The world can breathe a sigh of relief that it will not know just how unhinged Donald Trump would have become with the validation of re-election, especially after already surviving literally hundreds of scandals and an official impeachment.
Trump’s defeat – largely to the credit of Black people, especially Black women – is immeasurably consequential for the planet. Even without a majority in the Senate (which Democrats still have a slim shot at winning in Georgia’s upcoming runoff elections), the United States can now work internationally and domestically to undo the damage Trump caused during four years of his presidency.
However, the US faces steep, deep-seated problems that neither began, nor will end, with Donald Trump. As liberals celebrate a “return to normalcy,” the people who delivered this victory will not be satisfied by a return to a profoundly violent status quo.
Trump and his disciples already plot a comeback, but if we study how he was narrowly defeated, we can prevent society from welcoming his brand of politics again.
If liberals thought of Trump’s constant lying and false promises as “un-American,” they should listen to Native Americans and read about the long history of Indigenous genocide as nonpartisan US government policy.
This is a country built on Black enslavement and Indigenous genocide, constructed by a racist system of law and lifted by imperialism. Now, as the empire crumbles, it is also a country descending into a neo-feudal society only buttressed by a consolidating panopticon of state violence and corporate surveillance.
These are not problems that can be addressed individually and there are no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all solutions. Rather, everyone has the power to wield, given their specific positions in society, and everyone must play a role if we want to change institutions and systems. Start exactly where you already are.
Trump has spent years broadcasting that he would try anything to maintain the presidency, including legal and clandestine voter suppression and intimidation. If the election’s integrity can be protected from Trump and his supporters’ ongoing attempt at a coup d’état, we will still emerge into a polarised country where nearly half of the voting population – roughly 70 million overwhelmingly white people – do not consider bigotry a deal breaker.
The ratio of people who approve of political violence is growing substantially across the ideological spectrum. Furthermore, a good portion of the populace has a twisted view of reality, where rumour and conspiracy are more important than critical thought or facts. Research shows that many of them can be converted, but how?
Personal relationships can slowly rebuild shared trust. In practice, this includes the sometimes difficult job of listening patiently and empathetically to friends who have fallen for concerted misinformation campaigns and more diffuse efforts of manipulation. Everyday compassion might be our best way out of the social media bubbles and conspiracy theories that cloud our collective foresight.
Undoing oppression cannot be a burden placed on the oppressed – people living at the intersection of marginalised social categories. People mobilised by this electoral wave must support and invest in communities of colour, but without demanding that marginalised people find “common ground” with fascism. The hard work of confronting and transforming this system must be carried out by those most structurally privileged.
Critique as a gift
One of the most important long-term strategies is scaling up this kind of work into intentional organising and community building everywhere: our work, families, friends, everyday interactions and wherever else possible.
The long-term political battleground is cultural, as Antonio Gramsci wrote from prison almost 100 years ago and US conservatives have understood since at least the 1970s. In the words of Republican media strategist Pat Buchanan, “if you capture the culture of the country, eventually you might prevail.”
The right-wing strategy of recapturing American culture after the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s explains why the strongest sources of censorship and “political correctness” in this country are not leftist “online mobs,” but rather conservative entities like the Texas State Board of Education, which has spent decades rewriting history with political intent.
In its narratives of exceptionalism and refusal to teach this country’s violent history, the board denies generations the opportunity to reckon with the structures that shape their present realities. And given Texas’s population size, textbooks produced for that state influence instructional materials in many other states, and the effects of this miseducation grow and become embedded over time.
Evidence of the “culture war” strategy is abundant today, well beyond Fox News. Spend a minimal amount of time on social media and you will come across the disinformation machine fuelled by millions of dollars of Koch money, propaganda videos on YouTube from accounts like PragerU (which is not a university of any kind), and thousands of similar copycat accounts that are likewise monetising narratives of white victimhood and paranoia.
We must learn and teach each other how to better recognise propaganda, appreciate difference and confront injustice. Furthermore, we must commit ourselves to more intentional and democratic relationships, contrary to the dominant paradigms where we are always in competition and our victories must come at someone else’s expense.
Breaking the grip of these ideas will require building an alternative through mindful practice – embracing constructive critique, learning to give and cherish feedback, knowing how to apologise and grow, and preferring strategic bridging over destructive sanctimony. Neither performative cruelty nor tone policing can help us get there. Accountability is not the same as fixating on someone’s small mistakes or clumsy language.
As bell hooks has put it, “Forgiveness and compassion are always linked: How do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?”
Uprooting arrogance at a societal level requires self-examination. We should support each other more and police each other less.
Merging left without compromising values
Lasting change will also require merging around a transformative agenda that speaks to different constituencies without sacrificing progressive values or pandering to colonial tendencies.
