This week, in a 5-4 ruling of the conservative majority, the Supreme Court dealt a stinging, bigoted blow to justice and equality, ruling for President Donald Trump’s travel ban ― a ban that lower courts ruled unconstitutional by virtue of Trump’s repeated hateful and discriminatory statements against Muslims. A 5-4 anti-abortion ruling came the same day, one day after a ruling allowing racial gerrymandering of congressional districts. And then came Wednesday’s stunning attack on public sector labor unions, another 5-4 ruling.
As if all that isn’t horrifying enough, Justice Anthony Kennedy ― the swing vote on so many issues, including marriage equality and LGBTQ rights ― announced he is retiring, handing Trump the opportunity to put another hard-right justice on the court.
If you care about America and its future, your blood should be boiling.
We all know none of these rulings would have gone the way they did if Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee, were on the court. That is, if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Republicans in the Senate hadn’t stolen that Supreme Court seat. The rulings, which all in some way serve to consolidate conservative power, underscore the widespread feeling that the system is rigged, just like the 2016 election itself, in which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote but an authoritarian assumed the presidency.
But the GOP might not have been able to pull off stealing that Supreme Court seat if Democrats, and the rest of us, hadn’t practiced “civility” ― at least, as that has been defined since White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a restaurant last weekend. The word apparently now means being polite, even to people who are stripping millions of their rights while lying through their teeth.
“Anyone who is supporting Trump while he’s putting children in prison camps isn’t going to be swayed.”
Democrats and Obama, who personified civility, put their faith in a system of Senate decorum, manners and rules that had gone the way of floppy discs and VHS recorders, as if Republicans would eventually come to their senses without Democrats taking bold action.
Maybe if Democrats had shut down the Senate entirely ― walked out and stopped all business ― Garland would be on that court. If all of us were in the streets marching and protesting Senate Republican leaders during dinners at their posh restaurants, during their luncheons, at their conferences and outside their homes, maybe ― maybe ― Garland would be on that court.
In retrospect, it would have been worth a shot, wouldn’t it? It’s certainly worth a shot now, watching our democracy melt away before our eyes.
In May 2017, shortly after Trump fired then-FBI Director James Comey, I wrote a column called “To Save America We Must Stop Being Polite And Immediately Start Raising Hell.”
“It’s time to move beyond polite protests within specified boundaries,” I wrote, drawing upon my experience in the late ’80s in the life-saving AIDS activist group ACT UP. “It’s time to escalate the expression of our outrage and our anger in a massive way.”
The big marches were great and are still important, as were the spontaneous protests at airports after the heinous Muslim ban first went into effect. But we needed to up the pressure, big time.
I called for what we’re beginning to see now: vigorously protesting Trump officials, confronting them ― peacefully but passionately ― when they are out in public, at lunch or at dinner, in front of their homes, on their way to and from work, everywhere. Let them hear from the people, loudly and clearly.
The reasoning was as clear to me in May of last year ― and now ― as it was 30 years ago, when we in ACT UP did the same to officials in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations, pharmaceutical executives and prominent members of the media who weren’t doing their jobs covering the brutality we experienced. Our lives and futures, and the lives and futures of thousands of others, were literally dependent on it. Today, our very democracy depends on it.
It’s outrageous, but not at all shocking, to see calls for “civility” from some Beltway media pundits and prominent Democratic operatives and politicians in the wake of the recent in-your-face protests of Trump officials. Trump is attacking due process and the First Amendment, cozying up to dictators, causing harm to countless lives affected by his cruel policies and engaging in human rights violations against children.
Yet here we have people like former Obama adviser David Axelrod and the Washington Post editorial page editors gallingly tut-tutting over a restaurant owner who in good conscience couldn’t serve Trump’s press secretary, the chief mouthpiece for the president’s daily lies.
It’s almost as if we live in different worlds.
And actually, we do. The Washington political elite ― and that includes members of both parties, pundits and journalists ― live in a bubble, out of touch with the rest of us.
Maybe we thought Democratic leaders got it, that they understood Trump doesn’t play by any rules, that the GOP hasn’t for a long time and that the Republican Party has now been completely taken over by an authoritarian. But the reaction to the Sanders incident showed that many Democrats and many in the media are still living in an alternate universe where decorum will somehow save the day.
“Many Democrats and many in the media are still living in an alternate universe where decorum will somehow save the day.”
