On November 9, early in the morning, I researched emigration to Canada.
I explored whether Canada needs experienced psychologists like my wife (it does) and whether I could get a teaching license there (I could) and whether we could find an Ethiopian community for Mitike there (yes: Toronto).
But I was wrong to try to flee Trump’s America.
Two and a half months later, I know that my responsibility as a woman, as an educated person who grew up in relative privilege, as a teacher in a large city high school that serves a refugee population, as a writer, as a mother, and as an American is not to flee this country but to stay and join the resistance.
I must stay to resist because, as a reader and as a student of history, I recognize the symptoms of this time. Suddenly, the words of George Orwell’s dystopic fiction 1984 (written in 1949) and Hannah Arendt’s analysis The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) speak directly about today’s America; suddenly the brave civilian resistance portrayed in books like Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies or Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, or in movies like Schindler’s List (1993) or Hidden Figures (2016) is pertinent to what we need to do now, in America, in 2017.
We must resist. In every way. Immediately.
I hear the alarm bells ringing in every cabinet choice (DeVos, Sessions, Tillerson), in every incendiary phrase in an official speech (“American carnage”), in every moment KellyAnn Conway or Sean Spicer defends “alternative facts” with their doublespeak, in every insecure and unbalanced tweet, in the deleted subheadings from whitehouse.gov, in the reports that government agencies like the EPA have been instructed not to communicate with the public, in every new executive order that threatens human rights. If we do not speak loudly and act swiftly now, our government will go the way of certain other governments in history.
On Saturday, January 21, I pulled on my handmade crocheted pink pussy hat and marched beside my wife and daughter in Denver. We joined over 150,000 other people. Those of us in pink hats grinned at each other, connected. Meredith and I marched holding hands, our daughter leaning close, reading the protest signs to us: “Forward, not backward!” and “No racism, no homophobia, no xenophobia, no Islamophobia” and “Women’s rights are human rights” and “My pussy has TEETH!” and “Nasty women make history” and “LOVE WINS!” and “I’m with her and her and her and her and her!” In Civic Center Park, we cheered for spoken-word poets and singers and leaders and activists, and hope swelled in the air. My mom and I (both in our pink hats) wrapped our arms around each other’s waists as a woman law-maker asked the crowd to shout out the names of women who have inspired us. I shouted Mom’s name; she shouted Gram’s. The atmosphere was inclusive, optimistic, activated, even cheerful. On the way home on the train, I vibrated with the good energy of it all, glowing to think that, though I had marched in Denver, I had marched alongside my friends in Chicago and St. Paul and Portland and San Francisco and D.C. and Des Moines and Juneau and Tucson, and alongside the over one million other people who had marched that day.
Critics kept asking why we were marching, but they only had to read our signs: we marched to insist that we will fight for the rights of all people, for goodness and decency, for a world that is not built on greed or power, but on a deep belief in humanity’s capability for love and progress. The Women’s March was not officially a march against Trump. But in these first days of his presidency, we are all realizing that our resistance must be against him and his government, that in fact, the most American, most constitutional, most patriotic reaction to Trump’s election is to resist it. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in the Federalist Papers, No. 28, in 1787, “If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government.” Resistance is the only way we will keep our freedoms in this country. It is the only way we will keep our country.
Many of those who voted for Trump believe he is the resistance, the wrecking ball come to destroy the government that has failed to support them and failed to improve their lives. They shake their heads at our protests; they tell us to accept Trump’s win and move forward; they claim we liberals just can’t handle the “locker room talk” or Trump’s willingness to ignore political correctness. And this, of course, is another symptom of the serious peril in which we find ourselves. As Hannah Arendt wrote in her preface to The Rise of Totalitarianism, “It is as though mankind has divided itself between those who believe in human omnipotence (who think that everything is possible if one knows how to organize masses for it) and those for whom powerlessness has become the major experience of their lives.” In other words, if those who believe they are omnipotent can convince the ones who feel powerless that they speak for them, too (though they do not intend to), then they will achieve ultimate power at any cost. Hitler did that with great success for some time. Now Trump, the millionaire businessman, is claiming to his poverty-stricken supporters in West Virginia and Michigan that they are the “forgotten people” and that he is their “messenger” — and when he speaks, they cheer wildly, praising God.
And that is why marching on one day — even with millions — is not enough. The resistance against Trump’s corporate coup d’etat must be vigilant, constant, aggressive, and committed. We must not put our signs away. We must keep ourselves informed of every executive order and every bill proposed in Congress. We must write our legislators emails and letters, we must call them until they recognize our voices, we must create and sign petitions, we must organize groups in person so we can keep each other aware (look into registering an Indivisible Group; a group of people and I are meeting to do just that on Monday), we must contribute money to independent media (I support The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Democracy Now!), we must keep yelling the truth when the “alternative facts” are presented, and we must vote and vote and vote in every local and regional election. If we can, we must remain vocal about the issues that matter to us most, even if others pressure us or order us to be quiet.
There are many ways to resist. There are those ways of American democracy that I have just mentioned, and there are other ways that we must learn so we can use them if we need to. We must listen to the lessons of Europe’s recent history with fascism, which Yale history professor and Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder summarizes succinctly in the twenty action steps he presents in his essay “What you — yes, you — can do to save America from tyranny.” As Snyder recommends, we must read as much as we can (especially the longer, in-depth analyses and books, as sound-bites are dangerous in any time). We should re-read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience”; we should re-read the history of India’s and South Africa’s resistance movements; we should re-read Dr. King’s words in “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” And if we read books and watch movies about resistance in history and in fiction, we will learn those other ways to resist — the kinds of aggressive, powerful nonviolent resistance that are not as familiar to those of us who have lived relatively comfortable lives so far.
I’m researching in this way so I can be ready if I need to be. What will I be prepared to do? Could I run secret subversive messages, like the French characters in All the Light We Cannot See? Could I shout “TWO PLUS TWO IS FOUR!” even though the authorities tell me I must say five or be tortured, as they told Winston in 1984? Could I speak publicly against oppression, as the women in Hidden Figures did? Could I smuggle threatened people (like my Muslim students, like my students whose parents are undocumented or who are themselves undocumented) in and out of my own house, as so many people did in Europe during World War II? Could I write and speak and organize, even against threats, like the women in In the Time of the Butterflies did? Could I stand strong with others although pipeline construction equipment or tanks roll toward us?
I think I could. I hope so.
These days and weeks and months ahead will test me, as they will test us all. But what I’m learning from my research is this: years from now, history will ask how people responded to Trump and his plans for America, and I will say that I stayed.
I will say that I resisted.
About Sarah Hahn Campbell
Sarah Hahn Campbell is a lesbian essayist and novelist who lives in Denver, Colorado, where she teaches high school English and parents a beautiful little girl with her wife, Meredith. Campbell has published work in a variety of publications, including Curve, Room Magazine, Sinister Wisdom, Iris Brown Lit Mag, and Adoptive Families Magazine. Her novella, The Beginning of Us, came out in January 2014 from Riptide. Originally from a farm in eastern Iowa, she holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University and writes a monthly column called “Subversions” for Brain Mill Press.