In both its title and chorus, Florence Reece’s classic labor song of 1931 asked its audience the only pertinent political question in times of civil duress: “Which side are you on?” Repeated in covers by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, and other folk singers conversant in the traditional music of the union movement, Reece’s lyrics present a simple yet steadfast choice – you can either be on the right side, or the wrong.
In more normal times such Manichaeism is looked at askance. We tend to valorize discourse and bipartisanship, the political order built on negotiating disagreement. But when the “other side” refuses to converse in good faith, when the stakes are nothing less than the continuation of the Republic in any recognizable manner, than Reece’s imploration takes on a new and pertinent import. Even if the days are getting warmer and baseball is being played again, the Memorial Day grills are being fired up and the beer is cold, this is very much a winter. This is very much not a moment when politics-as-usual is rational. This is very much not a normal time. German philosopher Hannah Arendt put it a bit more academically when she wrote “most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”
Which side are you on?
Living in the midst of history, when it moves so rapidly, it’s hard to predict which single day, week, or month was when things took a turn. Full on despotism has been predicted so often that it’s easy to become flummoxed or disinterested, particularly in the daily lives of those of us lucky enough to live with our privileges largely unchanged. Middle class white liberals go grocery shopping in Trump’s America, while tweeting denunciations of the latest Trump obscenity. We watch television in Trump’s America, parsing Rachel Maddow’s analysis of the breaking news in Russia Gate. We enjoy our Netflix shows in Trump’s America, talking about Wild Wild Country on Facebook.
Life sometimes seems upside down in Trump’s America, but for many lucky in our stations, life as of now also seems fairly normal. Politics becomes a type of obscene spectator sport, an exercise in partisan masochism. When the worst one has had in their lived experience is the continual, dizzying, verbal defecations from the current administration, it’s relatively easy to immune ourselves to what that reality represents. As Dahlia Lithwick crucially and movingly asked recently in Slate, “How do we hold normal and crazy in our minds at the same time?” This, it should be said, is a relatively insignificant problem to have. Not everyone is so lucky.
If historians in the decades to come need to select a week when the spring air felt a little bit more constricting, the light a little dimmer, than it could be a few days in May. The media, in particular the liberal media, have been focused on the important issues concerning the Mueller investigation or the intricacies of Stormy Daniels’s civil lawsuit, but often to the detriment of the explaining the full scale of what’s at stake. Even those who oppose him have largely glossed over the sheer enormity of Trump’s ruptures. Trump’s attacks on the rule of law, his racist and sexist policies, his unadulterated performances of indecency, the exhausting magnitude of it all can ironically obscure the devastating human cost of his fascistic policies.
Following the Supreme Court’s March ruling in Jennings vs. Rodriquez where the majority opinion held that the government could detain immigrants indefinitely, the Trump administration took little time to enact that brief’s implications. Earlier this month Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions announced a new policy that would lead to the separation of immigrant children from their families, with Nick Miroff and Paul Sonne writing in a Washington Post article of May 15th that the “Trump administration is making preparations to hold immigrant children on military bases … the latest sign the government is moving forward with plans to split up families.”
In her eloquent minority opinion in Jennings vs. Rodriquez, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “Freedom from arbitrary detention is as ancient and important a right as any found within the Constitution’s boundaries.” Trump has directly lied about these policies, pretending that they’re the Democrat’s fault, which recalls Hannah Arendt’s observation that in a nation marked not by the occasional lie, but rather in a totalitarian state where lies are the very currency of governing, the people become “deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of it capacity to think and to judge. And with such people you can then do what you please,” even detain thousands of children while simultaneously denying that fact or pretending that it’s not your responsibility.
With its evocations of the Japanese internment camps of World War II the news would be heinous enough, but on Wednesday a 20 year old forensic accounting student from Guatemala named Claudia Patricia Gómez Gonzáles was shot in the head, murdered by immigration officials at the Mexican border. Nina Lakhani quotes the young girl’s mother in theGuardian, who said that her daughter “wanted to keep studying at university but we don’t have the money …. We’re poor and there are no jobs here, that’s why she travelled to the US – but they killed her. Immigration killed her…. She didn’t do anything wrong.”
