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To Get to You, He Must Go Through Us

The election of Donald Trump as president was surprising, even shocking, but how surprised are we really? On election night, America took off its mask, and in some way revealed its true nature in an honest and unvarnished way. What Van Jones called a “whitelash” revealed what many African Americans, Latinos, Native peoples, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ, women and others have known all along. Just look at the militarization at Standing Rock as one example.

People in other parts of the world, who have lived under brutal U.S.-backed dictatorships or U.S.-armed settler regimes, have also known this all along. Although they were facing far greater odds than we face even under a Trump Administration, they’ve often stood their ground or even won victories, through educating, organizing, mobilizing, developing solidarity, and fighting together.

Even under the Reagan-Bush Administration (whose threat was not taken seriously and was shocking when first elected), powerful social movements took to the streets and kept it from direct invasions in Central America, from continuing to back South African apartheid, from nuclear missile deployments, from ignoring the AIDS epidemic, from nominating racist justices, and more.

Trump is a special threat, particularly to Native sovereignty given his attacks on tribal gaming since 1993 (it’s a good time to reread treaties that have clauses about termination or removal at the “pleasure of the President”). But even those challenges can be met head-on, by educating the public about how tribal nationhood benefits all Americans.

Let me repeat something that Bernie Sanders said time and again--the most effective way to fight right-wing populism is with progressive left populism, not with more of the same establishment politics. I say this not just to highlight what should have been in the campaign, but to point toward a path to the future. Change cannot be identified with pro-corporate elites or it will lose, and lose badly. That approach leaves a vacuum that’s filled with the alternative of fascism, much like in Germany and Italy in the 1930s, and the alternative-right (or “altright”) in the U.S. today. What’s happening now is not just about Trump and the United States, but is a global phenomenon, shown by Brexit in the U.K., the rise of anti-immigrant parties in Europe, and a return to authoritarianism elsewhere.

In the Rust Belt and Farm Belt (like my home state of Wisconsin) many of the same urban and rural counties that voted for Obama as a beacon of hope and change voted for Trump as a new (shallower) beacon of hope and of change. White working-class people who voted for their “champion” to take them out of the recession will have their hopes dashed when he acts like a typical billionaire who doesn’t care the least about them. This is much as the populist media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi did as Italy’s prime minister, before he was ousted and convicted. 

Only by sticking up for the working class can it be lured away from what is essentially a middle-class led fascist movement. We need to take away the far-right’s legitimate issues and populist appeals and leave them bare—with nothing but their racism and misogyny showing. We have to be ready to talk with and accept these disillusioned white populists into the fold, when they begin to realize that their racist scapegoating of immigrants didn't really gain anything for them, but working respectfully with communities of color just might. 

I've actually seen this happen with rural white folks who once fought against treaty rights join with the tribes to protect the water. My forthcoming book Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands explores the Cowboy Indian Alliance against the Keystone XL pipeline, alliances against oil and coal terminals in the Pacific Northwest, and anti-mining alliances in Montana, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. In our times of polarized politics and globalized economies, many of these inspiring stories offer some hope in building bridges.

For the past two decades, we've seen other strong alliances develop across the continent, including for economic equality (WTO, Occupy, Bernie) against war in the Middle East, and movements led by the people who are the most affected by the backlash, including immigrant rights, LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, Climate Justice, Idle No More and now, the stand at Standing Rock. These will now have to intensify and grow and multiply and interconnect, and really matter not just to our interests and values, but to our very survival.

Today (Friday, November 11) in my city of Olympia, there are three rallies going on simultaneously: a blockade of a train carrying oil fracking supplies to North Dakota, a large gathering to support Planned Parenthood, and a protest at the Washington State Capitol opposing the plans of the Trump Administration. Tomorrow the Medicine Creek Treaty Tribes are leading a large Tacoma rally in solidarity with Standing Rock. If you are at all depressed about the election results, the most effective way to feel better is to join (or begin) such expressions in your own community.

This isn't a time to leave the United States, because lots of people can't or won't leave and will stand their ground at home. We need you here, not eating maple candy in Canada. At a time like this, we need responses of resilience and love, not white fragility and privilege. This isn't time just for abstract musings or bitter venting or pointing fingers of blame at each other on how the campaign could have gone differently. Obviously it could have, but that’s all over, and we need to talk about what we do now.

This is a time for respectful discussion, and serious thinking and action. It’s a time to put aside our own individual comfort, and work in solidarity, which means to have each other's backs. All across the country, we can begin to hear the refrain, “To get to you, he'll have to go through us.”

Zoltan Grossman is a professor of Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He is co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012), and author of the upcoming Unlikely Alliances: Native Nations and White Communities Join to Defend Rural Lands (University of Washington Press / Indigenous confluences series, June 2017). http://academic.evergreen.edu/g/grossmaz