Someone is burning down your house. Do you fight the fire or the arsonist?
Democrats and their disorganized allies among independents and former Republicans have been failing this test. We’ve lost years in contorted arguments over civility, respect, and potential appeals to Trump cultists while they destroy one crucial institution after another. You can’t save the house until you’ve neutralized the arsonist. You can’t muster the will to attack your root problem until you’ve let go of what’s already lost.
We are not living through a momentary spasm of madness. Forces eating away at civic life have been carefully at work for decades, first perverting the Republican Party then dismantling the public infrastructure that supports civic life. They aren’t going to stop. They aren’t going to respond to logical appeals. They aren’t going to respond to moral appeals. The forces that inspired the Kavanaugh farce have been with us since our founding, but they have never enjoyed more centralized power than they are wielding right now. They know that their capacity to influence electoral outcomes is waning, so they are tearing down the institutions that briefly defeated them in the Civil War, dented their power in the Civil Rights Movement, and have forced them to cede some modicum of power to the rest of us. They are political arsonists.
If we want to defeat the bigots who are burning down our collective house without (for now) resorting to violence, we have to adopt a far more aggressive political strategy aimed at restructuring public life. Dixie is about to win our long, unresolved Civil War. There is no “normal” to which we can return. There will have to be a Nuremberg for the people who ripped children from their mothers. Judges who collaborated with this regime will have to be removed from power. Weak-hearted compromisers more interested in calm than in resolution will have to be nudged aside and marginalized.
White Americans are conditioned to a lifestyle in which political choices are regarded as morally sterile. It was a distinct, and extinct, privilege of our old system. Once upon a time, politics was about policy choices that seemed to carry little moral weight. We used to argue about marginal tax rates, infrastructure policy, trade; largely academic questions on which we could disagree with little heat. It was always a sham. Real people were suffering and dying for political choices we made largely by default, with little consciousness and almost no concern.
All that happened in 2016 is our white bubble burst. Politics has always been a bloodsport, even here in the civil, civilized context of the lingering 20th century American order. Most of us enjoyed the privilege of insulation from the machinery. That’s over now whether we like it or not. We can retreat from the demands of this age, hiding beyond excuses about civility or institutions, or we can engage aggressively and build a new order. Both choices land in same place eventually, where the comfortable assumptions of 20th century white politics are destroyed. Only one of those choices offers an opportunity for a brighter future.
Fight the arsonist. Use every tool and weapon, understanding that you are in a struggle for survival. Carry no illusions about the legitimacy, compassion, or inherent goodness of any institution. The nice, good-hearted people who are imprisoning thousands of immigrant children right now will do the same thing to you and your kids when they receive the order, without the slightest hesitation or a shadow of conscience. You are not safe until this fight has been won.
The most critical battle we fight is in our minds, the fight to recognize and respond to a reality we want to deny. Find your power, join it with the power of allies, build a coordinated plan, and bring that power to bear by any and every means necessary. Identify and isolate your enemies right now by every peaceful means and start preparing for less peaceful circumstances. It was nice not to worry about politics and violence. I miss those days. Maybe we can live that way again someday. Not right now.
Stop worrying about “damage to institutions.” The next time someone complains about civility tell them to fuck off. This is the moment for decent, compassionate people of conscience to put their elbows out, taking the initiative in the public space and denying oxygen to our enemies. Be clear about this – you have enemies. Gains made now by assertive action could determine the outcome when push comes to shove.
It’s too late to save the house. You can fight the fire, limit the harm, and start cleaning up when the arsonist has been neutralized. Until then, get ready for a long fight in which voting, elections, and conventional politics are merely the beginning and there will be no clear victory for years.
Fight the arsonist.