Authoritarianism Thrives on Demoralization: How to Fight Trump and Stay Psychologically Healthy

by on July 2, 2018 · 0 comments

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By Dawn Villines / Daily Kos

My daughter was a newborn when Donald Trump was elected. On Election Day, I dressed her in a pantsuit, covered her in feminist stickers, and ensured she saw me voting. We took lots of pictures. I wanted her to know she was part of the moment in history when the first woman president was elected. So waking up to a Trump win hit me hard. I feared for my daughter’s future, and for my own.

Like all traumas, eventually this one began to feel normal. Trump has changed our sense of what we can expect little by little, horror by horror. But this week was especially bad. This was the first week that I felt as horrible as I did following the election.

This month was the first time I thought that my fears about the end of democracy might really come to fruition. I envisioned a world without abortion rights. I thought about what might happen to my daughter if a pregnancy ever threatens her life. I wondered if my OB might be willing to write me a “just in case” abortion pill prescription.

My social media feeds were filled with people in absolute terror. The longer I read, the more frustrated I got. The people who seemed to be in the most fear were those who have the least to lose under the Trump administration: white men, wealthy white women, people with privilege and power. People with some degree of privilege—people like me—are the ones who can most easily fight back. They’re the ones who might just save us. And most of us are too busy panicking to consider this fact.

My friends who have always lived in fear—black mothers who worry if their sons will come home, trans folx who wonder if their mere existence will get them killed, immigrants who worry they too might one day be ripped from their children—repeatedly emphasize to me how enraging it is to see white privileged liberals only now becoming worried about democracy.

Authoritarian regimes thrive on a demoralized populace. They survive by slowly wearing us down. By convincing us there’s nothing we can do. And now so many of my friends are doing that work on their behalf. It’s time to stop. They’re throwing up their hands, saying everyone is doomed, and devoting their precious energy to convincing everyone how bad the world will soon be.

I don’t know what the future holds or if the doomsday scenarios will come to fruition. I do know that spending our time paralyzed in panic only emboldens Trump and his ilk. Feeling depressed feels awful. It’s also what the Trump regime wants because it reduces a person’s effectiveness.

So here is my modest recipe for fighting back against the Trump regime, protecting yourself from panic and depression, and maintaining a little perspective.

Don’t Waste Your Energy on Tactics That Feel Bad or Don’t Work

I didn’t listen to the ProPublica audio of immigrant children crying for their parents. I already knew they were crying. I already knew this was horrific. I know how babies cry when they can’t be with their parents, because I have a baby. Thinking of her in those children’s shoes would only have left me feeling angry and paralyzed.

You don’t have to do everything. If something drains you or leaves you feeling hopeless, find some other way to contribute. Every time a progressive-minded person can’t sleep because of the trauma they’re surrounded by, that person becomes a little less effective the next day. And the far right becomes a little stronger.

Don’t waste your energy arguing with Nazis on Facebook. Don’t let your conservative family “devil’s advocate” you into a state of rage and panic. Don’t allow people to burn through energy you could spend on something useful.

Listen to and Learn From the People Whom Trump Endangers Most

We have a president who thinks women should be punished for abortion. Border patrol agents are putting children in cages. Our president openly admits to his desire to abandon due process. The entire Department of Justice has been vocal about their eagerness to indefinitely detain families in concentration camps. Everyone in the administration responds to facts with more lies. They’re gaslighting us all.

At this point, if a person does not realize there is a serious problem, nothing will change their mind. And yet I continue to hear Democrats say we need to cater to moderate whites. We need to give Trump voters what they want. This is always how Democrats respond to shifts right. It’s how they handled the Bush administration. It never works.

People of color, women, poor people, and young people are the backbone of the Democratic party. Energize them and we win everything. In my home state of Georgia, progressive Stacey Abrams trounced her white moderate opponent by shifting left and galvanizing progressive voters. The old strategy isn’t working. It’s time for a new one.

We need to listen to the people whom Trump puts in the most danger. Ask what they need. Cater to their fears—not the fears of white “moderates” who can’t seem to fathom why putting a breastfeeding newborn in a cage isn’t ok.

White privilege, male privilege, and class privilege cause powerful groups to operate under the delusion that their experience is the norm, that their beliefs are right, and that their worldview is the right one. This delusion has made privileged groups blind for far too long, and it’s diluted the potential power of Democrats. It’s time to stop lecturing, and start learning from, marginalized communities.

