Social Self-Defense: Protecting People and Planet against Trump and Trumpism

Introduction: These are times to try our souls

Donald Trump and a powerful collection of anti-social forces have taken control of the U.S. government. They seek permanent domination in service of their individual and class wealth and power. Trump’s presidency threatens immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, workers, women, children, the elderly, the disabled, LGBTQ people, and many others. Indeed, it threatens all that holds us together as a society. We the people – society — need to defend ourselves against this threat and bring it to an end. We need what resisters to repressive regimes elsewhere have called “Social Self-Defense.”

The term “Social Self-Defense” is borrowed from the struggle against the authoritarian regime in Poland forty years ago.  In the midst of harsh repression, Polish activists formed a loose network to provide financial, legal, medical, and other help to people who had been persecuted by the police or unjustly dismissed from their work. Calling themselves the Committee for Social Self-Defense (KOR), they aimed to “fight political, religious and ideological persecution”; to “oppose breaches of the law”; to “provide help for the persecuted”; to “safeguard civil liberties”; and to defend “human and civil rights.” KOR organized free trade unions to defend the rights of workers and citizens. Its members, who insisted on operating openly in public, were soon blacklisted, beaten, and imprisoned. They nonetheless persisted, and nurtured many of the networks, strategies, and ideas that came to fruition in Solidarity – and ultimately in the dissolution of repressive regimes in Poland and many other countries.[1]

From the day Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, thousands of people began to resist his agenda. Demonstrations against Trump broke out in American cities; police chiefs, mayors, and governors declared they would not implement his attack on immigrants; thousands of people signed up to accompany threatened immigrants, religious minorities, and women; technical workers pledged they would not build data bases to facilitate discrimination and deportation. Discussion of how to resist the Trump regime broke out at dining room tables, emails among friends, social media, and community gatherings.

It is impossible to know whether the Trump regime will rapidly self-destruct; successfully impose a reign of terror that dominates the U.S. for years or decades to come; or deadlock indefinitely with anti-Trump forces. We do know that the future of the planet and its people depends on resisting and overcoming Trump’s agenda. The struggle against Trump and Trumpism is nothing less than the defense of society – Social Self-Defense.

Social Self-Defense

Donald Trump is a self-aggrandizing person pursuing his own wealth and power. The Trump administration is filled with people pursuing their personal interests and those of a mélange of political cliques, corporations, industries, and foreign countries. Trumpism also incorporates a broader rightwing vision of restructuring the institutions of society to eliminate all barriers to the self-aggrandizement of the rich and powerful.

Donald Trump is adept at singling out individuals and institutions, from political opponents to journalists to a hapless beauty pageant winner and a local union leader, for slander and abuse. He is a master of playing off different groups against each other: white workers against African Americans, established residents against immigrants, men against women, Christians against Muslims, Americans against Chinese. However, Trump and Trumpism go beyond attacks on particular groups: They are undermining the foundations of a free and ordered society. They are dismantling the basic practices that make life something other than a war of all against all. And they are hell-bent on destroying the natural conditions on which our life on earth depends.

Social Self-Defense is the protection of that which makes our life together on earth possible. It includes the protection of the human rights of all people; protection of the conditions of our earth and its climate that make our life possible; the constitutional principle that government must be accountable to law; and global cooperation to provide a secure future for people and planet.

In the face of the Trump assault, protecting individuals, groups, and society as a whole go hand in hand. The attacks on individuals and groups are a threat not only to those directly targeted, but to our ability to live together in our communities, our country, and our world. It is a threat to all of us as members of society. Protecting those specific constituencies who are most threatened is crucial to protecting our common interests as people. Social Self-Defense means defending those who are threatened as a way both to defend them from injustice and to defend our common interest as people – as members of society. Social Self-Defense means we’ve got each others’ backs.

The manifestations of Trumpism did not start with Trump’s election; recent years have seen denial of rights ranging from mass incarceration to police militarization to soaring expulsion of immigrants to restriction of the right to vote. The struggle for a more just society has also been intense — indeed, the emergence of Trumpism is in substantial part an attempt to quell the rising tide of Black, Latino, low-wage worker, LGBTQ, climate protection, and other movements. Social Self-Defense represents a continuation as well as a reconfiguration of those movements. If Trump’s election has a silver lining, it could be the emergence of a Social Self-Defense strong enough not only to defeat Trump but to implement a long-term vision of how to protect and restore our planet and its people.

The First Responders: Social Self-Defense has begun

From the day Trump was elected, millions of people began to resist him and his agenda. Their actions provide a preview of the future of Social Self-Defense.

Less than 24 hours after the election results were announced, there were 350 protest gatherings around the country in response to a call by MoveOn and allies. In the succeeding five days, thousands demonstrated daily in the streets. 8,000 people filled Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In New York, thousands more demonstrated outside Trump Tower. Protesters also turned out in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Dayton, Las Vegas, Providence, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, D.C., and Portland, Oregon.[2]

Donations poured in to organizations that would protect Trump’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union received $7.2 million from 120,000 people in the week after the election to defend the rights of “immigrants, transgender individuals, Muslims and reproductive rights groups,” and to fend off any plans to expand stop-and-frisk nationwide. Planned Parenthood received 128,000 donations – thirty times the normal rate – in the week after the election, and reported an eight-fold increase in applications to volunteer. Eleven thousand people signed on to donate monthly to the Sierra Club, nine times the previous record. On November 9 the Anti-Defamation League received fifty times its normal donations.[3]

Kayla Santosuosso, deputy director of the Arab Association of New York, launched an effort to recruit escorts for people who might be affected by hate crimes and threats. “In the back of my head, I thought I’d make this Google Form and at the very least we’ll have this list of 50 people that I can connect.” Within a few days, more that 5,500 people had signed up to accompany vulnerable individuals – people of color, Muslims and LGTBQ New Yorkers. More than 30,000 non-Muslims pledged to register themselves if Trump’s proposal to require all Muslims to register is implemented.[4]

In response to a call by Brooklyn City Council member Brad Lander more than 1,000 Brooklyn residents gathered November 12 for the first of a series of #GetOrganizedBK meetings.  The organizers said, “We must show up for New Yorkers facing hate-speech and hate-crimes welling up in our streets, subways, and schools.” Groups involved included Planned Parenthood, NY Immigration Coalition, 350 Brooklyn, and the NY Civil Liberties Union.

The resulting #GetOrganizedBK Facebook group described itself as “a hub for individuals, activists, organizations and community leaders to join together in our resistance.” Actions listed in early December included hosting a letter writing dinner for 12 friends who sent 100 letters to elected officials opposing Trump appointments; a petition to the New York Times asking that the euphemism “alt-right” be replaced by more accurate terms like Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist, and fascist (days later the Times did so); donation of 38 boxes of Kellogg’s cereal to a women’s shelter to help people in need and to support Kellogg for pulling ads from Breitbart; initiation of a Sister District Project to reach out to red districts around the country; organization of social workers and attorneys to help vulnerable immigrants; a “Kids Speak Out Against Hate” event; and a Candlelight Vigil to Resist Intolerance.[5] At another community meeting, Mayor Bill De Blasio vowed that the city would block a Muslim registry, provide abortions if they were outlawed by the Supreme Court, not comply with any new federal stop-and-frisk directives, and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.[6]

Similar self-organization happened across the country. In Los Angeles, according to Armando Carmona of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, a 500-strong popular assembly was held just days after the election. “Folks shared testimony, personal experiences and their understanding and analysis of what’s happening.” There were “breakout groups to think about how to do more assemblies in our own communities, how to organize know-your-rights workshops, how to develop legal defense strategies and how to generate awareness” of the challenges ahead.[7] In Montpelier VT, a city of less than 10,000, 140 people showed up for an emergency community meeting organized by the Green Mountain Labor Council, AFL-CIO “to affirm values of tolerance and social, economic and climate justice” and discuss “actions we can take to protect our communities, defend democracy, and build a Vermont and country that works for everyone.”[8]


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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

Let’s Save Each Other

Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission