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four takes

Tips from history in an age of Trump, protests

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

My teenage daughter and I did the Women’s March in Greenfield the day after the inauguration, and I felt both buoyed and worried by the experience.

Buoyed by the great turnout, the gorgeous spirit, and the uproariously clever signs (“I Can’t Believe I’m Still Protesting this Crap. Sad!” and “We Are the Daughters of the Witches You Didn’t Burn”). But I worried that the concerns were too broad and varied. Immigration plus women’s rights plus climate change plus LGBTQ rights plus racial justice plus plus plus: Shouldn’t we prioritize our battles? Focus our resources?

Not according to Rule 19: “There’s No Such Thing as a Single-Issue Revolution,” as Becky Bond and Zack Exley write. “The people live in communities affected by all the issues, and all of our struggles are connected,” they explain. Bond and Exley were senior advisers on the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, and architects of its national, grass-roots, volunteer-driven strategy. What they learned could fill a book. And now it has, in “Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything” (Chelsea Green, 2016), the first of today’s books on protest movements which seems timely as the rise in nationalism, intolerance, and conservative populism sparks opposition not just here but across the West.

Bond and Exley offer 22 rules in all. No. 1 is “You Won’t Get a Revolution If You Don’t Ask for One,” and No. 22 is “People New to Politics Make the Best Revolutionaries.” They rushed this book out before we knew who would become president. So it’s uncanny how many of the rules applied to that march in Greenfield and, of course, the marches across the globe.


Political “micro-targeting” is no longer the game, Bond and Exley say. The old strategy — competing for an ever-narrowing slice of the moderate swing-voting electorate — is over. If you hitch digital campaigning to volunteer field efforts to a big message, you can get farther than ever thought possible: Witness the successes of Sanders’s campaign. Then again, Trump won through promises and persona, so no formula is guaranteed.


My big question: Will the current confederation of American protesters staunchly ally with one party (as did the Civil Rights Movement) or break its bonds with it (as did the Vietnam anti-war movement which, in rejecting LBJ, paved the way for Nixon)? For background, I turned to “When Movements Anchor Parties: Electoral Alignments in American History” (Princeton University, 2015), by the Johns Hopkins political scientist Daniel Schlozman.

He explores many successes, failures, and curiosities. Take how counterintuitive it once felt that the Christian Right rejected Jimmy Carter — a born-again Christian — for the divorced, decidely less devout Ronald Reagan. Then as now, the man didn’t matter as much as the mantle.

As such, today’s protesters must wrestle with party affiliation: Join one, and radical supporters become marginalized. Spurn one, and lose the machinery to mainstream change, like the abolitionists who couldn’t keep Reconstruction alive, or the populists whose adherence to William Jennings Bryan’s silver-standard plan to help farmers repelled urban Democrats in the Gilded Age. Speaking of which, let’s turn to “No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age” (Oxford 2016).

I read it on a weekend so was extra struck by how we blithely say TGIF, forgetting that the labor movement fought decades for the concept of the weekend, as author Janet McAlevey reminds. She owns a decade of organizing experience and is now a post-doc in the labor and worklife program at Harvard Law School. Though union membership is way down, she grants, specific union strategies can inform today’s protest movements too: Note the thoughtful chapters on the Chicago Teachers Union, Smithfield Foods, and the Latino advocacy group Make the Road New York.


“Channeled anger builds a fighting organization,” writes McAlevey. What she says about workers transfers nicely, I think, to today’s defiant anti-Trumpists: Their biggest power essentially lies in their ability to “withdraw their cooperation” and “sustain massive disruptions to the existing order.”

But how do you disrupt a disrupter? I found succor in Naomi Wolf’s “The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot” (Chelsea Green 2007). Though it was written in response to the George W. Bush years, it sure gains new bounce now. This feminist social critic says that we’ve tended to assume that American democracy is eternal and can withstand all assaults: “The Founders thought, in contrast, that it was tyranny that was eternal, ever-renewable, and capable of withstanding all assaults, whereas democracy was difficult, personally exacting and vanishingly fragile.”

She reminds us that Hitler and Mussolini were both elected, and she walks us through 10 ways that authoritarians get their way. “Restrict the Press,” is one. Check. So is “Invoke an External and Internal Threat.” Check again. How to respond? My daughter and I will heed another great sign from our march: “Fight Like a Girl.”


Katharine Whittemore can be reached at katharine.whittemore@comcast.net.