Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). 

He can be reached via the website


Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus.

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The dangerous dignity of war

What does it take for Donald Trump to appear commanding, decisive and ‘presidential’?

The answer, it appears, is a troop surge and a missile strike.

Trump is not currently in an enviable political position. His approval ratings hover below 40 per cent, having reached historic lows for a first-year US president. The opposition to Trump is emboldened, even as his own party is rife with disunity. Meanwhile, the mainstream media, to its credit, has often been willing to call out his inveterate lying.

Unfortunately, the same news commentators gush when the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ rattles his sabre.

As the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented, when Trump announced in August that he would send an additional 4,000 US soldiers to Afghanistan, the move garnered glowing reviews. Foreign Policy magazine remarked admiringly that the declaration ‘was one of Donald Trump’s finest moments as president,’ while a leader at the hallowed Brookings Institution devoted an op-ed to Trump’s ‘difficult and very presidential decision’.

Rarely had Trump received such plaudits. Rarely, that is, since April... when editorial pages uniformly praised his decision to launch scores of Tomahawk missiles into Syria.

The mainstream media, to its credit, has often been willing to call out his inveterate lying. Unfortunately, the same news commentators gush when the ‘Commander-in-Chief’ rattles his sabre
There might just be a pattern here.

Of course, there is considerable hypocrisy in the president’s commitment to extend the engagement in Afghanistan – the longest war in US history. Candidate Trump campaigned as an ardent isolationist. Despite evidence that he supported the Iraq War early on, he tried to present himself as a consistent critic of military interventionism.

During the 2012 election, Trump tweeted: ‘Polls are starting to look really bad for Obama. Looks like he’ll have to start a war or major conflict to win. Don’t put it past him!’

Whether Trump himself is interested in pursuing a ‘wag the dog’ strategy, or whether he is merely adapting himself to Washington’s penchant for intervention, there is a deep-rooted tradition of presidents gaining esteem by stoking international conflict.

This is not merely a problem with the media. Deference to militaristic leadership infects our entire political establishment.

When George W Bush entered the White House, he was regarded as a lightweight, having lost the popular vote and having secured office only after the Supreme Court halted a recount of ballots in Florida. It wasn’t until after the 9/11 attacks, when Bush launched the ‘War on Terror’, that he could wield power with bipartisan backing.

Few ideas could be more wrong-headed than the saying that ‘politics ends at the water’s edge’, especially when the country’s ‘interest’ has so often been defined as that which benefits United Fruit and ExxonMobil

For all the talk of Trump being a unique harbinger of fascism, it was Bush who enjoyed free rein as he vowed vengeance. Referring to the years when the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq commenced, political scientist Corey Robin argues: ‘There was a moment in the recent memory of this country when dissent really was stifled... when the military and police were sanctified and sacralized, when the Constitution was called into question... when the two-party system was turned into a one-party state… [and] when questioning the nation-state’s commitment to violence and war provoked the most shameless heresy hunts.’

The danger Trump presents is real, but it is not unique in the American experience.

There is a saying that ‘politics ends at the water’s edge’. The idea is that, whatever disagreements lawmakers might have about domestic issues, they should unite in pursuit of the national interest abroad.

Few ideas could be more wrong-headed, especially when the country’s ‘interest’ has so often been defined as that which benefits United Fruit and ExxonMobil.

The scary thing is that many Democrats seem to believe this precept. When it comes to standing up for the latest troop deployment or promoting ever-larger military budgets, they eagerly fall in line.

Responding to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear arms tests, Trump stated that US ‘military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely’.

As long as the media and elected officials afford warmongering a dangerous dignity, our world will be in peril.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Down with America’s racist monuments

It’s time to take down monuments to those who fought in defence of slavery.

This should hardly be controversial, and yet somehow, in the US today, it is.

The context for this discussion is an incident of shocking racist violence. In August, white supremacists converged in Charlottesville, Virginia for a ‘Unite the Right’ rally. The event featured marchers wearing anti-Semitic insignias, flying the ‘black cross of southern nationalism’, and chanting Nazi slogans. When anti-racists confronted them, a rightwing participant drove a car into a group of the counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 19 others.

