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Looking back at 2017: A shape-shifting year that promises big change ahead

Trump dominated the news, but from the Women's March to Charlottesville to #MeToo, activists struck the sparks


Paul Rosenberg
December 31, 2017 5:00PM (UTC)

Ordinarily, a year-end review calls for looking back at individual events and making some sense of them in light of everything that’s transpired. But 2017 has not been an ordinary year. Neither was 2016. And we’re not likely to have an ordinary year again in 2018, 2019 or 2020 either. As explained by evolutionary anthropologist Peter Turchin in "Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History" (Salon review here), America is in the midst of a period of escalating political instability, even potentially state breakdown. The demographic pressures driving this period will not peak until after 2020, and similar periods in the past have included the English and French revolutions as well as our own Civil War. There were not many ordinary years for people living through those times, either.

Turchin’s framework isn’t alone. Brian Klaas' book "The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy" (Salon excerpt/interview) presents a view similar to that of many journalists, historians and other students of authoritarianism who have provided invaluable advice about how to make sense of developments this past year. Many things that pundits spend endless hours agonizing over can be cleared up in a few sentences by experts like these. For example, Klaas notes:

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Over the years, I have learned that most despots are not only twisted, they are also incompetent. They are often bumbling, tragicomically unready characters who are defined not by their disciplined efficiency or effectiveness but by their reckless authoritarian instincts and impulses. Sometimes, those instincts are married to a destructive ideology, such as Nazism or Communism. But much of the time, despots are driven by narcissism, an unquenchable ego that yearns for fame, public adoration, and stardom. For many authoritarian leaders throughout history, their greatest fear was that they would be nobodies — once gone, soon forgotten. Despots fear being, as Trump often says in his most stinging insults, someone “that you’ve never heard of.”

Which brings us to the subject of Trump’s psychology, and the experts who’ve spoken out to shed light on it, highlighted most dramatically by the work of Yale psychiatrist Bandy Lee in organizing the "Duty to Warn" conference (Salon interview), and editing the book that grew out of it, "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President" (Salon interview/review).

As Lee explains, “The main point of this book is not about Mr. Trump. It is about the larger context that has given rise to his presidency, and the greater population that he affects by virtue of his position.” The emergence of dangerous leaders like Trump reflects an erosion of prosocial norms that’s part of Turchin’s structural demographic model, so all three of these perspectives are intimately connected.

As important as Lee’s own professional analysis was, even more important was her leadership role in clarifying the proper relationship between mental health professionals’ private and public responsibilities, and catalyzing a much broader amplification of this reassessment. As I argued in a follow-up story, this same sort of reassessment of a public "duty to warn" as a core professional responsibility has yet to be grasped by the media, and that failure remains one of the great untold stories of the past year.

“It requires no expertise to see Trump's dangerousness, but experts can help us respond more wisely, more coherently and more effectively — but only if we hold up our own end,” I wrote in my review. “Most of the things that pundits puzzle over in Trump's behavior are not puzzles for trained psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and other related professionals. It's only a mystery if we stubbornly refuse to learn what's actually going on.” So far, too many in the media still refuse to learn, a huge contributing factor to the ongoing erosion of democratic norms and institutions, which was one of the main stories of the past year.

But the other main story was that of resistance. Institutions cannot save us, but we can use institutions to save ourselves, by self-organizing to demand that they do so. With these frames in mind, let’s consider some key moments of the year, and how they resonate in history.

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Trump’s inauguration is remembered for its relatively small crowd size — which White House spokesman Sean Spicer prominently lied about, setting the tone for the entire Trump administration — in contrast to the massive Women’s March the next day. What is too easily forgotten is that 230 people were arrested and charged with felony rioting for protesting the inauguration, including six journalists. The arrestees faced up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted.

Mark Goldstone, a lawyer representing about 50 of those arrested, told the Associated Press that said police “basically identified a location that had problems and arrested everyone in that location.” It was an indiscriminate sweep that gathered up “reporters, lawyers, law students, and non-riotous protesters.” Goldstone said.

Threads of this overlooked story continued unfolding throughout the year. In early May, additional charges were filed, with protesters facing 75 years in prison. In June, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the D.C. police. “Plaintiff [Shay] Horse, a photojournalist, was pepper-sprayed while he was taking a photograph of demonstrators and neither posing a safety threat nor breaking the law; he was subsequently arrested even though he was not participating in any unlawful activity,” the complaint stated. In a Democracy Now! interview, Horse described what happened after their arrest:

An officer told us to drop our pants. An officer went down the row, telling each of us not to flinch as he grabbed our balls and yanked on them and then stuck his finger up each of our anuses and wiggled it around.

I felt like they were using molestation and rape as punishment. They used those tactics to inflict pain and misery on people who are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. It felt like they were trying to break me and the others, break us so that even if the charges didn’t stick, that night would be our punishment.