No More Tone-Policing, Nancy

Stop telling terrified people how to feel. Nancy Pelosi and others who would tone police those who stand to lose the most under Trump need to step aside. If you’re telling someone that their angry reaction to absolute terror is unacceptable, then you don’t take seriously the threat this administration presents. Time to listen more and talk less.

Tone-policing is a way to delegitimize matters of life and death. It prioritizes the feelings of those who put babies in cages over those they want to cage. It’s also not new. Moderates also suggested that Jews in Nazi Germany should calm down, quit being angry, and find ways to work with Hitler.

“By hating Hitler and trying to fight back, Jews are only increasing the severity of his policies against them,” claimed one op-ed.

Do What You Can; Rely on Others to Do What You Can’t

I have a lot of stay-at-home mom friends who have completely transformed their lives to become full-time activists. I admire them. I sometimes envy them. I work and have a breastfeeding baby. Protesting in the middle of the work day is not an option for me, and leaving in the evening when my baby needs to nurse is not typically realistic.

For the first time in my lifetime, activism has become fashionable. This is amazing. It also means that it’s easy to focus on the most visible forms of activism, or even to use activism as a sort of self-promotion. Going to protests feels good. It’s not the only way to be an activist. It’s also ableist to assume that everyone can participate in a march.

So focus on what you can do. Find something you’re good at and do that. I count on my stay-at-home mom friends to go to the protests I can’t attend. They count on me to write about issues with which they’re not familiar. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about what you can’t do. Do what you can. That’s all any of us can do.

It’s equally important to find a way to use your talents for the cause of justice. We all want to rush into the streets and scream, “Fuck Trump.” It’s not the best option for all of us. My husband is a civil rights attorney. His time is far better spent getting protesters out of jail than going to a protest and joining protesters in jail. He, like the rest of us, has to play the long game. Find ways to be useful, and don’t just stick to activism that feels good. I have doula friends who attend refugee births, therapist friends who are working with immigration lawyers traumatized by what they’ve seen at ICE detention centers, and parent friends who have committed themselves to shifting the voting pool through their children.

It’s simple and obvious because it’s true: Do what you can. We’re all counting on people to use their skills wisely, because none of us can do it all.

Use Your Money Wisely

Those of us who have more time or money. Don’t compare someone else’s contributions to your own. Instead, look at what’s reasonable for you. I have some wealthy friends who are proud of themselves for donating $100 to the ACLU. They need to do better.

Activism, in large part, depends on time and money. So recognize that people who have less of each are giving up more even if their contributions seem small. Likewise, if you have more money or more time, you have a moral obligation to give more. Get creative with your contributions. Pay for a fellow activist’s childcare. Get a friend out of medical debt so that they have the energy to take on more activist tasks. Donate to charities paying for abortion in Mississippi, Kansas, Indiana, and other states where women’s rights are most endangered.

Stop Wasting Time Talking About How Bad Things Are or Will Be

Things are bad. Terrifying. “We” won’t all get through this. Children are already being traumatized. Numerous groups’ rights will be scaled back. There’s no place for blind optimism or an insistence that we ultimately will be fine, because there’s no real “we” here. Power and privilege will weigh heavily on how people are affected by this administration—and on whether they can leave if things get really bad.

That doesn’t mean we need to spend all our time talking about how bad things are. There have been many scary moments in this country: Japanese internment, centuries of slavery, medical experiments on people of color, forced sterilization. The list is virtually endless. They sky has fallen many times.

To behave as if this is the first time things have been really scary, the only moment at which democracy has been threatened, is to discount the many horrifying moments of the past. It also ignores that, for some people, there’s never been much democracy in this nation.

Op-eds about how terrible things are accomplish only two things: they make us all feel hopeless, and they remind the least powerful that the most powerful are only just now waking up to the realities of oppression.

I don’t know if America as we know it will end. I do know that, even in the very worst case scenario, we’re not all going to end up dead or in concentration camps. There will still be some of us left to fight.

I also know that spinning our wheels in panic about a future we can’t control only wastes energy. Do what you can to protect yourself, yes. But after you’ve done that, stop reading about how bad things are, stop trying to convince people how hopeless it all is, and get back to work.

Stop Blaming Your Allies—Especially Marginalized Groups—for Trump

I’m pretty pissed at people who didn’t vote, or who threw away their vote on a third party. Because if all of them had voted for Clinton, we wouldn’t be in this mess. That doesn’t mean any of this is their fault. People have very valid reasons for staying home or voting third party. Democrats have done a very poor job of representing the needs of the most marginalized groups. So to assume that those groups will vote for them, no questions asked, is galling.

It’s time to stop pointing fingers at those who didn’t vote. Unless, of course, you want them to get even angrier and not vote again. It’s time to sway them, court them, welcome them into the party, give them a seat at the table, and when they’re ready, encourage them to run. We need everyone, and we especially need those who see what’s wrong with party business as usual.

Pick an Issue to Avoid Getting Overwhelmed

The right talks a lot about “liberal tears.” They know that a multi-pronged attack can paralyze us because we flit from issue to issue, never fully committing and ultimately getting so overwhelmed that we can’t do anything.

I can’t learn it all or do it all, and neither can you. Don’t allow that to paralyze you. Try picking an issue or two and devoting your energy there. Just as you have to count on others to engage in activism when you can’t, you have to count on others to learn about and devote themselves to issues that aren’t yours. Paralysis is your enemy.

Practice Self-Care

Self-care isn’t about face masks and flower baths. It’s about protecting yourself from the steady trauma this world offers. If you fall apart, then you can’t resist. If enough of us fall apart, then it really is over. Practice self-care. It’s not selfish to take a day off to spend time with your family, to stop reading the news, to decide not to educate yourself about the latest crisis. Do what you need to do to protect yourself, even if it means taking a few days off from doing anything at all. A short break is far superior to being completely unable to function and completely useless to the resistance.

Integrate Activism Into Your Day

We all have a daily routine. We shower, eat breakfast, or check our text messages. Activism becomes easier when it becomes routine. Just as you set aside time to reply to emails or get dressed, set aside time to do something useful every day. Put “call senators” on your to-do list, or schedule 30 minutes to pen an op-ed. When activism becomes a normal part of your existence, it feels less demanding. It also slowly erects a wall of pressure on elected representatives.

Stop Trying to ‘Save’ Racist, Nazis, and Other Defenders of Trump

You can’t save your racist uncle. You can’t convince your co-worker that immigrant children are people who suffer. Stop trying. Every time you engage with defenders of far right atrocities, you treat their ideas as valid and worthy of consideration. These people have shown time and again that they do not care about suffering, are unresponsive to evidence, and uncommitted to the facts.

Shun them instead. Do you really want your racist uncle having access to your kids? Do you really think survivors of Nazi Germany now brag about how they never let political differences divide them? Some things should divide us. Like putting kids in cages and families in concentration camps.

You might not be able to change minds. You can avoid wasting energy on bad people. You can show the right wingers in your life that their views have consequences. Do you really want a relationship with someone who would gladly lock up your children if Donald Trump said to do it?

Get them out of your life and be happier, healthier, and a more effective activist.

For the Love of God, Show Up and Vote. Please.

Clinton was not perfect. Under her, however, abortion wouldn’t be under attack. We might be talking about police reform instead of how to lock up more black and brown bodies. It’s been said so often because it is true: Elections have consequences.

Even with Trump in office, even if the Supreme Court shifts far to the right, even if things get so much worse, elections still matter. In Georgia, where I live, we have the chance to elect a progressive black woman who can push back hard against Trump. Her Republican opponents support caging immigrant babies. There’s a clear distinction, and it matters.

In cities and towns across the country, judges are running for election. Young people are seeking seats on city councils. People are still trying to change things. Just this week, a young Latina woman unseated a 10-term Democrat incumbent.

Conservative defenders of Trump, Democrats who don’t push back, and everyone who stays silent in the face of oppression need to know we are coming for them. The only way we do that is by voting. We must accept no one who wants to be a moderate in the face of right-wing extremism and concentration camps for children. There is no room for gentle disagreement here. Either you fight back against Trump or you have to go.

You can learn more about the next election in your area and who is running here or here. Take some time to Google candidates. Call them. Demand answers. Tell them they’ll only get your vote if the push back, and push back hard.

The people who are proudest of how they behaved in Hitler’s time aren’t the ones who sat quietly and read op-eds about how bad things are. They’re not the ones who wasted time fighting with their racist uncle. The people who can be proud of what they did are those who spent every last shred of energy they could fighting.

Fight Back in Every Way You Can

Do it all, and do as much as you can. It might not all work. Maybe it will all fail. No matter the outcome, we have to make it as hard as we can for these Nazi monsters to take this country. We can use this as a turning point. We can look in the mirror, realize we’ve never been what we claim to be, and we can fight back against racism, sexism, and oppression once and for all. Or we can give up.

I’m never giving up.


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