Donald Trump’s response to the tragedy – which was either astonishingly tone deaf or remarkably revealing, depending on how you look at it – provoked condemnation even from his fellow Republicans. Providing a full-throated disavowal of white supremacist groups proved too much for Trump. In the wake of the attack, he instead argued, ‘I think there is blame on both sides’ – that is, both the racists and the people who condemned racism. He indicated that, although there were surely some bad apples in the neo-Nazi crowd, there were also some ‘very fine people’.

Many cities throughout the southern US – including Charlottesville – still have monuments to confederate heroes of the American Civil War. In the wake of the violence, calls for these statues to come down have intensified.

Webster’s dictionary defines a monument as ‘a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone or something notable or great’. Soft defenders of the confederate monuments argue that the statues should remain because they depict an important aspect of the US past; to remove them would be to erase history. Unite the Right participants, meanwhile, regard the immortalized figures as not merely notable but great, claiming them as emblems of white ‘heritage’ that should be cherished.

The racist defence of the monuments is abhorrent but honest. The more moderate excuses are simply disingenuous.

Racist monuments: a vigil is held in front of a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike in Washington, DC on 13 August 2017.
A vigil is held in front of a statue of Confederate general Albert Pike in Washington, DC on 13 August 2017. Salwan George/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As historian Eric Foner has noted, when the statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad, there weren’t a lot of conservatives railing against the toppling as a reckless desecration of historical memory.

Rather than serving to educate the US public, the monuments in question present a contorted vision of the past. Upon seeing one statue of a confederate soldier in North Carolina in 1931, the great scholar and activist WEB Du Bois remarked with dismay that its plaque read, ‘Died Fighting for Liberty!’

‘Of course, the plain truth of the matter,’ Du Bois explained, ‘would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery”.’

Many of the confederate statues now standing were not erected until the 1920s, at the height of Jim Crow segregation. Their placement in public spaces served as an unsubtle defence of the American Apartheid then being enacted.

To remove these monuments from places of honour and replace them with statues celebrating slavery’s too-often forgotten victims and adversaries is not to erase history, but to reclaim it.

Opposing protesters, Trump decried ‘the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments’ and asked, ‘where does it stop?’ If confederate leaders might be scrutinized, Trump reasoned, what about other hallowed icons of American nationalism?

He’s not wrong to ask.

Although many citizens would prefer a story of the US past that is sanitized and triumphant, those willing to look at history with clear eyes must acknowledge that the country’s cherished promises of ‘liberty and justice for all’ have never been fully realized, and that the Americans most ardently pursuing these ideals have often been in conflict with those in power – the lawmakers, generals and industrialists who, up to this point, have been most likely to be cast in bronze.

Recognizing this, we must be willing to question the heroes of the past, and – when necessary – to choose new ones.

An honest reckoning does not end quickly or easily; but justice demands it.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Why we need to look back at the ACT UP fight

Thirty years ago, the fight against AIDS in the United States took an important turn – one that ultimately saved many thousands of lives.

This shift was not the result of leadership from elected officials or a sympathetic administration in the White House. On the contrary, it was due to one of the country’s most stigmatized communities refusing to remain quiet.

When AIDS first broke out in the opening years of the 1980s, it was referred to as the ‘Gay Cancer’ and homo­phobia ran rampant. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that half of respondents supported a quarantine of AIDS patients.

The then president Ronald Reagan scarcely mentioned the disease until 1987, late in his second term. By that time more than 20,000 AIDS patients in the US had died and the disease had spread worldwide. Echoing conservative religious leaders, White House communications director Pat Buchanan had stated that AIDS was ‘nature’s revenge on gay men’.

Those who started to resist knew well the public’s loathing. In a bit of grim humour, one zine written by HIV-positive writers would call itself the Diseased Pariah News.

And yet, adopting the motto ‘Silence = Death’, a group of AIDS patients and their loved ones began to speak out.

In March 1987, some 250 protesters descended on Wall Street and demanded that the $10,000 annual price for a key early AIDS drug be lowered. Upwards of 15 were arrested after they blocked traffic on Broadway, lying in the street with cardboard tombstones over their heads.