In August, the DOJ demanded personal information on 1.3 million visitors to the website of the inauguration protest website, an unprecedented request, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation's senior attorney. “We have seen the government make requests this broad, for instance, in the child pornography context, where actually visiting a website is at least arguably capable of being a crime,” he told "Democracy Now!" But not in a case of protected free speech.

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In November, the first cases went to trial, and just before Christmas, all six were acquitted of all charges, which carried a maximum of 50 years in prison. This included Alexei Wood, an independent photojournalist who live-streamed his own arrest.

In short, the largely overlooked story of the Trump inauguration arrests illuminated the excesses of repressive “law enforcement” typifying Trump’s authoritarian aspirations, the determination of those fighting against it, and the survival — so far — of the courts as a guarantor of constitutional rights.

The day after those arrests, the Women’s March brought out an estimated 5 million people worldwide, on every continent, including Antarctica, with no arrests made in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, where a combined estimate of 2 million people marched. As significant as the massive turnout proved to be, the means of getting there and the messages delivered were equally significant.

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Started by Maui resident Teresa Shook with a Facebook post, the march was intended as an inclusive affirmation. “The Women’s March on Washington will send a bold message to our new government on their first day in office, and to the world that women's rights are human rights,” its mission statement said. “We stand together, recognizing that defending the most marginalized among us is defending all of us.”

It went on to identify five guiding principles of MLK-style nonviolence:

Principle 1: Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people.

Principle 2: The Beloved Community is the framework for the future.

Principle 3: Attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil.

Principle 4: Accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of the cause to achieve our goal.

Principle 5: Avoid internal violence of the spirit as well as external physical violence.

The march built itself with an incredibly diverse team, including national co-chairs Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Bob Bland. In a Democracy Now! interview conducted the morning of the march, Sarsour said:

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The message here is that we are intersectional human beings. We are an intersectional society. And we care about a lot of things, and a lot of things impact us. So, we’re going to talk about climate justice and racial justice and immigration and immigrant rights and civil rights. And we’re going to talk about women’s reproductive rights. We’re going to talk about protecting our Muslim sisters and brothers from this fascist administration. So, it’s going to be a great demonstration of unity and solidarity and clarity and no ambiguity on the very progressive and specific agenda that we have.

In many ways, the Women's March set the tone for the whole year that followed, more notably for other organized marches, like the March for Science on April 22, and the People’s Climate March the week after that; for spontaneous mass demonstrations, like the airport protests that greeted Trump’s Muslim ban; for the community counter-protests that met white nationalists in Charlottesville and Boston; and for sustained bottom-up grassroots organizing, along with the model provided by Indivisible. A combination of all three of these threads defeated the GOP’s attempt to repeal Obamacare in the most crucial and protracted legislative battle of the year.

The March for Science was particularly unprecedented, and drew about 1 million people in over 600 locations around the world.

“Science is a vital feature of a working democracy, spurring innovation, critical thinking, increased understanding, and better, healthier lives for all people,” its website explained. “By marching in Washington, DC and around the world, we take one of many steps to become more active in our communities and in democratic life.” The list of core principles included:

  • Science that serves the common good
  • Evidence-based policy and regulations in the public interest
  • Cutting-edge science education
  • Diversity and inclusion in STEM
  • Open, honest science and inclusive public outreach
  • Funding for scientific research and its applications

While the organization formed out of the march has struggled with multiple issues, the genie has clearly been let out of the bottle, as Earther reported in October, citing other groups like 500 Women Scientists, 314 Action and Science for the People and concluding, The March [organization] may have lost its opportunity to be the center of the burgeoning movement of scientists trying to shape policy, but it still has the chance to be a part of it. And the movement will go on regardless.”

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The late January airport protests against the Muslim ban were especially dramatic, a phenomenon that could only have happened in today’s social media world. Both the urban locations and the swift judicial response highlighted two crucial bulwarks of democracy against Trump’s instinctual authoritarianism. A third bulwark appeared in the form of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who refused to defend the travel ban in court.

The tension between political appointees and civil service lawyers within the DOJ is an under-appreciated feature of American democracy, echoing the separation of powers between branches of government on a more micro scale. Yates made her decision in a manner fully in line with how that separation is supposed to work, and Trump blew up and fired her in response — or so it seemed at the time — rather than take up another work-around. When we later learned about Yates' warning to the White House that Michael Flynn had lied about his Russian contacts and was potentially exposed to blackmail, that further underscored the value of this separation of powers, and the integrity and patriotic sense of duty Yates exhibited.  

The belated firing of Flynn — weeks after Trump's knee-jerk firing of Yates — was the first yawning chasm blown into the armor of denial protecting Trump and his campaign from exposure for their blatant Russian collusion efforts (“Russia, if you’re listening …”). One could fairly write about the year in review entirely through the lens of how Trump’s denials of any campaign wrongdoing have crumbled. I choose to mention it only in passing because my focus is on what I regard as deeper forces, those that made Trump’s candidacy possible in the first place. I am concerned, as Bandy Lee put it, with “the larger context that has given rise to his presidency, and the greater population that he affects by virtue of his position.” That larger context has been unfolding for decades now.

