A friend asked me what advice might I give students about living with Trump’s administration. At first, I thought her question would be better suited for one of her colleagues in the political science department, but she pointed out that, given my incarceration, I have been finding ways to empower myself under totalitarian conditions for twenty years. She wanted to know how I would apply what I’ve learned to Trump’s administration and those who wish to resist. I was intrigued and flattered.
I’ve been dealing with a Trump-like figure—we’ll call him Armando—for the past year, and what I’ve learned is: it doesn’t pay to focus on your enemy. Focus instead on your allies.
How do I explain Armando? He’s egotistical; he’s a slick car salesman. He’d make a great villain in a Dickens tale. When I co-founded Prison Renaissance, an organization using the arts to create empathy, Armando told me he would do everything in his power to stop me.
Armando is incarcerated like me, but he wields unofficial power in my prison. He used his influence to spread fake rumors in failed attempts to have me sent to the hole (yes, people go to the hole for rumors here in prison). He manufactured conflicts of interest between the work I enjoyed at San Quentin News and my calling to develop Prison Renaissance. And he generally made life unpleasant for anyone who openly supported me.
Armando had declared war, and so it seemed common sense that I needed to focus on my opponent, if I were to survive his onslaught. I tried talking to him. That didn’t work, so I started calling him out on his bullshit in public. That proved cathartic, but ineffective. I started ignoring him except to put out the attendant fires, but nothing worked because in focusing on Armando and what he was doing to me and why be was doing it and how stupid and fat his fat face looked, I couldn’t see past the world he was creating. He became the tree that blinded me to the proverbial forest.
I read an article in Time where the writer seemed so focused on Trump’s hypocrisy in ending (or proposing to end) the National Endowment for the Arts, that she missed the opportunity to galvanize readers to action. She identifies the problem: the loss of federal support for the arts, writing:
She outlines a clear and present threat, but then spends the next 1800 words, for the most part, “reminding” Trump of how the arts have personally enriched his family. Although she makes valid points, her arguments strike me as an exercise in catharsis.
Catharsis is the enemy of sustained action. This claim certainly leaves room for argument, but sustained actions arise from sustained motivations. Sustained motivations arise, generally, from sustained feelings. Catharsis purges feelings. The Greeks used it in theaters to exorcise “uncivilized” impulses. The Russians used it in their gladiatorial arenas for mass pacification of oppressed populations. Historically, catharsis promotes inaction.
So while calling Trump out on his hypocrisy might feel good, it’s not likely to result in effective action. When I would call Armando out on his bullshit, I felt exhilarated rather than victimized. When I ignored him and felt like the bigger man for it, I felt noble rather than inadequate. I felt great, but I was manufacturing contentment through catharsis rather than actually changing conditions so that the contentment arose naturally through my circumstances.
When I shifted my focus from who and what was against me to who and what was for me, I moved from catharsis to effective action.
When I shifted my focus from who and what was against me to who and what was for me, I moved from catharsis to effective action. I started talking more to the people who do support Prison Renaissance. As we talked about goals and steps needed to reach them, I saw past the small world Armando wanted to create. I became energized by the limitless world I was creating.
The organizers of the Women’s March understand the power of focusing on allies rather than enemies. In the same issue of Time that I mentioned above, Karl Vick wrote an article in which he notes the “organizers actually calculated that framing the march as pro-women, rather than Anti-Trump, would work wonders.” It did. It mobilized over three million allies in not just gender justice, but issues like immigration and police reform.
Some criticize the march as an exercise in catharsis, but I know women who’ve entered new networks through the marches they attended. They’re not just manufacturing a sense of contentment; they’re changing material conditions. They’ve joined clubs that are teaching them how to lobby their local representatives, to help immigrants weather Trump’s ICE crackdown. They’ve drawn power from the visual reminder that although nearly 63 million Americans voted for trump, 65 million Americans voted against him. For people who oppose Trump’s administration, that’s a number worth keeping in focus.