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Beyond Despair

Finding the will to fight Donald Trump

The left's opposition to the Trump agenda suffered its first serious post-election losses this week, with Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions both confirmed to Trump's Cabinet. While these weren't the first nominees confirmed over the opposition, they were the first whom Democrats had fully united against. The Democratic base flooded the phone lines of their representatives, showed up en masse at town halls and senatorial offices, tweeted and organized and marched. Democratic congresspeople listened and delivered tough questions in confirmation hearings and (with one exception) held the line. They even flipped two Republican congressmen, convincing them that voting against DeVos was either wise or politically expedient.

And they still lost. They forced Vice-President Pence to make the tie-breaking vote in the case of DeVos — perhaps a moral victory, but a material defeat nonetheless. They couldn't even manage to get a party-line vote on Sessions. The Democrats will probably not be able to stop any of Trump's Cabinet picks, and they won't be able to stop Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, either. They just don't have the votes. Elections, the saying goes, have consequences.

The shock of the election itself and the realization that Trump intends to inflict his campaign agenda on the country have led people to spring into action to stop him. This is a hopeful moment, not just despite the stakes but because of them. There is inherent joy in being galvanized by a cause, in entering the fray where history will be made. We all would like to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, something that matters.

But that feeling of hope is about to collide with repeated, unavoidable defeat. The losing has just begun. The coalition between Trump's administration and the mainstream of the Republican Party will be a durable one, because each is indifferent toward the other's priorities. Paul Ryan is fine supporting the refugee ban, for instance, as long as Trump will pass his tax cuts to the rich. This means that a lot of legislation will get done under Trump's presidency, and most of it will probably be bad. Democrats will have little chance of stopping or mitigating any of it, because they don't have much leverage.

In fact, those who oppose Trump's agenda must face the prospect of a long string of losses from here until at least the midterm elections. And while it's true that one-third of the Senate and all of the House will be up for grabs, and also true that the party that doesn't control the presidency usually makes gains at midterms, the Democratic Party is still sailing into the wind. Voter ID laws will make it harder to turn enthusiasm into votes, and gerrymandering will make it harder to translate votes into seats in the House.

Salvation might not come in 2020, either. The list of incumbents who didn't win a second term after restoring the presidency to their party is short. Moreover, the main argument that Democrats levied against Trump in the 2016 election was that he was unstable and unqualified. If the sky is not falling in 2020, that argument will be unconvincing. And if the economy is decent then, Trump will not only be a popular candidate, but a formidable one. The Democrats (and socialists, communists, and everyone else aligned in opposition to Trump from the left) will lose again.

The response that many people have to this prognosis is "we will survive," or "we will get through this," or "we have been through worse," but this is only a partial truth. Many of us will not survive. Many people died under slavery, under Jim Crow, in internment camps, in prison, at war, during depression. There will be life-or-death consequences of a Trump presidency. There already have been. Some of us will not survive, and some of those who do may bear wounds that will never completely heal. The necessity of looking at history in retrospect means that we mainly remember successes. Movements that tried and failed are often forgotten. They only make it to the history books when they win, or if they can be framed as part of the arc of success of a different movement.

It might be hard to feel any hope in a few months. It might be hard to feel hope in a few weeks. This is a pessimistic assessment, but it's not a cynical one. I am not saying to stop fighting; I am saying that there will come a point at which you no longer want to, at which it will no longer seem worth it. If you are privileged, especially, you will want to withdraw from political engagement, to shut it out and turn inward. You might come to despair.

There is no shame in arriving at despair. It's human nature. But you must keep going and find the place beyond it. And when you reach that place, you fight not because you are guaranteed to win, or even have a chance of winning. In fact, losing might be inevitable. You continue to fight, even in the face of the inevitability of defeat, because it is right and it is good. The place beyond despair is not hope, exactly, but it is a place from which you may draw nearly unlimited will, because you are no longer afraid of losing. If we want to keep fighting, this is the destination we must reach.