From The Progressive October 1951
Sitting around the kitchen table with a bunch of female family members in pink knit hats after the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., my cousin, a human-rights attorney, began talking about her work in other countries where people are suffering under tyrannical, authoritarian regimes.
We have a lot to learn from pro-democracy activists in Africa and the Middle East, she said, and particularly in Latin America, where civil societies have managed to recover from hostile takeovers of their democratic governments. The scruffy street protesters in other countries could teach us a thing or two about what it takes to survive Donald Trump, my cousin declared. And human rights, she said, should be the organizing principle of the new resistance.
No doubt we are witnessing a new kind of American politics, in which people at the highest levels of government express outright contempt for the institutions of our democracy, the Constitution, the press, and human rights.
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, co-director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, who grew up in Peru under President Alberto Fujimori, sees parallels, including the Trump White House propaganda campaign and the current effort to discredit the media and undermine the public’s sense of the truth.
In Peru under Fujimori, she recalls, independent media withered and news organizations were corrupted and hollowed out. Fujimori ran on the fear of terrorism. Violence by the Shining Path as well as the military fed “a sense of chaos and disorder that led people to want a strongman,” she says.
Now, in the United States, McFarland says, “language like Trump is using—all this talk of ‘carnage’ and violence in the inner cities—raises real concerns about what he might try to justify.”
Trump’s claims that refugees pose a threat to public safety are belied by actual data. But a terrorist attack inside the United States could give him cover for broad repression.
Trump’s lack of transparency—his continued refusal to release his tax returns, and the way his family members are entwined in his businesses—may turn out to be the most significant parallel with foreign despots.
Corruption was Fujimori’s downfall, McFarland notes. “People who liked the repression did not like it when they found out that he was stealing,” she says.
McFarland sees hope for civil society to overcome Trump.
“In all countries, when you have dark, dark periods, and then a transition back, civil society played a key role,” she says. “Organizations insisted on documenting and getting the truth out. In some countries, they eventually prevailed.”
“In all countries, when you have dark, dark periods, and then a transition back, civil society played a key role. Organizations insisted on documenting and getting the truth out. In some countries, they eventually prevailed.”
Latin American countries including Peru and Chile offer a hopeful example. The dirty wars throughout the region are, for the most part, over.
Russia, on the other hand, seems hopelessly mired in the cynicism bred by pervasive corruption and repression.
And the putting down of the Arab Spring pro-democracy movements is truly discouraging.
Closer to home, in Madison, Wisconsin, mass protests that looked a lot like the humorous, joyful, irrepressible Women’s March of January 21, have not succeeded in ending any of Governor Scott Walker’s crackdown on unions, the public sector, women’s health, and a once-progressive state government.
“Well, people need to be very, very realistic about how things move,” McFarland says. Brave bureaucrats, dedicated civil servants, guardians of democratic institutions, and tough prosecutors can make a big difference.
Things may get worse before they get better.
“In Peru, Fujimori took over Congress, the courts, and then the media—and that was it,” McFarland recalls. “We had to wait until the moment of fear was over, and then there was the corruption scandal. . . . There were some great prosecutors, and now he is in jail.”
One can imagine a similar trajectory for Trump—a period of repression and overreach, followed by a corruption scandal that, with the help of some brave people in media and the government, could finally bring him down.
Meanwhile, many of Trump’s proposals and executive orders are poised to violate human rights on a huge scale.
“It’s really critical that people come together and unite around the concept of human dignity and human rights,” McFarland says.
“It’s really critical that people come together and unite around the concept of human dignity and human rights.”
The message for the movement should be: “Rights belong to everybody—women, Muslims, and also white, working-class Trump supporters. When governments violate the rights of some groups, it makes it easier to violate the rights of everybody.”
Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, agrees. She finds the idea of a mass resistance movement in the United States based on human rights “intriguing.”
“I love the framing of resistance around human rights because it recognizes that human-rights concerns affect everyone,” Huang says. One example she gives is South Africa under apartheid, where a huge international effort helped change the government.
Could a divestment campaign aimed at the United States bring down Trump? Huang can imagine campaigns targeting specific corporations that are enmeshed with the Trump Administration—and the President’s own business interests.
“There is no question that Trump has his own agenda, to utilize his position for personal gain,” she says. “If across the world, people decide to penalize companies that do business with Trump, it could affect other governments’ willingness to deal with him.”
Shaming Trump won’t work, Huang says. That’s something he has in common with Third World dictators who are immune to moral pressure campaigns. It takes mass protests, economic sanctions, and cross-border alliances to have an effect on these tyrants.
Huang cites President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, a popular, democratically elected leader who came into office and began waging a campaign of mass violence against his people. Human-rights activists are using divestment tactics and shaming companies that do business with the Philippines, to try to slow down Duterte’s shameless rampage.
Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe is another place where human-rights activists are resisting extreme repression with some notable success.
“Mugabe has been in power so long, and yet civil society has had a significant impact,” Huang points out. While they have not succeeded in getting rid of Mugabe, activists and civil servants have pushed back against some of his worst abuses, gaining the release of journalists who were imprisoned by the regime, reigniting protests that were declared illegal after a crackdown, and protecting some targeted activists from reprisal and death. And they are not giving up.
“A number of activists who have been prosecuted and harassed have refused to leave the country, or have returned, because they feel it is so important for those civil society groups to fight back,” says Huang.
Their courage is inspiring.
So is the courage, and the sheer willfulness, of the American people, says James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute.
Zogby rejects the idea that there is a parallel between the United States under Trump and countries that have long endured tyranny. “I know repressive regimes, and there is a fundamental difference,” he says. “The difference is: We have a culture of resistance.”
Shortly after 9/11, Zogby was invited to speak at the Japanese War Memorial in Washington, D.C., which commemorates the persecution and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Many feared the same dark chapter in American history could repeat itself, with Arab Americans and Muslims as the targets.
The event where Zogby spoke had more than thirty co-sponsors, he recalls, including the ACLU. Prominent Democrats and members of Congress attended.
Standing in the middle of the memorial, surrounded by the names of camps and the people who were interned there, Zogby told the group, “This will never happen to us.” That’s because “when Japanese Americans were interned, there was no one to defend them.”
Now, Zogby notes, each day’s announcements by the Trump Administration are greeted by demonstrations across the country—including the rush to airports when Trump’s order blocking noncitizens from reentering the country came down, the historic Women’s Marches, the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance, and the giant “Resist” banner Greenpeace managed to erect over the White House. All of this, says Zogby, shows “a will to resist and a culture of resistance that will trump their efforts at repression.”
“We’re different here,” Zogby maintains. “We lost an election. We shouldn’t have lost it. But people from day one were protesting and ready to resist and start over.”
A longtime member of the Democratic Party’s executive committee, Zogby supported Bernie Sanders, and believes he would have won. He was disappointed in the establishment candidacy of Hillary Clinton, and believes it was doomed from the start. Today he is supporting Keith Ellison’s insurgent campaign for party chair and working with Our Revolution for a progressive takeover of the Democratic Party.
Zogby watched the rise of the Christian Coalition when he was deputy manager of Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1988, and wrote a memo urging Jackson to stage a grassroots takeover of the Democratic Party based on the takeover of the Republican Party by the Christian Right. Our Revolution is another attempt.
Whatever comes next, Zogby has faith in the American instinct for democracy.
“There is an incredible culture of resistance that is as definitional as anything else in American history,” he says. “We’re the culture that protests.”