Yes, this is actually happening. And Asheville’s political culture is absolutely, horribly unprepared for the coming years. That needs to change now.
Above: protesters outside the Sept. 12 Trump campaign rally in downtown Asheville. Photos by Max Cooper.
Over the chaos of the past few months, there’s a memory that’s helped me keep my bearings.
The fact it kept cropping up in my mind surprised me. It was a protest. An individual protest doesn’t usually linger with me this much, even when it’s important or well organized. I’ve covered protests for a long, long time at this point. I’ve seen them be every shade of effective and ineffective out there. Usually, I see them as forming a piece of larger political battles, part of the story of struggles waged everywhere from streets and homes to City Hall and the voting booth.
But on Sept. 12, hundreds of Ashevillians gathered outside the Civic Center to protest Donald Trump and his supporters.
By that time Trump’s supporters (who are, as we’ll get to in a moment, far more important here than he) had already shown themselves willing to abandon every supposed tenet due to their absolute hatred of many of the people of this country. It is not a surprise to a great many of us that a significant portion of the country want many of the rest dead or crushed — no marginalized community has ever had the luxury of believing otherwise. But the degree to which this was newly regarded as publicly acceptable, the proximity of open hate to power, was different. Gone, hollow as they often were, were the Bible verses of yesteryear and out were the Confederate flags.
But Ashevillians didn’t take it lying down. Waiters and retirees, black and latina, queer and straight, they showed up and filled the square, voicing their anger, their opposition, ready to confront. It was haphazard, hastily organized, imperfect and absolutely necessary. The candidate, notably, bolted the Civic Center so fast he surprised his police escort. Afterwards, some locals took one of those rags of hate and racism and burned it on the streets outside.
Why this stays with me is tied to something else, a fear. I have covered this city and its politics for over a decade. A particular reason for concern, to put it mildly, over the last few months was this: the dominant political culture here is the worst-suited to face the coming years of any I have ever seen.
Mired in an orthodoxy of glacial process for its own sake, committed wholesale to the active discouragement of organized anger, wielding outright intimidation to maintain a veneer of “nice” at all costs and exhort, ad nauseam, a vague need to “come together” rather than fight and win.
In a time where urgency and aggression — the drive to survive, organize and resist — are more necessary than ever to keep people alive and forge any aspect of a functioning, just society, I have repeatedly been haunted by images of local notables repeating the same vague mantras of unity and procedure right into oblivion.
The antidote to that was the memory of September protest — all the more because of the clueless gentry hand-wringing that followed — because it reminds me that there is another spirit in our city, one less “kumbaya” and a lot more “fight like hell.”
By itself it is not enough, not nearly. But it is a start.
We’re going to need it.
This piece is at points uncertain, because I think anyone who tells you they aren’t — to some degree — is fooling themselves. These are uncertain times. This piece ranges all over the map, because this hell is going to fall all over the map. Like the links in a fence, these things intersect and overlap. Fighting them one at a time will lead nowhere.
Survival requires grasping reality, it requires facing what’s actually happening so you can figure out ways to keep yourself and your community alive and whole.
Driven by bigotry, swaths of the white middle, upper-middle and upper classes supported Trump as an outlet for long-simmering hatred, taking him from an awful curiosity to a serious contender for the presidency. Enabled by a whole range of factors, including indulgence from many in the mainstream press and an electoral opposition that ranged from lackluster to outright incompetent, this push still got nearly three million less votes. It won anyway because our electoral system is an archaic mess, even though only about a fifth of the country and under a third of registered voters actually supported Trump.
Now power — the power to potentially hurt or ruin the lives of millions — is transferred over to them because the people at the top of our political system insist on sticking to procedure and because plenty of established factions think they can use this to get some loot for themselves.
The unifying force behind this is the desire of aging white reactionaries to have everything handed to them and control over everyone else. Their ideas in this direction are, at best, devastatingly awful. At worst they’re literal Nazism. People are facing a loss of basic services that could kill or cripple them, the end to even half-hearted civil rights protection and the wholesale looting of public goods and infrastructure, just for a start.
They are moving rapidly to act on this, to destroy even the small measure of justice wrenched over decades, as Langston Hughes once observed, “out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death.”
So far all the checks to ostensibly stop them from doing so have failed, one after the other. Too much of the official opposition can’t even bring itself to actually oppose and even too many in the ostensibly left-leaning media are pretending fascists are some sort of social club.
This reality is papered over in a popular narrative that has emerged, tagging the rural dispossessed as the reason Trump went from TV has-been to president.
This a lie. The media concentrated on the backwoods contingent because the reality hit too close to home. Trump’s base is the bigot gentry. It is Biltmore Forest, the Henderson suburbs and (lest those in blue states get too smug) Staten Island too. That the American middle, upper-middle and upper classes contain violently bigoted subcultures is far too close to home for a lot of the media across the political spectrum, so we got a ream of thinkpieces about struggling coal miners.
The supporters are more important than Trump because without them he’d be nothing, so keep your eye on them. They’re the ones suddenly feeling emboldened, they’re the ones who will be necessary to carry out any horror in the coming years. And they have, to a person, shown us exactly who they are. Over a year and a half, when repeatedly given behaviors and stances that should have inspired rejection from anyone of any political philosophy with an ounce of ethics, they chose instead to support…this.
This is not an accident, it is not simple ignorance. It is an old and ugly set of beliefs lashing back as they realize that control over the lives of others has slipped, just a bit, and that those others might seek power on our own terms. This hatred is not suddenly acquired, Trump is just the vessel and the election just the latest battleground.
When the nature of his supporters is understood, the society we live in — of redlining, pay gaps, domestic violence and unanswered brutality — makes a lot more sense. What do you think Trump’s supporters have been doing with their personal power all their lives? This year, the mask just came off: millions of them just showed us who they are, what they are willing to do and who they regard as expendable.
As Maya Angelou put it, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
To survive, realize this: they are not your opponents, they are your enemies. That is the reality. The question becomes not “what part of their beliefs can we work with?” (the answer is none) but how much can be stopped and how many forces can the rest of us build and rally to do so. How can they be undermined or weakened? No outcome is acceptable until the day Trump is gone from office and the beliefs of his supporters are pushed to the absolute margins of society, removed from an ounce of political power forever.
In the meantime every law, every nomination, every move must be opposed absolutely and without hesitation. Whatever other disagreements we have, that has to be the line because that’s the only chance we have.
You do not owe them discussion, you do not owe them compromise. There is nothing to discuss, there is nothing to compromise. You do not owe them forgiveness. You do not damn well owe them love or tolerance or acceptance. We owe nothing to those that wish our destruction.
You will hear in reply that they are — like everyone — also nuanced, complex human beings. This is true. It is also meaningless. Every horror in human history was carried out by nuanced people, by complicated people. That does not matter. What matters is stopping them so the rest of us can live.
Ignore those calling upon you to fold, concede or reconcile. Whatever their intentions, they are furthering the aims of people who wish you evil and we don’t have the luxury of their crap. This dynamic is one that is instantly recognizable to any survivor of abusive people or systems: the constant pressure to smooth over, to pretend things are ok, to reach a false peace rather than any real justice. So somehow a bigoted, abusive, 70-year-old aristocrat as regarded as a petulant student who can still be educated, a political version of the old lie countless survivors have heard: “oh be nicer, he can change.”
Its function, at the end of the day, as Asheville saw in recent years, is to let abusers off the hook, nothing more. Those who espouse it should be responded to accordingly.
Once this reality is accepted, let’s start with what what we have to work with, what they can’t easily control. You. Your mind. Your life, your thoughts. They’re damn well going to try, but the core remains yours.
Consider then your friends and loved ones, who are as disgusted with what’s going on as you are. Consider your bonds not just for the joy they bring but the lengths you will go to for each other. Consider the cultures, some stretching back generations, that you all draw on for strength. Consider the power there.
Oligarchs and authoritarians hate these ties and inevitably try to break them down. You’ve heard, no doubt, news reports noting how a corrupt government somewhere overseas will stamp down on “civil society” and how the occasional ends of their regimes involves the “forces of civil society” rallying against them.
Well, we’re it.
Think of what you need to survive and how you get it. Think of what your community needs. Consider what can happen in the coming years to deny it, consider what support structures can be pulled away by that power and what might need to be done in their place.
Think in terms of power on your own side. Think of your skills, connections and resources and what might be done to ensure access to those needs, to the power to make your rights and lives a reality on the ground in the face of this kind of opposition. It has been done before and it will be done again.
Do not accept that this is the way things are or have to be. This is an evil created by other humans. Absolute opposition is essential because not only because it sees the situation accurately, it’s also the only way to keep the core of you and your community intact. Otherwise those ties will fray and before you know it the debate will be “well, this proposal for a Muslim registry wasn’t as bad as the last one…” Do not accept this situation as a norm, but as a disaster to be fought against until the day it lifts.
See past the facade they are presenting to the absolute weakness at their core, how he and his supporters are brittle and spoiled, easily baited and unable to plan for a horizon farther than their own greed and ego. There are weaknesses there we can use.
Remember that both survival and rights are nothing without power. To survive this and have any hope of anything resembling a just society at the end we don’t just need a concession from power, or just to speak truth to it. We need enough of it to rule and run our communities and lives.
Power means organization, especially when you don’t have inherited wealth or an existing structure catering to your whims. Making that survival a reality is going to require a lot more organizing. Much of it will be new, because clearly much of the way things are currently organized — including all the elements of our society that were supposed to stop something like this from happening — aren’t working.
Consider that the culture of confining political activity to siloed non-profits and the occasional election has been disastrous. While some are certainly worthy organizations on a particular front, turning “go work with a non-profit” into the be-all, end-all for progressive political activity has badly sapped the ability to link causes or push for change outside existing channels and left forces for progress badly weakened against their enemies.
Listen to less millionaire celebrities and comedians and more organizers and survivors. The forces behind Trump’s supporters are old, and so is the resistance to them. Learn from the communities and movements that have faced that over the centuries.
Pay attention to the lessons of Black Lives Matter, Not One More, Fight for 15 and the extensive organizing in Jackson. Study the actual history of the civil rights fights and Stonewall. Read Charles Cobb as well as Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Study them all not as the sanitized myths they’re often portrayed as, but as models for organizing and a reminder that the range of tactics actually available to you is far, far wider than often believed. Study them the way militaries study past battles.
Look at elections not as your outlet or voice, but as an opening that was wrenched (barely) and which people who hate you are now trying to rapidly close for a reason. View them, especially at the local level, as a beachhead that can be expanded, as another way to seize a small measure of the resources and power needed to survive and protect your communities. Essential, but not enough by itself.
The fact is, while the people of many cities were staunchly against Trump, the current political structures there have practiced a brand of politics that leads of anemic turnout and political disengagement, all things that have cost dearly during the past year. Local city politics have too often catered to the gentry over the people as housing crises, wages, segregation and multiple other issues worsened. In addition to being wrong, this approach also left many cities, including Asheville, without a larger political culture that can rally broad resistance quickly. The point of a pro-gentry approach, after all, is to discourage popular mobilization as much as possible.
So there is, I hate to say it, not an easily available group or alliance to plug your efforts into that covers enough of these bases. We’re going to have to build them, daunting and complicated a prospect as that is right now.
But move we must. Start by reinvigorating structures that have been neglected or marginalized for too long. Fight to unionize your workplace. Unions scare the absolute hell out of Trump and his ilk because they’re a rallying point and because “screw you, I’ve got a union” is the ultimate comeback to “you’re fired.” Unions survived and won during times when their enemies would straight up murder those working to form them. Every dollar our enemies take rests on the work of others, and when those others resist, their power starts to crumple.
If there is a service that Trump wants to cut, defend it. If there is a local resistance or protest movement that they are threatening to crush, back the resistors. If there is a community organization they deprive of funding, start – if you have the resources – writing checks. If there’s media that’s actually doing their job, support them.
Realize that this is also not enough; the mentality of checking the “political action” box through occasional activity, election or march has to go. Look for ways to keep doing more. See where those organizations too need to adapt, or where something new might strengthen the connections between their causes in a way that makes wider action possible. When the structures aren’t salvageable or a basic need isn’t being met, start trying to put together something new.
Burn the rulebook we’ve been given. Norms, shame and decorum aren’t stopping our enemies. Power and organization might.
Remember: Trump ran from Asheville. Trump ran from Chicago. At heart these are cowards following other cowards.
Everything they want to do requires other people and institutions to help them do it. Every link in that chain is a potential weak point, especially as by all evidence they’ll try to carry out their awful ideas haphazardly and on the cheap.
This is the secret: they can’t fight all of us. Every strike, every legal battle that drags on, every mass demonstration that shuts down the core of a city until an outrage is withdrawn, every refusal, every organization working to undermine and stop theirs, every cost inflicted, every Trump-backing business shuttered, every violent bigot routed, every new alliance built makes their efforts that much harder. Already they show signs of confusion, of tiring or being unsure how to advance. This is not a glimmer that they will get more reasonable; it is a sign to give them no breathing space and hit them harder.
Every time they move, inflict a consequence, even if it’s not enough to totally stop the horror of the day. Every cost will tire them a lot more than they let on and there are, if we realize it, more of us than there are of them.
They come into office despised by most of the country. Use that. Likely a lot more people than you know sympathize with you and despise them. If you are in a position to be up-front about your anger, do so: breaking the silence strengthens our hand. If you have to hide to keep yourself safe, do so. You do not owe people who hate you the truth. But keep your eyes open and connect with others as much as possible.
I say all this not to undermine the real danger they pose — quite the opposite — but as a reminder that one of the most powerful things on our enemies’ side right now is the illusion they are unstoppable. They are not.
So those areas that, even during a lackluster political campaign, went anti-Trump? Fortify them with as many organizations committed to resistance as possible. Try to build structures that can ensure access to healthcare, food, housing and protection when basic services are gutted. Go on the offensive too. Recent years have shown that businesses — including media — in such spots are vulnerable to pressure if it becomes known that they’re blatant bigots. If they back what’s going on, boycott them into bankruptcy.
Make sure that Trump backers organizing anything in any city becomes nigh-impossible as the level of public backlash will make it useless. The less friendly this terrain is for them, the more people can act safely, the more organizing is possible and the more the strength of resistance will actually grow.
View that archipelago of electoral opposition to Trump as cracks in a wall, places to start building and expanding support. Expand into rural communities, not by trying to cozy up to Trump supporters, but by supporting people in those areas currently dealt out of any measure of political power.
Here and in many other cities, the same political culture that’s left so many disenfranchised has also created a giant open flank. The first local political movements and leaders that can seriously rally the growing anti-Trump sentiment can rout many low turnout local elections, take control of as many local governments as possible and their powers and resources with them. That will make carrying out large parts of their agenda a hell of a lot more difficult and give far more power for resistance to work with.
That’s where it’s absolutely important that they are actually committed to doing so, because many local leaders are unable to adapt to the reality that’s now laid bare. There is, however, a simple test. If your local politicians can’t muster the words “I absolutely oppose Trump, his administration and his supporters and will use every ounce of my power to stop them” then they don’t deserve to hold office. Scrap them at the earliest opportunity in favor of someone who will.
In the election media tide’s indulgence of Trump and his supporters, the lives and hopes that the millions of the rest of us have forged, that we are fighting to hold onto and grow, have been largely ignored in the public eye. That does not make them less real. They are ours and we will defend them not just because it’s right but because there’s no other choice. There is a hope in that.
This will not be easy. It will be hard, unpredictable and human. There is absolutely no certainty we will win. But they are a hell of a lot weaker than they look and we are far stronger than we know.
We’ll have peace when there’s victory, not a moment before.