember. They will experience the coming changes as the loss of what they have taken for granted. If Roe v Wade is threatened, millions of women, now with powerful megaphones, will object.

We also now know how to resist – how to set up carpools, rent fleets of busses, find inexpensive places to stay, plan sign-making parties, get permits, arrange for portable toilets, engage celebrity sponsors, print T-shirts and, if needed, organize non-violent civil disobedience workshops. We open our homes to marchers travelling from afar and buy stashes of metro passes for their use.

The Internet has transformed our methods. Swirling through the ether are notices about marches to attend, petitions to sign, donations to give, exhortations to show up quickly at crisis points like airports. This morning’s torrent applauds Lufthansa’s decision to allow all passengers with valid travel documents, no matter country of origin, to board flights to Boston where federal court orders prohibit detaining them and sending them back. These emails urge that we email or tweet the CEO’s of other major airlines, urging them to do the same, followed by instructions from millennials on how to tweet.

The last time the issues we fought for unfolded over decades. This time they are under assault simultaneously, in an overwhelming swirl of bizarre cabinet appointments, tweets, ineptly drafted executive orders, controversial statements during afternoon briefings, firings, and judicial findings. As I write this Trump has been president for 10 days; it seems like years, already. We have been plunged into a new universe created in the oval office with the speed of a signature, as from the mind of an impetuous 4-year old. The simultaneity with which the issues are being engaged is, itself, nauseating. One’s emotions simply can’t deal with threats to core values hour after hour.


“Steve Bannon is our President,” mourned one friend. “Think of me as Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” Bannon has said, authorizing us to look for his behind-the-scenes manipulations. Unlike Trump, and terrifyingly, Bannon has a coherent governing philosophy. Surfing YouTube one can find Bannon explaining himself. At this year’s CPAC meeting he described three streams of work currently underway in the Trump administration. Slightly elaborated, they are: 1) Sovereignty. In Bannon’s view, nations are the primary political unit and each is built around a core cultural identity that it must protect. According to him, America’s cultural identity is White and Christian. Immigrants threaten that identity. The need to protect a core cultural identity gets translated into an increased military and changes in immigration policies. “Build a wall.” “Kick the bad hombres out.” 2) Economic nationalism, in which America reorients priorities to the working class’s benefit. We would enter into trade agreements for our interests alone, with little regard for global implications, and would implement environmental deregulation, foreign policy, and tax programs that would encourage the rebuilding of a manufacturing-based export economy. “Put America First.” 3) The Deconstruction of the administrative state. The administrative state consists of entire agencies that have, since the New Deal, proliferated and gained broad governing authority by virtue of their technical expertise. Unelected bureaucrats, not elected representatives, are running the show. In deconstructing the administrative state, these agencies, the regulations they put in place, and the civil servants who administer them would be stripped away. “Drain the Swamp.”

This program stands behind Trump’s campaign rhetoric, his executive orders, his legislative program, and his cabinet and court appointments. Steve Bannon, Steve Miller and Jeff Sessions began meeting several years before the Republican convention to develop their political philosophy and identify a candidate they could push forward. They chose Trump. His own interest in nationalism made him politically congenial. His extreme narcissism and need to blame anyone but himself for bad news made him easy to manipulate; excessive praise would do the job. We must be alert to the intentions of the emperor’s costumer and watch for his shadow behind Trump’s bluster and tweets.


My generation sighs. We thought we were finished, but now each of us must take a deep breath, roll up our sleeves again, and put our particular talents to work if we want a government that reflects our goals and values. I imagine each of us volunteering to help the causes we care about passionately. If we can write, we will write letters and columns. If we have artistic talents, we will volunteer to make signs, posters and logos. If we are good at management and organization, we will help get activities together. We will show up when needed.

I have chosen to focus on freedom of expression, including freedom of the press. As a writer, this is particularly important to me; it also affects our ability to make our democracy work. Today, the White House banned the NYT, CNN, and the LA Times from Sean Spicer’s daily news briefing. While that news briefing is not the most reliable of sources, if the press cannot obtain information about what the government is doing, what it is planning, it cannot tell us. We, in turn, cannot judge its importance. If writers cannot write what they see, what they feel, and express it in poetry, fiction, or essays, we are deprived of a perspective on what is happening in our world.

Of course, we must march. But if we don’t dig in and commit money, time, and work to particular issues, not letting anything slip by, we could lose it all. John Lewis’s words at a Martin Luther King Day event in Miami this year are to the point.

Stand up. Speak out. When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something, to say something, and not be quiet. You must have courage. You must be bold, and never, never, ever give up.

Along the way, we may invent a more alert democracy for the future.

© 2017 Barbara Scott Nelson