Rules for Radicals (In the Age of Trump)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I didn’t vote for Donald Trump last November, I was disappointed with his election, and I want him to be voted out of office as soon as possible. I have published articles criticizing him and I have even crossed party lines to support his opponent (a painful step for any registered Republican).

I only say all of this to convince you that I am genuinely concerned about the direction of the anti-Trump protest movement. I am sad, not because I disagree with its aim to defeat Trump, but because I am worried that it will make our problems worse. As well-intentioned as the vast majority of protesters are, both at Swarthmore and elsewhere, their tactics could actually empower Trump.

Now, more than ever, it is important to remember that good intentions unfortunately do not always add up to good results. Just because the anti-Trump movement has embraced civic engagement this does not mean we will win.

At Swarthmore, groups like the Swarthmore Anti-Capitalist Collective (formerly Swarthmore Marxists and Anti-Capitalists) have decided to resist the current administration by refusing to collaborate with moderates. They believe that the best way to minimize the harm caused by Trump is to advocate for a radical lurch to the far left. Somehow they think that refusing to engage with Trump supporters or the center will build a winning coalition. I am certain that this strategy is misguided.

I am a moderate Conservative. While I didn’t vote for Trump, people of my political persuasion are the folks that pushed Donald Trump across the finish line last November. The people who voted for Trump are blue-collar voters living in suburban and rural areas in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. If the President is to be defeated in four years, the anti-Trump movement will have to convince at least some of these Trump supporters to cross the aisle to oppose him.

The problem, as it turns out, is that most college students aren’t aware of how the rest of the country views them. Large parts of the United States look at angrily protesting students and yuppies with a fair share of scorn and disgust. We come off as elitists—people who are supremely privileged (yet won’t admit it) and refuse to admit for a second that there’s a chance we could be wrong about the way the world works. We come off as dismissive know-it-alls who want to force our ideals on the rest of the country.

Let’s be honest, to some extent there is truth in their stereotype.

Regardless of whether urban elites are right or wrong on actual policy issues, we have to face the fact that we’ve got a massive image problem. We are horrible messengers to bring the anti-Trump argument to the world.

We are so horrible, in fact, that President Trump has used our outrage against us. Every time activists exclude anti-Trump pro-life advocates from a women’s march they give him ammunition to demonize the anti-Trump movement.

We have got to realize that every time protesters show up to marches with signs that say, “fuck the patriarchy” and “fuck the police” they confirm the harmful stereotype that we’re out of touch with the world. We end up giving Trump the tools he needs to convince his skeptical moderate critics that while he might be bad, the left is even scarier.

By using extreme rhetoric, the left is closing off avenues for cooperation and tolerance. It is depriving itself of the very coalition of individuals that it will need to beat Trump. Whenever you tell a Trump supporter that you can no longer be their friend because they support the President you are just allowing Trump to convince them that they are victims of leftist and elitist scorn. You are cementing and radicalizing his base.

Trump has thrived on the narrative that urban elites don’t care about the desires or thoughts of the rest of the country. By pivoting to the far left, the anti-Trump movement will provide the President with all the ammunition he needs to deepen the partisan divide that gives him power.

That’s why I want to make a plea: Please, work to show that Trump is wrong, work to regain the trust of the rest of the country, and work to bring former Trump voters into the movement.

I get that protesting and resisting with righteous anger feels absolutely wonderful. I get that yelling “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” might feel liberatory. But we want to end this presidency as soon as possible we have to change the way we talk to the rest of the country.

While opposition to Trump from all parts of the left is important, we must recognize that without the center it won’t be enough to make any meaningful changes. In a democracy you need a majority of the population on your side to create change.

I recognize that many won’t appreciate the fact that a white, male, Republican, is taking potshots at the movement without offering many concrete suggestions. That’s why I’ve compiled a list of real steps that can help the movement actually accomplish its goals. The next time you decide to take steps to shorten Trump’s presidency, I hope you think about how the tactics you use will help solve our problems.

My Suggestions:

  1.  Don’t use attacks that are unconvincing to the average American. While chanting “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA” may sound great to the protesters you’re marching with, people watching the protest at home on Fox News or their local TV station will think that it just sounds unrealistic and outlandish. Exaggerated statements, even on social media, are a great way to delegitimize your ideas.
  1. Don’t exclude people from your movement just because you have minor policy disagreements. SACC (the new campus leftist group) refuses to work with Swat Conservatives to protest Trump because they are too moderate. Moderates are crucial allies, not impurities that must be dealt with. Never forget that a coalition is only a coalition because there are people in it who you disagree with. Including anti-Trump pro-life women at the Women’s March, for instance, would have only made the moral force of the event more powerful. 
  1. Don’t just protest in the downtowns of big cities. The people in these places already agree with you. They’re not the people you have to convince in order to win. Instead, go out to areas that voted for Trump like the suburbs and rural areas to get some actual face time with them. While people will see video of your protest on TV if you spend time in big cities, this is no substitute for talking to people in person.
  1. Don’t just protest; try to solve the underlying problems that caused people to vote for Trump in the first place. If people see you attempting to measurably improve the lives of the people you profess to care about you gain a huge amount of moral capital. A wonderful example of this type of activism that took place the day Trump’s immigration executive order was implemented. When lawyers turned up at airport terminals to prevent people from being turned away, it was a particularly powerful moment for the movement. If people want to show they care about income inequality, for instance, politically charged service trips to declining communities could be incredibly effective. I think we too often forget that Pennsylvania has plenty of these towns and cities just a few miles away from Swarthmore.
  1. Don’t make your attacks on Trump supporters personal. When you attack moderate Trump supporters rather than their ideas they will never side with you. Don’t call them dumb or ignorant because they’ll think exactly the same about you. Remember, no one has been convinced of any argument with condescension alone.
  1. Don’t personally attack Trump. This so clearly does not work. Personally attacking Trump allows him to claim that the left is full of hypocrites. If you attack him for his many moral indiscretions he won’t deny it, he will simply turn around and say that the left is even worse. Just look to the debate that featured Juanita Broaddrick, Paula Jones, and Kathleen Willey. Basically, making fun of Trump for things like his “golden showers” only makes him stronger.
  1. Do focus on policy! Trump isn’t Hitler, let’s be real, but he is pretty similar to a more powerful Silvio Berlusconi. What brought Berlusconi down, in the end, wasn’t his endless list of scandals and controversies; those just bounced right off him. What brought him down was his failure to create policies that improved the lives of average Italians. Highlighting Trump’s inability to “Make America Great Again” makes him look like a hypocrite.
  1. Don’t use leftist vocabulary. It is essential to use the language of the people you are trying to persuade. Talking about critical race theory, for instance, might be important to you, but a moderate Republican almost certainly will just laugh in your face if you try to convince them using those arguments. Appeal to the values that they care about. Talk about liberty, the Constitution, American values, etc… The framing of our arguments is absolutely crucial. Instead of burning the flag, march with one.
  1. Do have a set of limited concrete demands. When a movement is fractured around hundreds of different issues it loses focus and becomes far less effective. All of the most compelling social movements in American history had one central goal, this movement needs to find one to rally around.
  1. Don’t resort to violence. This rule should be self-evident. At the end of the day we still live in a democracy, let’s try to act like it.

I’m confident that Trump can be beaten, but this will only happen if we can put aside our differences and work together to show the rest of the country his flaws. At this moment in history, it is essential that radicals and moderates begin building bridges, not burning them.

Featured image by Patrick Holland ’17/The Daily Gazette.

While Patrick Holland is the opinions editor of The Daily Gazette, his views do not necessarily represent those of the editorial board.

Patrick Holland

Patrick is a senior from Bethesda, Maryland and a political science major who spends so much time fretting about American politics that it's probably not all that healthy. In addition to editing for The Daily Gazette, he is a member of the Peaslee Debate Society and an occasional runner. While Patrick likes to stay busy, he regrets the fact that he has very little time for Netflix in his life because he wants to rewatch The West Wing very badly.


  1. 12
    Tushar Kundu ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

    While I agree with the vast majority of your comments and suggestions, I believe you also may be a little too hard on the state of the resistance to Trump. Instead of being concerned about the direction the protests are taking, I think there is plenty of room for optimism! Being at Swarthmore probably biases how we view the larger state of the protests (I think a group like SACC represents the extreme extreme minority), and in reality, most of the protests have been very policy focused. As one example, there have been many reports of excited pro-Obamacare liberals clogging up Republican town-hall meetings and making their voices heard.

    Furthermore, there have been concrete results from the protests. Republicans abandoned their plan to gut the Congressional Ethics Office when faced with immense pressure. The Trump Administration had to reverse course on their decision to stop Obamacare advertisements during the last stage of sign-ups. The “Muslim-ban” EO faced amazing spontaneous protest, and although likely not a direct result of the protests, has been rejected twice by the judiciary. Even if the decisions themselves do not stem from the resistance, I have to think that the judge’s intense wording and rejection of the Trump Administration’s views are in part due to the strong push-back the administration has faced since Trump’s inauguration.

    In summary, while I do believe your points should be well taken in a place like Swarthmore, I am more excited than concerned about the state of the larger anti-Trump movement.

  2. 8
    Alum '16 says:

    I’m probably not as interested in stopping Trump as Patrick (although I am partially), but I have to say this is absolutely fantastic advice for the Left. Of course, I’m confident he’ll be portrayed as an apologist/bigot, but that’s generally what happens to people who speak reasonably these days.