Among other things, this vision for systemic change must include Black reparations, radically curtailing or even withdrawing the state’s power to inflict violence on marginalised communities through policing and criminal punishment, honouring the treaties this country made with Native peoples, expanded equal access to rights like education and healthcare, demilitarisation, equal pay, progressive taxation on the ultra-rich, green jobs, decarbonisation and environmental justice.
The policies above are overwhelmingly popular with the electorate but they remain difficult under our current institutional design. Therefore, organisers must work community by community, state by state, and federally towards procedural reforms that can yield structural payoffs.
These include abolishing the electoral college, honouring Puerto Rico’s vote for statehood, instituting ranked-choice voting, protecting voter rights such as universal registration and mail voting, making election day a holiday, mandating voting as a civic duty, reforming campaign financing, instituting an independent commission to reverse partisan districting, democratising the Senate by making it proportionally representative of states’ populations, curtailing executive authority to make war and surveil the world, and more.
In all, our platforms must be driven by intersectional analyses attentive to how each policy will differently impact people depending on their various identities and social positions. We otherwise risk reproducing a long trend within so-called progressive movements led by men and white people, and especially white men, where their concerns become the default. Everyone else is dismissed with demands to “not be divisive” about our very real differences, which are treated as something to reduce or eliminate, rather than appreciate and welcome.
Personnel is policy: taking and making space
In the finer details, social transformation will require shifting the field organising strategy and infrastructure of political parties, especially the Democrats. The 2020 election cycle proved that the old guard’s strategies are ineffective, but also that their antidote is bottom-up energy. In particular, one of the most significant investments donors can make is in year-round community organising and canvassing efforts to build up sustained power.
Trump’s defeat belongs to social movements and activists, especially Black organisers and Black women in particular, who turned out to vote in record numbers.
Credit is also due to Indigenous voters who undeniably helped tip Arizona, Wisconsin, and played an important role in Democratic victories in other states, despite the disrespectful erasure of Indigenous peoples in corporate media coverage of the election. States like Georgia, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Michigan were likewise won by organisations like Mission for Arizona, spearheaded by young Latinas.
These organisations lack the resources of the Democratic establishment but did the hard work that paved the way for Trump’s defeat. Let us save the symbolic gestures of gratitude and actually provide these groups ongoing support and investment.
Incorporating these solutions requires altering not only policy platforms but also the makeup of the party. Democrats are more diverse than the Republicans in membership, but not much more in leadership. White consultants who occupy most positions of power inevitably approach issues with internalised biases, and thereby come to the “impartial” conclusion that “X community does not vote, so more resources must be redirected towards old white voters instead,” which only becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As long as strategic decision-making remains dominated by white strategists, the party will continue redirecting resources away from its most important and yet most disrespected backbone of support – people of colour – thereby feeding apathy and disaffection. Do not expect marginalised communities to continue rescuing a party that refuses to hear or show up for its own base.
A politics of love
“Your Congresswoman-elect loves you,” Cori Bush declared during her acceptance speech. “If I love you, I care that you eat. If I love you, I care that you have shelter and adequate, safe housing. If I love you, I care that you have clean water and clean air, and you have a liveable wage. If I love you, I care that the police don’t murder you.”
Flawed as the electoral process is, it remains crucial to making social change. Elections provide a structure of opportunity, attention and resources to organise and reshape discussions about our material, everyday realities. Activists interested in changing society must therefore continue to engage their momentum and give them direction, all while changing their traditional model – from one where our energy flows upward to support the liberal establishment, towards one where we instead draw resources from electoral cycles to improve and sustain our communities beyond them.
Activists should remain critical of the risk of activist energy being co-opted by a Democratic Party that has presided over a bipartisan dismantling of public services such as housing, bloating and militarisation of a racist policing system, mass incarceration exacerbated by their own crime bills, mass deportation programmes, indiscriminate surveillance, growing inequalities, and a war and carbon-based economy.
At the same time, the work of groups like those mentioned above shows that it is possible to build electoral power without sacrificing organisational autonomy at the grassroots.
The pace of change in political institutions is unbearably slow by design. However, taking state power remains important to altering the daily realities of people’s lives. Around each new win up and down the ticket, no matter how small, we can rally new resources and recruits, feel our power through our results, and grow the fight for radical democracy, both within and well beyond the state.
Love is an everyday, radical mission. Collective liberation requires an ethic of care and a strategy for building political communities rooted in shared respect for all living things. In this, anyone can play a role, everyone is needed and everything must be built with intention – forging welcoming spaces, ceding space, redistributing power, organising solidarity everywhere, winning small battles, persuading the public and scaling upward to generate new possibilities in our unwritten future.
Given the interlinked crises facing humanity, radical change is more urgent now than ever, so let’s pick up a clipboard and do the work, following the leadership of the people of colour, especially Black people, and especially women, who won this election.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.