Jean Friedman-Rudovsky is a Philadelphia-based writer.
Twenty-four hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, the world heaved. The Women’s March on Washington spread to include cities across the country and around the world: London, Tokyo, Nairobi, Berlin, New Delhi, Sydney, Oslo, Barcelona, Capetown, Tibillsi and hundreds more joined major marches in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and beyond. Here in Philadelphia, the turnout so surpassed expectations that the back of the crowd could not march—because the entire parade route was already filled with people.
Though the events were billed as “Women’s Marches,” the handmade signs reflected a range of issues -- climate change to immigration, trans-rights to Black Lives Matter. And, of course, jokes about orange hair and tiny hands. In the end, what binds us is a rejection of the man who just became the world’s most powerful person.
For those of us who believe that Donald Trump represents a grave threat to the struggle for a just, equal and kind world, taking a stand on Day One was necessary.
But from Day Two forward, those aiming to resist the Trump Administration may be wise to focus on what this man does—and not who he is.
The U.S. does not have much modern experience with getting ourselves out from under the thumb of crass authoritarian rulers. So let’s look to those who’ve walked this road. Italy is one example—in the sense of what not to do. Media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi ruled his nation for a total of nine years. Though he came in and out of power under three separate governments, the opposition seemed virtually incapable of getting rid of him for two decades.
Berlusconi was easy to hate: brazen, corrupt, hot-headed, chauvinistic. But these characteristics were not a political hindrance—quite the opposite, in fact. The Italian opposition “was so rabidly obsessed with his personality that any substantive political debate disappeared,” University of Chicago professor of finance Luigi Zingales wrote in the New York Times soon after Trump was elected. Under his rule, the economy slowing sank and the country is still fighting its way back.
Zingales found that Italy’s left-wing “focused only on personal attacks, the effect of which was to increase Mr. Berlusconi’s popularity.” Apparently the prime minister’s secret weapon was an ability to trigger a “Pavlovian reaction” among his detractors. Those who needed to unseat were totally scrambled by the visceral, almost physical repulsion they felt for him.
I’m not saying that Trump’s behavior or language should never be called out. It must, especially when it gives rise to hate speech and crimes in our communities. But remaining obsessed with his unpreparedness for this role, his bumbling rambling speeches, his spelling mistakes, or any of his other rough-around-the-edges traits, would be self-defeating. Trump’s supporters have already proven to be defensive of their man. He is brilliant at making himself a martyr, and every time he claimed to be vilified by the press, or Washington, or “the elites,” his poll numbers went up.
By contrast, focusing organizing around the policies he puts into place could be doubly fruitful. First, it means that attention and energy would be directed towards the things that can be changed (or at least mitigated)—i.e. damaging public policy—and not on the things that can’t—i.e. Trump’s oversized ego.
Second, it’s a way to expand the movement for social justice. Yes, those of us who didn’t vote for Trump already far outnumber those who did. Some of those who did are not irredeemable. They are the ones to whom bridges can be built. Though I will never understand how an unethical billionaire was able to convince millions that he’s a champion of the disaffected masses, this is the current reality. If (when?) his policies belie his campaign promises, his supporters may only repudiate their man if they aren’t made to feel like they ought to defend him.
All of this is, by far, harder than attacking Trump himself. The man is a human three-ring circus. He will, likely everyday, provide ample opportunities for distraction by saying and tweeting absurd things. He will continue to be a seductively easy target for ridicule and disdain. The challenge for a movement will be to choose to get beyond the feelings he stirs in us and look away—to focus on whatever is happening behind the show’s curtain.