  3. 4
    Jean-Claude Juncker says:

    Anyone can write a bad take admonishing protesters. It takes real talent to wait until AFTER highly successful, nationally admired protests happen and then write that the protests will fail because they aren’t structured to appeal to Marco Rubio’s donors.

    1. 4
      Patrick says:

      Whether the Inauguration protests and women’s march were effective depends on who you talk to. Sure, the NYTimes loved them but what about the rest of the country? At the same time, those were followed up by the protests at Berkeley last week. That certainly isn’t a good direction to be heading in.

      Also, have they really been all that successful? Trump just got every single one of his cabinet appointments confirmed. That doesn’t sound like success.

      1. 3
        Tushar Kundu ( User Karma: 0 ) says:

        But there were protests all over the country, in every single state, including the red states. Yes, there is something to be said for the urban rural divide, but the protests were clearly not isolated solely in NYT enclaves.

        Further, I think the fact that Trump got every single one of his cabinet appointments confirmed is a pretty useless statement. There have only been 23 rejected or withdrawn nominees in history, and although I have not checked, I would be very surprised if more than a handful were rejected when the party of the President also controlled the Senate.

        The fact that several nominees faced intense opposition is indeed noteworthy, and even though I personally think the DeVos drama may have been orchestrated by Mitch, I would certainly not say Trump transition has been smooth. Finally another concrete result tonight (in addition to the ones I commented above) – I know Flynn wasn’t Senate-confirmed, but his resignation has to be a win for the opposition.

  4. 2
    Ian G '18 says:

    I disagree. I think that all that is necessary is to nonviolently refuse to back down. See, most of the people on the other side of the line are just trying to get by–not the actual administration, whose top echelons are half Nazis and half thieves, but the guys on the ground. When Trump deploys the police and the National Guard and the military to stop us? They don’t all worship the ground Fuhrer Trump walks on. Most of them are good working-class types just trying to put food on the table for their kids. We don’t need to change our language or our goals. We need to convince those people on the other side who aren’t Nazis or thieves that we’re not going to back down, but we’re not a threat either. Do you really think that a US Army serviceman will pull the trigger on someone armed only with a sign, then go home and tell his daughter that Daddy killed somebody today for no reason? Hell no. We shouldn’t back down, we shouldn’t water down our goals to accommodate the idiot fascist or people who tolerate him, but neither should we let this become a war before Trump actively goes full Hitler, because we don’t have the weapons or the training to take on fascist death squads AND the military at the same time.

  5. 2
    Will Marchese ( User Karma: -3 ) says:

    Ah yes, it’s “minor policy disagreements” that separate SACC and the ‘moderate’ group that invited a eugenicist to campus! The differences between our groups don’t lie in studies or stats or Vox articles: To reduce SACC (or even the Left or radical Left generally) and Conservative’s differences to mere ‘policy’ obfuscates the ideological differences at play.

    Also the bit on “fuck the policy” and “fuck the patriarchy” was patronizing and peak respectability politics.

    1. 8
      Patrick says:

      I don’t even think you’d even cooperate with Swarthmore Democrats given your standards. That’s really too bad because I think you’re sadly wasting a lot of potential.

      As for the respectability politics argument… Yes, I am asking everyone to practice respectability politics. I’m sorry if that sounds bad, I know it has horrible connotations in leftist circles, but let’s face it, all effective political strategy is respectability politics. Everyone has to self-censor if they want to get their way. This is true in everyday personal life and national campaigns. If you think you can always speak your mind without paying the consequences then you have an overly simplistic conception of the political process.

  6. 0
    Anonymous says:

    I think a lot of what you say is possibly correct, but I’m going to nitpick one point in particular because it’s pretty obviously wrong:

    Saying protestors should go to rural/suburban areas to directly show their protest won’t have the effects you’re looking for. The first reason I’d say this is true is population density. People in rural and suburban areas are a lot more spread out, so you’re actually only going to show a few people the effects you’re looking for. It might even be the case that the density of cities is so much higher that you contact a greater total number of Trump supporters in cities than in rural areas. You might argue that conservatives in cities are already exposed to liberal ideas on a more regular basis than rural or suburban conservatives, so seeing a protest won’t have that much additional effect, but that brings me to my second point: you won’t be able to get as many people out to rural and suburban areas, since they’re simply further away. Large numbers of people obviously already live in cities, and even more can take public transit in. Contrast this with suburban and rural areas, where you’re forcing people to pay for transportation, and take more time. Further people will come, which means your protest will seem far less effective.

