The Trump era wasn’t all bad. We saw progress – thanks to social movements
Looking back over the past four years, there wasn’t just rightwing repression. Movements flourished – and won important battles ‘People looked upward, in awe, during the last days of 2020.’ Photograph: Michael Noble Jr./Getty Images The devastation of the Trump administration – to norms and values and public safety, to the climate and the environment and the rights of marginalized groups – is huge and undeniable. But Pablo Neruda’s old axiom “You can cut down the flowers but you can’t stop the spring” might describe what happened. Despite opposition, persecution and real losses, movements for liberation and justice continued to expand not only in power and achievement but in vision. People looked upward, in awe, during the last days of 2020, and I saw them again and again, watching the full moon of late December, the rare planetary conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn around that time, and here in the Bay Area a magnificent murmuration of starlings above an old Catholic cemetery in San Rafael, tens of thousands of birds swirling together in coordinated flight at sundown, evening after evening. In looking at these tangible spectacles, I believe people were, during this time of political strife and pandemic confinement, seeking the spaciousness of freedom and possibility. Looking back over the past four years, another kind of expansive and hopeful spaciousness can be found. Mostly these four years will be recounted as far-right brutality against truth, fact, rights and bodies, and that brutality and its consequences mattered. But that’s not all that happened since 2016. Grassroots movements for racial and gender justice, economic justice, climate justice and intersectional understanding of the relationships between these things grew in power, achievement and perspective. The white-supremacist and cult-follower assault on the Capitol on 6 January was historic, but so was the election the night before of the Rev Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff as Georgia’s first two Democratic senators in decades. Several young Sunrise Movement climate activists went to Georgia to work for their campaigns, recognizing the long game: that electing of this Black man and this Jewish man meant giving the Democrats a majority in the US Senate, which meant the possibility of passing strong climate legislation and supporting international climate agreements, which meant that this mattered for the fate of the world. Even in electoral politics, the last four years and last four November elections broadened the Democratic coalition in numbers and diversity, including an unprecedented eight trans people elected to public office in the election of 2017, the birth of “the Squad” with the 2018 election of Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Oman and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and its expansion in 2020 with victories by Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, election of the first Native American women to the House, of an out gay governor in Colorado, of two Democratic senators to Nevada (including the Senate’s first Latina, Catherine Cortez Masto), then Arizona, then Georgia, and more elected officials who were truly progressive around racial and environmental justice, and a more progressive vision overall. That came from outside, from the grassroots, the movements, the young. I believe that when we look back in 10 or 20 years, it is likely that the rightwing rage will be seen as backlash against the ripening vision and movement toward a more just and equal world. This is not a given, but it is a possibility; what we do going forward determines whether it is so. Many of the seeds planted in the Obama era bore fruit in the Trump era. Black Lives Matter came together in 2014, and the summer of 2016 saw its message amplified when sports stars began to speak up – and in the case of Colin Kaepernick, kneel down. The size of the protests was measurable, but something immeasurable mattered at least as much: the transformation of public consciousness. In the summer of 2020, after the public killing of George Floyd that erupted into the biggest protests in the history of this country, not only in the major cities, but in small towns across the country. One of the most important and least tangible effects of activism is introducing and popularizing new ideas and changing minds. For example, the racism behind unequal treatment by police and the courts and unequal sentencing, is now far more widely recognized than it was 20 years ago. Many cities have looked seriously at what defunding the police would look like – and in some it has already started. For example, in the Bay Area, where the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by a transit policeman prompted strong reaction, the transit system has decided to hire 20 social workers rather than fill vacancies in its police force. Feminism has also been energized during the Trump years. At the beginning of 2017, the nationwide Women’s March – the biggest single-day protest in this country’s history, with marches in small towns from Alaska to Alabama as well as major cities – established that the Trump administration would be resisted, and women led much of the next four years of anti-Trump organizing. In October of 2017, what got dubbed #MeToo opened up unprecedented space to recognize both that some of the most powerful and famous men in the country were criminal sexual predators and that systemic injustice that had protected them. Some real legal reform resulted, including expanding or removing the statute of limitations for some sexual abuse crimes in 15 states, but more broadly, that machinery of silencing – the ways that victims have been routinely disbelieved, discredited, intimidated, harassed, shamed – became far more recognized, a first step in dismantling it. Once again the changes that will matter most will be hardest to measure – the crimes that don’t happen, at a minimum because would-be rapists are less confident that they can override their victim’s testimony or escape legal and professional consequences, ideally because the desire to violate other human beings and the entitlement to do so wither away. These were years of victory and defeat, of gain and loss. With Betsy DeVos dismantling Title IX rights for sexual assault victims on college campuses and a widespread war against reproductive rights, women lost as well as gained in the last four years. But abortion is one arena in which you can take away access, but you can’t so easily take away belief in the right to that access. The next four years will see a continued struggle around reproductive rights and other issues of gender justice. The climate movement grew remarkably in the last four years. The Trump era began as the Lakota water protectors’ encampment and resistance at Standing Rock had become a focal point and a powerful intersection between indigenous rights, environmental justice, the fight against pipelines specifically and the climate movement. More came out of Standing Rock than will ever be measured: education of non-Native people about Native rights and history, a sense of hope and possibility for Lakota and other Native youth, inspiration to decide to run for office for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who came to Standing Rock (as did the Laguna Pueblo organizer and then future congresswoman Deb Haaland, now Biden’s nominee to head the Department of the Interior), an apology for US military genocide by veterans of that military, alliances and visions. I remember in 2011, when KXL protesters were told that their activism was futile and the pipeline’s completion was inevitable. They were wrong. Activists helped bring the fossil fuel industry to the brink of collapse. Politico recently reported: “In 2017 when Donald Trump entered the White House, the US oil and gas industry was on a tear, with output climbing to record levels, while clean energy sources were still carving out their niche. Now, oil and gas producers are struggling amid weak prices and growing pressure to address climate change, while wind and solar technologies are soaring – a trend that will assist Biden in making a U-turn in energy policy from the Trump administration’s.” On 6 January, while insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol, the Trump administration held an underwhelming auction of drilling leases in the Arctic national wildlife refuge: all the big oil companies stayed away, in part because activists got banks to pledge not to finance Arctic drilling. As the industry crumbled, the climate movement grew. New voices emerged – Sweden’s uncompromisingly tough Greta Thunberg most prominent among them, and ranging from octogenarian Jane Fonda with her fire-drill Fridays to twentysomething Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement. The Sunrise Movement introduced and amplified the messages of the Green New Deal (GND), including that profound change was not only necessary but pragmatically possible and beneficial. The GND model has had an international impact, and it has undone the old arguments that jobs and the environment are conflicting goals. Progressive change, then, can happen at the worst of times. And often the process of change is so subtle we don’t even realize it’s happening until we look back. Just think of all the films and books and other works of art we once admired, but which we now see strewn with prejudices and oppressions that we hadn’t noticed before. That act of noticing something that we didn’t notice before – that is the result of a shifted consciousness, transformed through activism and progress. Sometimes we have specific new tools to measure oppression by – the Bechdel Test being the most famous among them – but often it’s just that we have subtly, slowly been educated to see more clearly and more inclusively than we did before, to recognize not only other viewpoints, but their exclusion, and the nuances of representation and discrimination. Such processes are invisible in their slow increments until you return to an artwork from the past and see that it is still what it was but you are no longer who you were. Looking back at 2016, I see that it was long ago, because these have been a long four years of destruction and conflict, but also of generation and transformation. We should feel a sense of accomplishment, not so that we can rest, but so that we can go forward.