Study for Struggle: Weaponizing Theory for the Fights Ahead

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Rachel Herzing & Isaac Ontiveros*

The election of Donald Trump to the office of President of the United States set off a chain reaction among Left organizers and activists across the country. The responses were immediate and forceful. Disbelief was one of the primary reactions we witnessed via social media, informal conversations, and in-person meetings. Many people expressed grief and despair. Others, fear and dread. Still others, anger and outrage. And still others said, “I told you so.” Many took to the streets to express themselves collectively in what was sometimes a cacophony of perspectives and voices.

Nearly as immediately, we saw the release of platforms and statements. We received notices about online fora, trainings, and presentations. We heard about community meetings covering everything from strategies for making one’s church, campus, etc. a sanctuary space, to ways to protect organizers and activists from increased surveillance, to strategy sessions preparing for the 2018 elections.

In the wake of November 8th’s result, at the Center for Political Education we scoured the news, participated in online and in-person community meetings, and set ourselves to studying the range of post-election analysis circulating. We also met one-on-one with local community and political organizations to understand their current campaigns and projects, political education programs and needs, and to continue our ongoing work of understanding how we might support local groups to apply strong theory and analysis to their work on the ground. That ongoing effort has been strongly affected by the reactions of our community partners to what they see as the shifting context in the post-election era.

Many of our comrades and allies, and the communities with which they work, are spinning. Some are fearful of mass deportations, a Muslim registry, the repression of dissent and the expansion of surveillance apparatuses, and the rollback of gains made in recent years. Some are forecasting and preparing for the rise of fascism, the Alt-Right, militias and vigilantism, and the evisceration of social safety nets that have offered the slimmest relief for poor and working class communities and communities of color in both urban and rural areas. Still others are worried about environmental calamity, increased privatization, isolationism, and increased hostilities with international players. Many of our partners are also springing into action to analyze the conditions, plan strategies, and shore up defenses.

In considering the landscape on which the Left will organize, a series of questions emerge. Who is the Left being used as the point of reference here? In assessing what the Left should do, who the Left should mobilize, or how it should increase its ranks, what is the starting place for forging alliances and alignment? This question seems particularly pertinent given a steady stream of exhortations to expand our bases and forge alliances and coalitions with workers, liberals, or Democratic centrists. But with whom do we understand ourselves to be beginning these building efforts? What steps should be taken to align our understandings of the current context, goals about priority targets, and the best means and timeframes in which to attempt to shift power? While certainly this is a unique period in some senses, what lessons could be drawn from history to inform how we fight tomorrow? What are the best tools to apply toward these ends?

In our own reflection at the Center for Political Education, we found ourselves asking, will the Trump regime affect people’s abilities to think clearly? Will the fear so many are expressing about what will happen under the Trump administration lead to retreat and paralysis? Will it ignite frenetic activity that cuts corners on rigorous analysis in favor of rapid action? How may we best balance people’s real sense of fear and urgency with the need for methodical, rigorous analysis and strategic thinking? What roles are we carving out for ideological and political struggle as we strive to develop collective understandings of who we are, what we’re up against, and how best to fight back?

During the 1966 Solidarity Conference of the Peoples of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, Amilcar Cabral made his famous Weapon of Theory speech. As some have noted, Cabral put forward a forceful argument that the struggle for national liberation against the devastation wrought by colonialism and imperialism was a struggle for history itself: an active historical understanding of their conditions allowed the oppressed not only to overturn the racist mythology proclaiming they had no history, but also to forcefully carve out an understanding of themselves as protagonists of a freedom struggle in the present, and as architects of a liberated future. Of course, this would not be easy. As Cabral (1966) put it:

The ideological deficiency, not to say the total lack of ideology, within the national liberation movements—which is basically due to ignorance of the historical reality which these movements claim to transform—constitutes one of the greatest weaknesses of our struggle against imperialism, if not the greatest weakness of all.

In reflecting on this moment, we think it is useful to re-engage with similar challenges and questions, albeit in markedly different conditions. How do we build and use weapons of theory? How do we create lasting environments in which people can put their creative energies to use, forging and testing conceptions of how to “produce and make history”? We can start by drawing lessons from how social movement–affiliated education projects responded to crises in other periods. The Highlander Folk School, for instance, started in the wake of the Scottsborough Boys arrests and militant labor upheaval and repression in the region. The Highlander Folk School, and later the Highlander Research and Education Center, was also a key resource for civil rights activists and organizations and played a pivotal role as a strategic incubator of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and in the founding of the Student Nonviolence Coordinating Committee (SNCC). During a period in which Black people faced intense repression, violence, and intimidation for attempting to register and vote, Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools extended the work of Highlander outward from the physical space of the school and were an essential (and often clandestine) vehicle in helping people meet the literacy tests required to vote, while also teaching politics and organizing.