  7. 0
    Kendelle Durkson says:

    This may have been one of the most amusing articles that the Daily Gazette has posted this year. First, let’s address the point that this article is written from the perspective of a privileged conservative White male and that your arguments only confirm the privilege in which you come from. I have major issues with this article ranging from your tactics to diminish the personal harm that Trump has caused but also your sheer naiveté for believing that “minor policy disagreements” are the sharpest points of disagreement between Liberals and conservatives. To be honest, this article only adds insult to injury when considering the “major” policy overhaul that the Trump administration is pushing for and that Republicans in congress are supporting.

    I question your motives for even writing this piece in the first place. Considering a time when so many people are questioning their futures in the US, why would you use your time to target the liberal movement to oppose Trump and Republicans in congress in general? Have you ever taken the time to think that maybe you should instead focus your energies on persuading people of your “political persuasion ” that Trump is dangerous and unfit for office? What measures have you taken to persuade moderates on this campus to critique the partisan bandwagon that Republicans in congress have been adhering to since the election, and before for that matter? What articles have you published that specifically targets people of your “political persuasion” for voting for Trump, yet still maintain the status quo that Trump is horrible? What marches have you participated in recently that stands in alliance with those who were and are victimized by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and now executive orders in office? When were you physically assaulted by the “peaceful” Trump supporters at rallies? Where were you or any of the other moderates/conservatives on campus the day after the election to offer consolation and signs of alliance with marginalized groups on campus? Where were you when the election was unfolding and you offered no strong rebuke of Trump and his candidacy? I think these questions deserve answers and could also point towards an explanation for why more than “minor policy disagreements” are points of contention between liberals and conservatives.

    I could go on and on about why this article is foolish and how the election proved that being conservative or liberal is more than just policy alignment. I could delve into the layers of privilege and hypocrisy that you come from in even attempting to argue your contentions in this article. I could spend even more time critiquing your ineffectual criticism of liberal resistance. You want to offer advice or help for the greater good? Then take it down to the ballot box and vote for the best interest of the country. Take out your tennis shoes and walk in those rural/suburban areas and try to persuade people of your “political persuasion” why they shouldn’t vote for Trump in 2020. Walk with groups that march for freedom, the right to choice, the right to equal marriage and due process, and all the other ideologies that accept all with open arms. Endure the abuses that I and others have in the fight to resist Trump. Until then…

    1. 15
      Patrick says:

      “I question your motives for even writing this piece in the first place. Considering a time when so many people are questioning their futures in the US, why would you use your time to target the liberal movement to oppose Trump and Republicans in congress in general? ”
      -Like I said, I think it can be more effective. I don’t want it to stop, I want it to be better.

      “Have you ever taken the time to think that maybe you should instead focus your energies on persuading people of your “political persuasion ” that Trump is dangerous and unfit for office?”
      -Yes, I’ve spent a pretty substantial time trying to persuade people not to support Trump. If you knew me this would be quite clear.

      “What measures have you taken to persuade moderates on this campus to critique the partisan bandwagon that Republicans in congress have been adhering to since the election, and before for that matter?”
      -I’m pretty vocal about my frustration with Republican leadership at the moment. If you knew me this would also be quite clear.

      “What articles have you published that specifically targets people of your “political persuasion” for voting for Trump, yet still maintain the status quo that Trump is horrible?”
      This one:
      And this one:
      And sort of this one:
      And any number of facebook posts….

      “What marches have you participated in recently that stands in alliance with those who were and are victimized by Trump’s campaign rhetoric and now executive orders in office?”
      I wrote about the one I went to a few weeks ago. To be fair, I went more as an observer. So you’ve got me there I guess… Like I said, I doubt their efficacy in many scenarios.

      “When were you physically assaulted by the “peaceful” Trump supporters at rallies?”
      I can’t say I’ve been assaulted by Trump supporters. I have been to Trump rallies and had both productive and heated arguments with Trump supporters. Not sure how this is relevant though… If they’re assaulting people they’re clearly in the wrong. Assaulting them back won’t make the problem better.

      “Where were you or any of the other moderates/conservatives on campus the day after the election to offer consolation and signs of alliance with marginalized groups on campus?”
      I’d like to think I was supportive of my friends.

      “Where were you when the election was unfolding and you offered no strong rebuke of Trump and his candidacy?”
      As already noted, I did.

      I’m happy to have my article critiqued, but please don’t question my motives or my character when you don’t know me. That’s neither productive nor fair. Refusal to argue against the best form of your opponent’s argument is one way we got into this mess in the first place.

      If you think I can’t speak because I come from a position of privilege than so be it. I doubt I can change your mind about that.

  8. 0
    Jodie says:

    This article gets written every other year. It’s always condescending and underwhelming. The analysis is shallow and the prescriptions are not very narrowly tailored. “Don’t reject group from your protest movement” is a tired debate case. I will write signs that say “fuck the patriarchy” all day and if that alienates allies, maybe they have some thinking to do. Maybe you do too, Pat. 4/10.

Leave a Reply to Patrick Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *