It seems we meant something by those meme-words that gave liberals and leftists so much internet courage in the first weeks after Donald Trump’s election: “First they came for the Muslims, and we said . . . Not this time, motherfuckers!” Memes are made to mock, the more self-righteous the better. But those words turned out not to be empty at all.
When the first shoe dropped, we were at the airports. No one had to argue for it, and it seemed as if no one had to plan it, either, though immigrants’ rights groups did important groundwork for many of the protests in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration. It was an important and hopeful weekend, and very probably a sign of things to come.
Friday morning, I stopped by a rally in downtown Durham. The point was solidarity with refugees and immigrants, who were already seen as in jeopardy under the Trump administration’s priorities. There were maybe 150 of us, holding fairly abstract signs—I ADMIRE IMMIGRANTS—and listening to the testimony of refugees. Across the civic square in this booming everywhere-is-Brooklyn town, construction workers came to the edge of their scaffolding, some six floors up, to listen. The executive order came out at the close of business that day.
Midday Saturday, social media lit up with reports from friends rushing to JFK’s Terminal Four, Boston’s Logan Airport, and LAX. It was after midnight Friday when I heard that a local activist had secured a permit for 150 people to rally in solidarity at Raleigh-Durham’s airport, which clings to its international status thanks to one London flight and an on-again-off-again Paris route. At two o’clock on Saturday afternoon, more than a thousand people were there, gathered in front of the main terminal in mild weather, waving flags and last-minute signs (for example: the guy in front of me was holding the top flap of a Steve Madden box that, having been repurposed for moving, had “wine glasses” scratched across its white surface in Sharpie). The air was festive and utterly serious. The target was not Trump in the abstract, but the refugee policy and the content of Friday’s executive order, which blocked new refugees for 120 days, permanently banned Syrian refugees, and temporarily stopped admission of non-citizens (including green-card holders) from seven majority-Muslim countries. “Let them in,” we chanted, and “No hate, No fear, Refugees are welcome here!”
Already that morning, the White House was flip-flopping, announcing that the seven-country ban would not apply to people who were already legal U.S. residents. This looked like a clear loss for Stephen Bannon, the president’s chief political strategist and newly minted member of the National Security Council (by another executive order). Bannon’s vision of the Trump movement as part of a global alliance of middle-class nationalism, explicitly “Judeo-Christian” and defined against “Islamic militancy,” was all over the executive order. By the end of the day, three federal courts had issued orders staying the policy, although neither the effects of those orders nor the legality of Trump’s underlying policy was clear.
Lots of organizing energy in the last month has gone into implementing the “Indivisible” agenda of adopting Tea Party tactics to obstruct Trump’s agenda. Crowdsourced by a group of liberal congressional staffers and their friends and allies, the much-read google-doc-turned-resister’s-guide emphasizes the nuts and bolts of the opposition that slowed Obama’s program: calling congressional representatives every day, showing up for “town hall” public meetings, and so on. It’s very useful, and many of us who dislike the phone are making ourselves say, “Hello, I’m one of Senator Burr’s constituents, and I’m calling to express my concern about Betsy DeVos.”
But the tactical emphasis of Indivisible obscures something very important about the Tea Party’s success. Their activists believed without reservation that they were defending a constitutional inheritance, and that they had every right to fight for it. They felt, to use a word they do not like but that fits, altogether entitled to their righteous anger and unapologetic resistance. For the kinds of reflective progressives who were drawn a few years ago to the Stewart/Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” this attitude is a little vulgar. Even the signs and chants at the Women’s March (a great event in which I proudly participated) showed the hangover of the Clinton campaign, focusing on the grotesque or absurd qualities in Trump, rather than the principles we are defending against him.
There was none of that hesitation, no hint of apology, in the spontaneous rush to the barricades of the international terminals. Legal historians write about something they call “constitutional mobbing”: people taking to the streets to enforce basic political principles, sometimes disruptively (stopping traffic would be analogous today), but sometimes just by standing together in public space, making themselves known.
Progressives are understandably ambivalent about this sort of thing, as we sometimes are about over-bold self-assertion generally: we know there are many ways to read a constitution, and that invoking “the people” usually means a selective version—mostly white, older, and middle-class for the Tea Party, more diverse, younger, and further to the left for us. We are right to have these mixed feelings.
But there is also something to say for not leaving core principles of liberal democracy to the professionals in the courtroom. No one at the rallies doubted that religious liberty, legal equality, and a stance of constitutional self-confidence to counter xenophobic anxiety all demanded that we push back in force against the administration’s exclusion policy. The activists outside gave heart to the lawyers meeting with detained people inside the airports. At some larger level, they may have given heart to the judges who, with very limited guidance and on very quick notice, ordered that these policies be put on hold still while we take stock of our principles.
There is law, and there is solidarity, and it turns out they are distinct but not separate. “Solidarity” is one of Stephen Bannon’s words, which is why Trump used it in his inaugural address—the first time ever it was ever uttered in this context. He meant, along Bannon’s lines, the solidarity of a “Judeo-Christian” country that, as he often argued in the campaign, has to band together along religious and ethnic lines to stay safe in a dangerous world. That is the kind of solidarity that marks out enemies and dangers to define the political community: enemies outside, and enemies within.
Our solidarity is something else. We were at the airports to defend an inclusive vision of the constitution and, by extension, the political and legal community. In the same gesture, with the same breath, we were also there to press forward a vision of solidarity: an injury to one, as the labor movement used to put it, is an injury to all. That solidarity implies a picture of the constitution, and a way of defending it. That is what is at stake now.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a contributing editor at Dissent.