It was the world’s introduction to ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, which the New York Times would eventually describe with begrudging respect as ‘Rude, Rash, [and] Effective’.

‘To join ACT UP, whatever your HIV status, was to be a part of a movement of people literally fighting for their lives,’ writes social-movement historian LA Kauffman in her new book, Direct Action. ‘From the start, ACT UP acted with aggressiveness, audacity, and a panache that had been mostly missing from radical activism for decades.’

In a series of dogged, theatrical actions, ACT UP shut down the New York Stock Exchange and jumped onscreen during Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News broadcast. They chained themselves inside pharmaceutical corporations and scattered the ashes of AIDS victims on the White House lawn. They even draped a giant condom over the home of ardently homophobic Republican Senator Jesse Helms. The prophylactic was stamped with the slogan, ‘Helms Is Deadlier Than A Virus’.

It worked. Federal funding to combat AIDS increased tenfold between 1986 and 1992. Targeted corporations lowered the price of drugs. And patients themselves won representation on the boards setting policies for treatment.

In the age of Trump, we have much to learn from this example.

A first lesson is that, even in a hostile political climate, we need not always play defence. Knowing the stakes, ACT UP members made demands that political insiders regarded as impossible. And yet, through persistent agitation, they often won them.

Second, while we need to sway hearts and minds in our favour, we should recognize that protests themselves are rarely popular. ACT UP risked polarizing action, its members derided as ‘faggots’ and ‘sinners’. But they kept the spotlight on their issue, creating space for mainstream advocates to take ever-bolder stances. Ultimately, the fight against AIDS became a winning cause – even a trendy one.

Finally, we prevail not merely through gaining insider ‘access’, but by applying the pressure generated by citizen engagement. Although ACT UP members earned recognition as experts on treatment, disruptive protest made officials realize that ignoring these viewpoints could be politically costly.

Maxine Wolfe, an ACT UP member quoted by Kauffman, offers a moral that’s well worth remembering on this 30th anniversary: ‘The government doesn’t listen to us because we’re smart,’ she said. ‘They listen to us because we’re smart and we can threaten them.’

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled, This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Donald Trump & the politics of impeachment

It took only a few months.

Donald Trump scarcely made it past his first 100 days as President of the United States before the prospect of impeachment went from fringe fantasy to plausible possibility.

Trump apparently hoped that he could make a brewing scandal disappear with his abrupt firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey – the official responsible for investigating his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian interference in the US election. But the move only intensified scrutiny. It also raised the spectre of presidential obstruction of justice, itself an impeachable offence.

While the path to Trump’s removal from office by a Republican-controlled Congress still looks rocky, we should not underestimate the president’s talent for undermining his own job security.

Surprisingly, many US progressives are not particularly excited about the prospects for impeachment. Left-of-centre publications have run articles with titles like ‘The Liberal Case for Not Removing Trump’, warning against ‘the impeachment trap’.

Leftist sceptics make several arguments: they contend that the Russian scandal is unlikely to produce a ‘smoking gun’ that ties Trump to criminal acts, and that past presidents escaped far more serious imbroglios – such as Reagan’s Iran-Contra Affair.

They argue that liberal fascination with nefarious Russian plots echoes rightwing rhetoric from the Cold War, and that it distracts attention from organizing against Trump’s attacks on immigrants and his efforts to dismantle vital social services.

Perhaps most importantly, they believe that fixating on Russia as the reason for the lost election gives corporate Democrats an excuse to avoid examining their own faults. Talk of impeachment serves as a ‘quick fix’ for the party’s problems – far more simple than reviving grassroots organizing at the Democratic base, and certainly easier than articulating a vision that both repudiates neoliberalism and provides a persuasive, progressive alternative to Trump’s faux-populism.

These positions have some merit. At the same time, the sceptics have a way of spitting on the gift of political scandal.

Advocates of impeachment argue that we should use any and all opportunities to delegitimize the Trump administration and disable it from pushing its agenda. Already, the issue is proving to be a major distraction for the White House, inhibiting Trump’s ability to govern.

In January, some smug detractors insisted that the Russia story had no legs. And yet, just a few months later, it has grown into a strong runner – with the president’s own acts of arrogance and impulsiveness serving as water stations along the marathon route.