For all of Trump’s aberrational appearance, the end result of this year’s political drama seemed remarkably similar to what might have happened with any Republican president, according to political scientist Matt Grossmann, co-author of "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here).

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Trump's first year did not instigate major changes in the coalitions, habits or policy agendas of either major political party,” Grossmann told Salon. “Republicans in Congress and the administration pursued the same fiscal and regulatory policies, the same social issue agenda, and roughly the same international agenda that they would have pursued with another Republican president, though it still represents an acceleration of the party's move rightward,” due to the lack of any liberal policy initiatives, such as George W. Bush’s expansion of Medicare Part D.

“The Democrats have been changed more by Trump than the Republicans, but there is still substantial continuity,” he added. “Due to Trump's personal unpopularity, they are benefiting from a greater than normal thermostatic backlash against the Republican Party's move right. The backlash is also translating into a substantial rise in candidate emergence and legislative contacting.”

Essentially, Grossmann is assessing the impact of the resistance, which I believe could potentially signal much greater changes in the coming years — one reason why Turchin’s longer time-scale framework is so valuable. The historical cycles Turchin and others have observed grow most chaotic and unpredictable during ages of discord, like the one we are living through now. Precisely because of that, these are times in which seemingly small things can make very large differences. Alternative ideologies, whether secular, religious or some combination of the two, have an opportunity to thrive that would not arise when the social order was more stable.  

One side of that equation is the now well-recognized rise of white nationalism. But the other side is more fluid, more diverse, more open-ended. Yet the power of its ideas may be much better aligned with where the future is heading — if we’re to have a future at all. The #MeToo movement offers a classic example.

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Tarana Burke, who began the movement more than a decade ago, explains its origins and purpose, “#MeToo is really about survivors supporting survivors, and it's really about community healing, and community action," she said. "We are the ones who have to define what justice looks like.” Burke describes herself as “a worker” rather than a leader or a visionary, but it’s work like hers that makes everything else possible, and the explosive growth of the #MeToo movement in last few months of 2017 is evidence of what’s possible in the way of positive transformational change, when “the stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22). This is the ultimate promise of what it means to listen to women who have been victims, and of empowering them to define what justice looks like.

Another figure who exemplifies Psalm 118:22 is Colin Kaepernick. Black athletes have long played crucial roles in politics: Joe Louis, Jesse Owens, Paul Robeson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the list is long and illustrious. This year, after Kaepernick was rejected by the NFL and vilified by Trump, his role in mainstreaming support for Black Lives Matter into the bloodstream of American sports has raised him into that elevated tradition. The more that the draft-dodging Donald Trump misrepresented Kaepernick’s respectful take-a-knee gesture as protesting the flag and disrespecting troops, the greater Kaepernick’s dignified stature grew.

Speaking of Black Lives Matter, the tragic news that activist Erica Garner had suffered a heart attack, and has since died, cast a solemn pall over the year’s end. "A terrible way to end a terrible year," Corey Robin tweeted. “Her voice was so powerful, so completely her own. Sad and quiet, yet utterly determined, filled w/vision but w/o a trace of cant. I used to watch videos of her speaking, over and over again. I will continue to do so.”

Although I usually agree with Robin, I refuse to regard this as a terrible year, because I think the resistance and the broader forces surrounding it have gained much more than the dark forces they are fighting against.

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Returning to Matt Grossman’s assessment, he observed that the Democratic Party's energy “remains with identity-based group protests" such as the ones I have mentioned here, "but these groups are not having as much conflict with one another as in the past (reflecting a long-term Democratic trend).”

I believe this vastly understates what is happening. The essential core of the Women’s March was not a bringing together of different groups, but the beginning of fusing a new intersectional identity. The more different people and the more different groups Donald Trump lashes out against, the more they come to see themselves in one another. It’s only a beginning, but it’s a powerful one. Of course, Trump is only a symptom of a larger malady. But he has helped to make the outlines of that malady much sharper than it has been before, even if he is a shape-shifter par excellence.

It’s been a shape-shifting year. And there will be more to come. As I said in the beginning, we’re not likely to have ordinary years into the indefinite future. But the energy we have summoned to meet the evil facing us has been remarkable. We saw this with the counter-protesters against white supremacists in Charlottesville, where Heather Heyer was killed, and the massive outpouring of counter-protesters the week after that in Boston.  

Like Tarana Burke, Heyer was a worker, someone who toiled in the fields, sowing the seeds for the fruits of justice that she might never taste herself. But that is very definition of what it means to belong a civilization, and not a mob: to plant seeds for future generations. That's what this year has been about for me: reclaiming our civilization from the mob that threatens to run off with it — even if it’s never quite managed to really be a civilization before. We are the people who will make it into one, and soon. That’s what 2017 has given me reason to believe.

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Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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