Much of this is knee-jerk impulse. Based on little (if any) data, these people believe protest ― which they’ve allowed conservatives to frame as “incivility,” even as the GOP has used ugly, racist and truly uncivil tea party protests to its advantage ― will scare away some imaginary voters who are on the fence about Trump. Or they think there are Trump voters who are persuadable but who will see Robert De Niro say “fuck Trump” or hear Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) call for more protests and immediately run back to Trump.
That’s ridiculous. Anyone who is supporting Trump while he’s putting children in prison camps isn’t going to be swayed ― and certainly, if those people were to change their minds, a protest of Trump officials isn’t going to make them switch back.
It was pathetic and cowardly of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer to legitimize Trump’s distortion of Waters’ words by calling them “unacceptable.” It was idiotic and devious for anyone to say Waters was encouraging violence, as Trump claimed ― a point that Waters herself made clear later on. But we actually shouldn’t waste our time criticizing the Democratic leadership. It’s more empowering to push the leadership aside and take control of the narrative.
ACT UP similarly came under attack from liberal allies, from the progressive weekly The Village Voice to The New York Times. We were called every name in the book, from juvenile, rude and reckless to fascist, Stalinist and even Nazi. Some Democratic politicians, like former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, condemned our actions. But we were undaunted ― as activists must vow to be today.
ACT UP shut down the Food and Drug Administration ― “Seize Control of the FDA,” as we called the demonstration ― and invaded the New York Stock Exchange. The National Institutes of Health were stormed. The CBS Evening News was literally interrupted by an activist who got on the set. Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral by the virulent homophobe John Cardinal O’Connor was stopped. AIDS activists even lowered a giant condom over the home of the late, horrifically anti-gay Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). When we look back on ACT UP’s actions, turning Sanders away from dinner is nothing.
“This is about something much larger than winning elections. It’s about standing up against tyranny and abuse, and for what’s morally right. We’re called to do this only a few times in our lives.”
The same liberal bed-wetting ― and conservative feigned outraged ― predicted a disaster for the cause, including turning away voters and losing elections. None of that happened, as Bill Clinton was pushed ― after being protested, too ― to court AIDS activists and ushered in an era that funded drug development and treatments, and saved lives. ACT UP persevered and changed the course of history, a story that has been told many times in recent years.
It’s a different time with different circumstances, but there are many similarities. We faced a brutal, callous government in the grip of hard-right extremists who were determined to take the country in a radically different direction. Democrats were often feckless and weak, fearful of taking risks while out of power. Apathy and misinformation were rampant among much of the public. And the media was sensationalistic and operated with an elitist sensibility, intent on controlling the narrative and the debate (which was much easier in those pre-internet days).
Acting up is not about impulsiveness and feeling good (though it does feel good to speak truth to power). It’s about saving lives by strategically targeting people for protest. Yes, shaming does work.
Maybe Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen won’t be able to take the constant barrage. Maybe protests while eating dinner in a Mexican restaurant and at her home pushed her to do something or say something to make Trump back down a bit. Who knows? Maybe it will all make her quit her job. Anything that slows down the ability of this administration to harm people is a good thing.
More than that, as ACT UP showed, protest wakes people up.
It’s not about changing the minds of Trump supporters. It’s about lighting a spark under those who aren’t paying attention ― many of whom may have dropped out under the weight of the daily atrocities ― or who might now feel hope when they see others speaking out. More strident protest also forces the media to cover issues ― even as journalists carp and complain about the tactics ― and to focus on the fact that many Americans see a national emergency unfolding.
While Republicans have always known how to energize their base ― and its darkest, racist elements ― Democrats have mostly run from theirs. They’ve never quite understood how to galvanize people and energize them in a captivating way that has citizens turning their anger into action.
But this is about something much larger than winning elections. It’s about standing up against tyranny and abuse, and for what’s morally right. We’re called to do this only a few times in our lives. Now is one of those times.
Seeing how things are going, it’s not an exaggeration to say our democracy may go down in flames. But just like when many gay men in the ’80s believed we all might die from a then-fatal and devastating disease for which there were few treatments, we can’t just sit by. So, it’s time to raise hell. It’s time to scream out loud. It’s time to wake up everyone we can, before it’s too late.
Let it not be said that we stayed silent and “let the Trump team eat in peace” while it rather rapidly turned America into a fascist state.
Follow Michelangelo Signorile on Twitter: @MSignorile