Who knows where it will lead us? The burglary at the Watergate Hotel was hardly Richard Nixon’s cardinal sin, but it was the blunder that brought his downfall.

Anti-impeachment progressives like to point out that removing Trump would merely place ultra-conservative Vice President Mike Pence into office. As a writer for the New York Observer put it, Pence’s politics are just as bad, ‘but he’s much smoother, much less likely to screw up, and much more likely to be re-elected than Trump in 2020’.

But this view overlooks the fact that Pence has already been implicated in the Russia affair, and it is doubtful he would survive an investigation unscathed. Pence would serve as a deeply tarnished president, leading a Republican Party struggling to live down its association with a disgraced and deranged Donald Trump.

Besides, can’t we cross the Mike Pence Presidential Overpass when we come to it? Theories about whether a Pence administration would be effective are pure speculation. As writer Rebecca Solnit states, obsessing about it now is like saying ‘if we escape from prison, we might get hit by a car’.

Amid headlines of scandal, the president’s approval ratings are reaching new lows. A push for impeachment does not replace the need for progressives to build from below and to present a compelling alternative to the failures of Trumpism. But it doesn’t hurt either.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

The right way to rewrite NAFTA


Trump and the Left may agree about TPP and NAFTA – but not for the same reason or with a shared vision for the future. © Scott Audette/ Reuters

What is an internationalist to make of Donald J Trump’s vow to blow up the North American Free Trade Agreement?

As of late April, President Trump was preparing to issue an executive order commencing US withdrawal from NAFTA, which he has criticized as ‘one of the worst deals ever’ for American workers. Analysts interpreted the move as a hardline bargaining ploy, designed to force Mexico and Canada to renegotiate the agreement on terms more favourable to the White House.

I hate to agree with Trump, but he’s right about NAFTA – and about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which he scuttled after blasting the deal as ‘another disaster done and pushed by special interests’.

The problem is, the president’s vision for the global economy is hardly one based on universal rights and cross-border solidarity. On the contrary, his faux-populist track record suggests that anything Trump does to renegotiate NAFTA will be geared toward providing handouts to his billionaire buddies.

Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, at the height of demonstrations against the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund, many protesters rejected being labelled an ‘anti-globalization movement’ by the media. More accurate, they argued, would be to understand their mobilizations as part of a ‘global justice movement’ with deep international ties. Anti-corporate critics contended that the question was not whether we would have some form of globalization, but whether this order would be based on neoliberal economic mandates or on genuinely democratic principles.

The call to rewrite or repeal NAFTA has been a longstanding demand of global justice progressives. The fact that Trump has been able to co-opt this issue for his own purposes reflects a catastrophic failure of the Democratic Party.

Within the base of the party, there is a widespread recognition that neoliberal trade deals have created an international ‘race to the bottom’ on labour and environmental standards. This has hurt not only US workers but their counterparts in the Global South as well. As Arthur Stamoulis, executive director of the Citizens Trade Campaign, states: ‘We know that the trade debate is not about the US versus the rest of the world, but rather about multinational corporations versus the rest of us.’

Feeling pressure from the grassroots, more than 90 per cent of Democrats in the House of Representatives voted against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.

And yet, the neoliberal wing of the party still holds considerable sway. Bill Clinton, who fashioned himself a business-friendly ‘New Democrat’ in the 1990s, was the leader who pushed through NAFTA in the first place. Barack Obama, who spoke out against pro-corporate trade deals as a candidate, reversed himself once in the White House and began championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Hillary Clinton came out against the TPP on the campaign trail. But since she had previously supported it as Secretary of State, she was simply not a credible messenger.

All this created a window for Trump to capitalize on legitimate public anger about so-called ‘free trade’ deals.

What would a fairly renegotiated NAFTA actually look like? In mid-January, trade unionists, family farmers and environmentalists from Canada, the US and Mexico came together to articulate a vision for NAFTA replacement ‘based on social justice, sovereignty, and sustainable development’. These advocates have called for adding strong and enforceable labour standards to the agreement’s core text; ending NAFTA rules that increase the cost of medicines; and eliminating the ability of corporations to use secretive trade tribunals to attack environmental and public interest policies.