And most disturbingly of all, Dakin Andone of CNN reported on May 26th that the federal government had “lost track of nearly 1,500 immigrant children,” with reports that some of those children may have ended up being kidnapped by human traffickers. Ron Nixon, in an April 26th New York Times article reports that there are concerns these children may now be “in the hands of human traffickers … used as laborers by people posing as relatives.” Whether through conscious malice or sick indifference, the policies of the Trump administration have enabled a new slave trade.
So easy to get lost in a morass of idiocy and gossip, reporting on ungrammatical tweets from the stubby thumbs of an illegitimate president while forgetting the full implications of what he’s enacted. Masha Gessen, the most astute writer about tyranny in the modern world, describes our predicament in a May 25th essay in the New Yorker, explaining that the “overstimulation of the age of Trump … makes us lose track of time and whatever small sense humans normally have of themselves in history.”
Always participants at the carnival, it can be easy to cynically focus on just the bread and the circuses, or conversely to pretend that the bread and circuses are irrelevant. Neither perspective is correct, it’s in his rhetoric that Trump has been able to accomplish the travesties that he has, for nothing happens without the power of words first. When Trump uses the language of dehumanization in labeling Hispanic immigrants as “animals,” when he suggests that black athletes should be deported for voicing opinions he disagrees with, when he suggests that his political opponents should be investigated so as to silence them, he’s not obfuscating or diverting our attention – he’s laying out what he wishes to do. And so focusing on either the tweets or the policies to the exclusion of the other is to miss half of the narrative. For the one courtesy of the authoritarian is that despite his casual and wanton lies, when it comes to the implications of his dark vision he is always completely honest.
To whit, when Trump delivered a commencement address on Friday at the Naval Academy where he claimed that ‘Together there is nothing Americans can’t do, absolutely nothing…. In recent years, and even decades, too many people have forgotten that truth. They’ve forgotten that our ancestors … tamed a continent,” he’s indulging the logic of Manifest Destiny and lebensraum, the rationale that justifies genocide and facilitates the possibility of it happening again.
Too often we fall into the false dichotomy of asking whether Trump is a buffoon or an aspiring tyrant while forgetting that one does not preclude the other, nor does the former make the later impossible. The track record of his comments and policies is so unequivocal that anyone arguing Trump is neither a racist nor a fascist implicitly enables him. By now we should move beyond such naivety.
Every legal means necessary must be engaged to minimize the impact of the Trump administration. There are disagreements between leftists, liberals, moderates, and anti-Trump conservatives as to if Trump represents a rupture with right-wing ideology or its ultimate culmination (both interpretations can be fundamentally true). In the moment, how we interpret Trump’s origins are less important than countering him. Concerning potential anti-Trump conservative allies – that there are disagreements with them is a given, that we can hold them responsible for what’s happened is fair, but ultimately those disagreements are irrelevant if they give us votes at the ballot box and bodies at the protest.
Concerning disagreements between liberals and leftists – perennially reenacting the traumas of the ’16 primary ensures Republican victories in ’18 and ’20. Asking what strategically and morally is the correct direction for the Democratic Party is crucial – left-wing wins in places like Georgia and Pennsylvania are encouraging signs that the party is moving in a more progressive direction – and it is imperative that the DNC listen. Hopefully winners of those primaries will push the party – which like it or not remains the only viable option of politically containing Trumpism – further to the left. But ultimately the most important ideological purity at this juncture in history is opposition to Trump.
Voting, however, is nowhere near enough. Not enough for the immigrant child pulled from their parents. Not enough for the refugee sent back to a war zone. Not enough for the Hispanic American assaulted by ICE. On Twitter, immigration lawyer Alida Garcia recommends that those wishing to get involved contact Informed Immigrant, which list resources for both those in need of help and those who wish to provide it, and of course the American Civil Liberties Union offers legal support, and has been instrumental in fighting the unconstitutional policies of this administration.
Our current age is exhausting, for the powers that be benefit from that exhaustion. No doubt the reality will change in a few weeks or months; the reality will possibly be far worse. Our great theorist of defiance, Rebecca Solnit, writes: “Hope doesn’t mean denying these realities. It means facing them and addressing them …[for] hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it.”
When the history of this period is written decades to come, when you look back and appraise the fortitude of your own character, the most important criteria for judgment will be “What did you do to oppose this injustice?”
So, which side are you on?
Ed Simon is the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books,a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books.A frequent contributor at several sites, his collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post Religion will be released by Zero Books in November of 2018. He can be followed at his website or on Twitter @WithEdSimon.