Liberal Activism in the Age of Trump

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Posted in: Government

As the shock of Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election wears off, those of us who supported Hillary Clinton or other candidates have begun to grapple with the question of how to resist the greatest potential dangers of Trump’s presidency. The best way to mitigate the damage differs for liberals and those conservatives who opposed Trump.

As I wrote on my blog the morning after the election, I very much hope that highly skilled formerly anti-Trump conservatives will seek and receive jobs working in the Trump administration. Why would Trump hire people who opposed him? Chiefly because he needs talented knowledgeable professionals to run even a minimally competent government. Meanwhile, principled conservatives who respect the rule of law working from the inside can moderate or even reject the most radical proposals that Trump espoused during the campaign—such as banning Muslims from entering the country, committing the war crimes of torture and plunder, and rounding up millions of undocumented immigrants.

Liberals can, should, and will oppose Trump’s most dangerous ideas by constantly speaking out against them. In a democracy, elections temporarily settle the question of who governs. They do not resolve questions of fact or of right-versus-wrong. Global warming will not cease simply because some Trump supporters believe it is a hoax. Nor can any number of votes validate the misogyny, xenophobia, and racism that Trump and some of his supporters displayed during the campaign.

Thus, speaking truth to power is imperative. But it is not enough.

This election should have taught liberals and those establishment conservatives who opposed Trump that our world view is opposed by a great many of our fellow citizens. Too many of those fellow citizens are, as Clinton unfortunately put it, deplorable. Yet even some of them may not be beyond redemption. If we want to build a world in which presidential candidates do not pander to humanity’s basest otherizing instincts, we should aim to persuade our fellow humans of our point of view, not merely to organize to outvote them.

Although I hardly claim to be an expert in human relations, much less in politics, I do have relevant experience, because for the last decade or so, I have been a vegan supporter of animal rights.

Lessons From Animal Activism

Perhaps that sounds like a non sequitur, so let me explain.

Every day in the United States, about 25 million chickens are slaughtered for food. Chickens are sophisticated, naturally social creatures. Yet upon slaughter, nearly all of them will have lived a short miserable life, unable to engage in most of the behaviors that the wild birds from which they descend enjoy. And even the lucky few who were raised under somewhat more humane conditions will have their lives cruelly cut short. Similar fates daily befall millions of other animals as well.

Most people in the United States and around the globe understand at some level that with every animal-based meal they consume, they are participating in the systematic immiseration and appropriation of the lives of other feeling beings. They do so anyway, because it is socially acceptable. Happy healthy vegans like me, whose very existence undercuts the idea that humans must necessarily consume animal products, are an uncomfortable reminder of what people know deep down, so they marginalize us as fringe weirdos or saints, thereby avoiding truly facing the costs of their behavior.

When I first became a vegan, I mostly tried not to make waves, but because my presence at meals would often trigger intense feelings in others about their own food choices, I soon found myself a somewhat reluctant advocate for animal rights. As a lawyer, my inclination when confronted by arguments against veganism and animal rights was to make arguments in their favor and to be disappointed when the force of my arguments did not persuade others to change their behavior. I would silently marvel to myself about the capacity of human beings to rationalize.

Over time, and as I learned from more experienced advocates, I came to understand that arguments alone do not change behavior and attitudes. Indeed, arguments delivered with self-satisfaction, smugness, or condescension are likely to be counterproductive. Effective advocacy, I came to realize, meant sharing my story and, at least as importantly, listening to the stories of others.

Respect is crucial. If I tell you that I think you are participating in an atrocity on the scale of slavery or the Holocaust, you will likely dismiss me as a nut and dig in your heels. You will feel disrespected and attacked.

But don’t I actually feel that way? Well, yes and no. I think that our treatment of animals is appalling, even an atrocity. I do not, however, think that the vast majority of people who participate in it are bad people. How could I? Many of my dearest friends and relatives are part of the animal-product-consuming vast majority. Until my early forties, I was part of that vast majority. I considered myself an ethical person, and in many respects I was. I just had a gigantic blind spot for non-human animals.

As I grew as an advocate, I also developed a skeptical attitude towards the law as an instrument of social change. People who care about animal rights and animal welfare disagree among ourselves about the best use of our scarce resources—for example, about whether we should advocate for marginal improvements in the conditions under which animals are exploited, either for the sake of the animals now suffering or as a means of raising public consciousness. But no one in the movement believes that we can accomplish anything like all of the justice that we seek for animals simply by passing laws. Before we can turn to law in a serious way, we must first appeal to the better angels of our fellow human beings’ natures to feel the rightness of our cause.

Applying These Lessons to Other Contexts

The lessons I have learned as a vegan animal rights advocate seem readily transferable to other policy areas. Just as it would be counterproductive for me to advocate for justice for animals by condemning or mocking the very people I aim to persuade, so we blue-state liberals need to learn to speak to red-state conservatives in ways that show respect. Better yet, we need to listen.

To be sure, one might think that political liberals stand on much surer ground than their counterparts in the animal rights movement. After all, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Were it not for the FBI Director’s October surprise nothingburger and minority voter suppression in key swing states that was facilitated by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling invalidating a key provision of the federal Voting Rights Act, she might well have won the Electoral College too. Why wouldn’t liberals do better simply to resist Trump and regroup to fight again in the next election?

Resistance should be part of any overall strategy, but it is not enough. Whether the cause is justice for animals or a Supreme Court that will protect voting rights, lasting change embedded in law comes only after hearts and minds have been won. Otherwise, each legislative victory will be fleeting, vulnerable to the next demagogue willing to play to people’s need for a scapegoat.

Of course, some of Trump’s core supporters will not be persuaded, because they really are irredeemably deplorable bigots. Yet I have learned as a sometimes lonely voice for justice for animals never to write anyone off prematurely. The man in the camo jacket might hunt deer, but he loves his dog, and that may provide an opening for a mutually respectful conversation that leads to surprising changes down the road. The pig farmer who claims to love the animals he slaughters might be telling the truth, and if he does not feel judged or condescended to, he might one day decide to live that truth differently.

Unless you live in a bubble, you are likely to have encountered someone who you were surprised to learn was a Trump supporter. Why were you surprised? Because she seemed reasonable and relatable when you were not talking about politics. So, you wondered, how could she support all of the terrible things that Donald Trump said and plans to do?

Welcome to my world. I have had that kind of experience repeatedly over the last decade, wondering how otherwise gentle and thoughtful people could participate in mass violence against animals.

For nearly everyone, the answer is not the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt put it. The answer is that people are complicated bundles of not-always-coherent views and actions. Some people who voted for Trump would have voted for Bernie Sanders instead, had he won the Democratic nomination. Some Trump voters also voted for Barack Obama in the last two presidential elections.

In the coming years, I intend to criticize Trump and the Republican Congress unflinchingly. I expect many of my fellow liberals and some principled conservatives to join me in doing so. If our critiques are to be effective, we must take care not to come across as criticizing or talking down to those who hold different views because they lead different lives. We can start by listening.

  • Amanda Kapp

    I would love to hear an ongoing conversation between you and a trump supporter to see where it leads. I would like to see what type of listening and questioning approaches you take and where that allows the conversation to go.

  • Dal J

    Yes, well done, well argued…but unfortunately in my experience, I have yet to find a deplorable who was willing to discuss any valid argument in a civilized manner. The rhetoric inevitably, and quickly, heats up past the discussion stage and a shrill “we won” or “pry my guns from my cold dead fingers” statement which then hastens the end of any discourse. Its like the election results removed the muzzle of the PC world and 8 years of pent up rage is exploding forth. In my 70 years, I have not seen this level of resolute, take no prisoners, type of support for a man who is by his own admission, a philanderer, a mysoginist, a bankrupt businessman, a politically naive PEOTUS, a devoted Russian and Putin admirer, a egoist of the highest order, and to state any of this immediately sets off a rabid attack of denial and angry rhetoric. It is almost like his supporters took a page from his style in the debates when HRC stated that he was a Putin puppet, he incredulously in a rabid rancor interjected with the non-sensical “NO! YOU”RE THE PUPPET!” over and over…what a bizarre scene that has been repeated numerously in regards to the sarcastic SNL Baldwin character, anything Vanity Fair, Russian hacking, et al…the list goes on and on…and his supporters are likewise. KelleyAnne Conway with her baseless and ill reasoned political commentary, numerous conservative pundits searching for any realistic argument supporting Trump behaviors, trying to explain away why its normal and not a sign of mental instability. I put that forward as argument enough…any political discussion on TV always gets mired down in a conservative pundit trying to explain the latest bizarre tweet and any agenda or policy discussions get pushed aside. Its not the fault of the media, he alone does these bizarre things, makes these dangerous statements without provocation, insists on using the 140 character limit of Twitter as his sole source of policy. And again, this is trickled down to his supporters into a knee jerk rancorous attack on anyone who doesn’t agree. Heaven help what happens next with this simple reply. Even with it being days after the initial article, it still might bring down the wrath of the deplorables in that I have just stirred their pot…so be it…dj