We can be certain that Trump will pursue none of these changes.

Using the rhetoric of rightwing nationalism, Trump has stolen the issue of trade, even while continuing to serve the interests of the wealthy. It’s up to us to present an alternative vision, just and internationalist, and to steal it back.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Boosting the backlash against Trump


© Matthew Cherchio/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s as bad as we thought it would be. Probably worse.

Donald Trump assumed office as President of the United States just a few short months ago, and yet the time has stretched endlessly, with each day bringing a new proposal from the White House to inflict suffering on the majority.

For those throughout the world, much is at stake in these proposals. Trump has vowed to wall off the US from immigrants. He has put ardent Islamophobes in control of the military and its vast global network of bases. And anyone who has observed the combination of ignorance, petty grievance and recklessness that defines the President’s personality can hardly sit at ease with Trump’s now-expansive war-making powers. In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its symbolic ‘Doomsday Clock’ 30 seconds closer to midnight, the nearest to armageddon the timepiece has been set since 1953, when the hydrogen bomb had just been tested.

Then there’s the fact that, with an ExxonMobil executive now officially running US foreign policy, the prospects of avoiding an uncomfortably warm future grow daily less promising.

Within the United States, countless citizens will be harmed sooner rather than later. Despite stoking nationalistic pride, Trump’s policies promise to despoil the land, making our water dirtier and our air more polluted. Republicans are now busy gutting workplace protections and dismantling services for the elderly. (They are completely eliminating, for instance, federal funding for Meals on Wheels – a popular programme that brings food to seniors and the disabled.) Moreover, conservatives came dangerously close to stripping 24 million people of healthcare coverage.

In short, they are making lives worse, at home and abroad.

The question is whether the injuries they inflict will prompt people to rebel.

Some have started already. In January, the weekend after Trump’s inauguration, at least 3.3 million people across the country rallied in support of the Women’s March on Washington. This represented the largest single day of demonstration in US history. (Protesters in more than 200 cities internationally – from Auckland to Amsterdam to Nairobi to Bogotá – also joined in.)

A group called Indivisible, formed by progressive staffers who worked on Capitol Hill during the Tea Party’s rise and saw how rightwingers were able to shift Washington politics, has distributed a strategy guide for how progressives can mount the same type of resistance to rabid Republicans. Their instruction manual has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times, and some 5,380 local chapters have formed to devote themselves to hounding their elected representatives.

Finally, since Trump’s election, membership in the Democratic Socialists of America has tripled. Its ranks, although still modest, are now filled with young people seeking to carry forward the insurgent energy of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign and to act on widespread sentiment among their generation that neoliberal capitalism is neither the only nor the most desirable option for America’s future.

These are just a few examples among many. And Trump’s destructive policies may go far in further bolstering all these efforts. Conventional wisdom holds that the Republicans’ actions are potentially suicidal – particularly when they enter realms such as social security and healthcare. After all, attempting to strip voters of entitlements upon which they rely is an invitation to speedy disaffection.

But it is not enough for people merely to feel disillusioned with the Trump administration. Passive disenchantment must be organized into active resistance. We must boost the backlash.

Perhaps most importantly, dismay at current elites must be put in the service of a better order – one that is egalitarian and internationalist, inclusive and genuinely democratic.

It would be foolish to assume that the pain inflicted by the Trump administration will by itself create the rebellion we need. Yet it would be equally irresponsible for us not to try to maximize the liberatory potential of a growing discontent.

When sanctuary is resistance


An activist protests in front of the US-Mexican border fence. © Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

In the United States in the 1980s, the simple act of providing refuge became a form of civil disobedience.

With Washington supporting death-squad governments in Guatemala and El Salvador, a flood of refugees moved north, creating a humanitarian crisis. Immigrants crossing the border into the US from Mexico were perishing in the desert. Yet the Reagan administration refused to grant asylum to those facing persecution from the regimes it had backed in Central America.

Religious congregations resisted. As part of a broader solidarity movement, people of faith began harbouring refugee families in their churches and homes. The sanctuary movement was born.

As journalist Edwin Guthman later wrote in the New York Times, ‘Their efforts grew into a modern ‘underground railroad’. By the mid-1980s, more than a dozen activists had been prosecuted on charges of ‘transporting and harbouring illegal aliens’. Nevertheless, the movement rapidly spread, eventually encompassing some 400 churches nationwide. Sanctuary advocates also spearheaded legal efforts that ultimately allowed thousands of migrants to remain.

Three decades later, in the era of Trump, providing sanctuary may again qualify as a radical stance.

Today, the great majority of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants are not recently arrived refugees fleeing war. Instead, they were displaced by poverty and corporate globalization; they came seeking a better life for their families. Many have lived here for decades, and they make vital contributions to the economy. Some young adults who were brought to the US as small children have never known another home.

Trump has focused his rhetoric on denouncing those with criminal records. But under current executive mandates, offences as minor as traffic violations or presenting an employer with a bogus social security number – unavoidable for many trying to enter the formal economy – are grounds for deportation.

In fact, in rightwing parlance, all who reside in the US without proper documentation are known simply as ‘Illegals’, a label that provides cover for racism and dehumanization.

Allying with America’s most extreme xenophobes, Trump has explicitly taken aim at immigrant-friendly cities. Since the 1980s, the religious principle of sanctuary has come to be associated with a broader set of public policies. These involve city and county governments asserting that their police should protect all residents and not serve as deportation forces. As of 2016, more than 400 municipalities had adopted some kind of sanctuary policy, attracting the ire of anti-immigrant crusaders.

Five days after taking office, Trump signed an executive order claiming that these localities ‘wilfully violate federal law… [and] have caused immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic’. The order vowed to refuse federal grant funding to any sanctuary city.

Standing up for sanctuary policies has thus become a test for local leaders. Some have showed considerable courage. Officials in San Francisco waited less than a week before suing the Trump administration, with City Attorney Dennis Herrera calling the order ‘not only unconstitutional but un-American’.

Immigrant rights advocates are not only pushing more elected officials to follow these examples, they are also broadening the call for sanctuary. Immediately after Trump’s election, the group Movimiento Cosecha organized students to demand that their schools become ‘Sanctuary Campuses’ and provide safe haven to undocumented students. On 16 November, just eight days after the election, students at more than 90 colleges and universities walked out of classes to highlight the issue.

Amid the groundswell, at least 28 schools have publicly taken pro-immigrant stands. Connecticut College president Katherine Bergeron said that the school ‘will use all available means to defend our undocumented students now and in the future’.

Cosecha organizer Thaís Marques added: ‘Millions of immigrants do crucial work that makes the American economy run, and we need the support of our country’s churches, community centres and homes as places of sanctuary against deportation too.’

Marques’ sentiment is exactly right: let a new sanctuary movement begin.

Mark Engler’s new book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Obama's legacy falls short on organizing


© Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images

In an eloquent farewell speech given 10 days before he left office, US President Barack Obama challenged supporters: ‘If something needs fixing, lace up your shoes and do some organizing.’

For many US progressives, the exhortation brought back the feelings of hope and excitement that Obama once evoked. Back in 2008, the prospect of electing a president with a background in community organizing was a thrilling one.

Working on Chicago’s South Side in the 1980s, Obama trained in the organizing lineage of Saul Alinsky, bringing together public-housing residents to fight for community improvements. The future president often claimed to have been shaped by the experience, and in some of his strongest rhetorical moments he evoked the power of social movements to force change.

But taking seriously the idea of Obama as an organizer creates a demanding standard for evaluating his legacy. We must ask: are social movements stronger at the end of his tenure than they were at the beginning?

Unfortunately, by this measure, his presidency falls short.

Compared with the unfolding horror of the Trump administration, there is much to make us already feel nostalgic. Progressives taking stock of Obama’s accomplishments have found both positives, including the extension of health coverage to millions and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and negatives: the continuation of extralegal assassination via drone strike and the failure seriously to rein in Wall Street power when finance was most vulnerable. But whatever criticisms we have, the overall thrust of his public policy was infinitely preferable to what we are seeing with Republicans in control.

But if we use the lens of organizing to evaluate success or failure, it leads to a tougher reckoning of Obama’s time in office.

The fortunes of the labour movement provide a critical bellwether. Under Obama, the percentage of the workforce in unions continued a decades-long decline, falling from 12.4 per cent to 11.1 per cent. This is distressing because organized labour remains the most important institutionalized power bloc on the American left.

Unfortunately, the politicians who seem most attuned to the vital role of unions are Republicans, who move ruthlessly to curtail union power whenever they can. When conservatives in Kentucky and Missouri assumed power over state government after the November election, their first priority was to push forward so-called ‘Right to Work’ laws, which suppress union membership and hinder efforts to collect dues.

During Obama’s tenure, four new states – including former union strongholds – passed these laws, and others limited the ability of public-sector workers to organize. The impact quickly became evident. In Nevada, a state where unions, led by hotel and restaurant workers, have been strong, Hillary Clinton carried a hotly contested election. In contrast, in Michigan and Wisconsin, places where rightwing legislation has hit labour hard, Trump defied polls and won.

While their conservative adversaries understand the nature of power, technocratic liberals treat movement groups as just another ‘special interest’ rather than a central pillar upholding their ability to govern. When Democrats gain majorities, measures to bolster organizing rights are never priorities. And so the party consistently fails to reverse the damage done – let alone to spur labour’s revitalization.

This remained true under Obama. Key union-backed policy proposals languished, while the White House pushed pro-corporate trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The grassroots drives that did flourish in the Obama era – such as #BlackLivesMatter, the pro-immigrant DREAM Act students, the growing climate movement, and the Fight for $15 – encountered a White House that could sometimes be cajoled into doing the right thing. But they did not find a genuine champion in office.

In President Obama, social movements had an adversary far preferable to what they will have in Donald Trump. But the dream of having a true organizer in the White House – a president who will see social movement victories as his or her own – remains unrealized.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Trump can be beaten because he is the Establishment

protesters outside Trump Tower

Not in our name: protesters outside Trump Tower in New York. © Brian D Bumby/Alamy Stock Photo

A national poll taken by Reuters on Election Day in the US was decisive: 72 per cent of voters surveyed agreed ‘the American economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerful’. A full 75 per cent felt that the nation needed ‘a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful’.

Donald Trump won the US presidency, in part, because enough voters believed he could be that leader. His final campaign advertisement proclaimed, ‘Our movement is about replacing the failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.’

Yet while Trump worked hard to give the impression that he would end Washington politics-as-usual, this was no more than a swindle. In fact, he has quickly revealed through his proposed appointments that he has no intention to take on the rich and powerful, but rather plans to lavish them with favours.

Simply put, Trump is the establishment.

The incoming president had told interviewers that he would have ‘no problem’ banning lobbyists and big donors from his administration. Yet, as it turns out, he is filling his cabinet with little else.

The week after the election, the headline of a Politico article read: ‘Bankers celebrate dawn of Trump era.’ Historian Charles Geisst told reporter Ben White, ‘You would have to go back to the 1920s to see so much Wall Street influence coming to Washington.’

As his nominee for treasury secretary, Trump has tapped Steven Mnuchin, who followed in his father’s footsteps to attend Yale University and work as a banker at Goldman Sachs. There he helped oversee mortgage trades that contributed to the 2008 financial crisis. Then he expanded his fortune by aggressively foreclosing on homeowners slammed by the very same economic collapse.

Trump had promised that he would combat other Republicans seeking to cut Medicaid and Social Security. Yet his transition team for the Social Security Administration is headed a former lobbyist who has spent his career trying to undermine and privatize the agency. Likewise, Republican Tom Price, Trump’s nominee for secretary of health and human services, has been described by The New York Times as ‘a man intent on systematically weakening, if not demolishing, the nation’s healthcare safety net’.

There’s a pattern here: Trump’s pick to lead the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency is a prominent climate-change denier funded by Exxon Mobil. His man in charge of transitioning the Federal Communications Commission is a former consultant for telecom giant Verizon. All told, 53 of the 70 of the ‘landing team’ members are affiliated with corporate interests, and 14 have worked directly as lobbyists, according to the watchdog group Public Citizen.

With such individuals in power, we are about to witness corruption, cronyism and corporate handouts on a mass scale: Tax cuts for the wealthiest. A green light for businesses to write the rules for their own industries and to desecrate the earth. The preservation of monopolies and the destruction of unions.

Coupled with a politics of frightening racism and xenophobia, this is a recipe for dark times. But for those who want to defeat Trump, his faux populism is a critical weakness. Although the incoming president won the electoral college, the majority of Americans did not fall for his con job: the reality TV star lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by well over two million ballots. Adding to that, a significant number of those who did vote for him sought to shake up Washington, not to further entrench the lobbyists.

Trump will fail to deliver on his promise of reform, and this will afford an opportunity. It will be up to us to respond with a real programme for transforming a rigged economy and to present a genuine vision for ending the corrupt politics of privilege – a politics that has just found its new poster child.

Mark Engler’s latest book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website

Acts of conscience on a bended knee

On 26 August, just as his team was about to take the field for an American Football game against the Green Bay Packers, Colin Kaepernick, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, made what has become a famous decision – he opted not to stand during the singing of the national anthem.

Daniel Gluskoter/Associated Press

This act, Kaepernick explained, was intended to protest racism and police brutality against African Americans. ‘To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way,’ he stated. ‘There are bodies in the street and people… getting away with murder.’

His cogent explanation notwithstanding, Kaepernick’s display of conscience was quickly painted as a scandalous act of insufficient patriotism. Since 9/11, the pre-game performance of the national anthem has become a flag-waving pageant, spurred on by millions of dollars in direct donations from the Department of Defense to professional sports teams.

Of course, no matter how solemn and dignified an act of resistance might be, there’s always a crowd of critics ready to tell dissenters that they are protesting the wrong way. Even some liberals have labelled Kaepernick’s approach ‘arrogant’ and ‘disrespectful’.

Yet, as the quarterback kneeled before subsequent games, the virtues of his chosen stance became clear. ‘You could show a photo of Kaepernick’s protest to someone who has never seen a football game or heard the national anthem or has no concept of race relations in this country,’ a commentator in the New York Times noted, ‘and the viewer would immediately understand the dynamics at work.’

Crucially, the unassuming protest could be easily copied.

Just as it looked like Kaepernick might go down as one of the most hated athletes in America, a curious thing happened. Teammate Eric Reed, a Pro Bowl safety and leader of the 49ers defence, joined in. ‘I just wanted to... let him know that he’s not the only person who feels what he feels,’ Reed said.

Others in the league followed suit. Miami Dolphins running back Arian Foster recruited several of his teammates to protest. Meanwhile, Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Marcus Peters raised his fist during the anthem in a nod to the Black Power salute given at the 1968 Olympics.

By the middle of September, the protest had become a mass phenomenon, spreading far beyond a single sport. Women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who is white, took the knee. ‘It needs to be everyone confronting problems in our country, not just people of colour,’ she explained. In women’s basketball, the entire Indiana Fever team knelt before a play-off game.

High-school sports teams did the same. In Oakland, members of the school district marching band knelt together as they played the anthem, as did a singer performing before a Sacramento Kings basketball game. Even fans have joined in.

In the words of the New York Times, ‘Over the course of two months, Kaepernick has gone from a forgotten and failing quarterback to mass-produced icon. Hundreds of Kaepernicks kneel everywhere.’ While he may still be widely reviled among conservative football fans, Kaepernick’s #7 jersey has become one of the fastest selling in the league, surpassing those of marquee players such as Trump supporter Tom Brady.

Within social movements, there always exists discussion about how to most effectively dramatize an issue. Those putting themselves on the front­lines have every right to debate which forms of protest might be resonant and which counterproductive.

But armchair critics who disparage others’ tactics while doing nothing themselves to address injustice practise a uniquely repugnant hypocrisy. Martin Luther King, Jr recognized this when he warned of moderates who deplored demonstrations but failed to ‘express a similar concern for the conditions that brought the demonstrations into being’.

The many who have adopted the quarterback’s simple and eloquent act of conscience as their own provide more than adequate rebuttal to the critics. Hundreds of Kaepernicks kneel everywhere.

Mark Engler’s new book is entitled This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-first Century (Nation Books). He can be reached via the website


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