During the ensuing decades, civil rights and liberation struggles of oppressed people in the United States increasingly drew a common cause and shared fate with Third World liberation struggles across the globe. Countless progressive, radical, and revolutionary organizations wove intensive studies and analyses of political theory and practice into their organizing work—often drawing from the theoretical engagements, elaborations, and struggles of liberation organizations worldwide. Indeed, the struggle for education as liberation drove Third World students to carve out spaces for workers and people of color on campuses across the United States, leading to the founding of Ethnic Studies as a recognized academic discipline (a struggle which continues to this day). Amidst the lethal backlash against liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the Brecht Forum in New York City emerged in part from collaborative work for Puerto Rican independence. The Brecht Forum became an important vehicle for Left learning, strategy, and struggle in the 1980s, and more recently as a place for thinking and strategizing during the 2008 financial crisis and the Occupy movement.

Several organizations, including the Highlander Center and our own Center for Political Education, have joined other powerful education resources across the US and the world in continuing to provide spaces for study, reflection, analysis, and strategy. These kinds of spaces are more crucial than ever to understand our movements, to analyze our conditions, and to prepare to fight back. Returning to Weapon of Theory, Cabral reminds us that “every practice produces a theory,” and that “nobody has yet made a successful revolution without a revolutionary theory.” More than six decades before Cabral’s speech at the 1966 Tricontinental Conference, V.I. Lenin (1902/1993), writing from within a movement facing intense state repression, offered a similar analysis in What Is to Be Done? He averred that theory was an indispensable guard against “the narrowest forms of practical activity.”

The rise of Trump and the onslaughts he has promised to unleash are matters of dire urgency. There is no doubt that social change organizations should be taking up practical activities to protect themselves and their communities while building resistance and shifting power. The urgency that surrounds and compels us may discourage us from pausing to think deeply and rigorously. However, our ability to fight for the long haul depends on this deep thinking. Creating, valuing, and nurturing durable and thoughtful spaces for developing praxis in direct response to our times, places, conditions, and abilities is critically important as we face the perils that surely lie ahead. Now more than ever, we must understand that theory and analysis are crucial weapons, rather than things we don’t have time for.

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References and Further Readings
Cabral, Amilcar. 1966. “The Weapon of Theory.” Speech delivered to the Tricontinental Conference of the Peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Havana, Cuba.
Lenin, V.I. 1902/1993. What Is to Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. New York: International Publishers. 11th ed.

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* Rachel Herzing and Isaac Ontiveros are codirectors of The Center for Political Education, a resource for political organizations on the Left, progressive social movements, the working class, and people of color in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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Header image (left) by Joe Brusky, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.

Trump’s Health Care Agenda

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Thomas Bodenheimer*

The nomination of Tom Price to be Secretary of Health and Human Services and of Seema Verma to run the Medicare and Medicaid programs ensures a major attack on health services for the people of the United States. On health care, there is agreement between the Steve Bannon/Tea Party faction of the Trump pre-administration and the Paul Ryan/traditional Republican faction: they both want to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA). This agreement will affect both the individual mandate and the Medicaid expansion portions of the ACA. On the other major healthcare issue, the future of Medicare, the Trump factions disagree. The Paul Ryan faction and Tom Price hope to convert Medicaid into a privatized voucher system, whereas Trump’s pre-election statements—supported by much of his base—suggest that Trump wants to leave Medicare alone.

This review of Trump’s health care agenda looks at the ACA’s individual mandate, the ACA’s Medicaid expansion, and the future of Medicare.

The Individual Mandate

Inspired by the work of the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s, the ACA required people without health insurance to purchase insurance from a federal or state insurance exchange or to pay a fine. This is called an individual mandate because it mandates people to buy individual insurance if they lack employer-based private insurance, Medicare, or Medicaid. However, the Heritage Foundation has reversed itself and is now a leader in the movement to repeal Obamacare.

By 2016, the ACA had insured about 20 million previously uninsured people, about 10 million through the individual mandate and 10 million through Medicaid expansion. People buying insurance through the federal or state exchanges could purchase a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum policy, with the bronze plan having the lowest premiums but highest deductibles and the platinum plan having the highest premiums and lowest deductibles. About three-quarters purchased the silver plan, which pays for 70 percent of average healthcare costs leaving 30 percent for the patient/family to pay out of pocket. In 2016, premiums for the silver plan varied widely by patient’s age and health status and by location; for example, the silver plan monthly premiums for a 40-year-old nonsmoker were $186 in Albuquerque and $719 in Anchorage, Alaska. However, 85 percent of people insured through an exchange received a federal subsidy that reduced their premium by an average of 73 percent. Even with the subsidy allowing families to purchase a silver plan, the average silver plan deductible in 2016 was $3,000 per person.

Tom Price, HHS secretary-designate, has been a leader in the multiyear Republican effort to repeal Obamacare. He has introduced a replacement that eliminates the individual mandate and proposes tax credits (far smaller than the ACA’s subsidies) to help people purchase individual insurance policies. Analyses of these voluntary tax-credits have estimated that only a few people would choose to buy insurance under such a program, thereby leaving most of the 10 million individual enrollees in Obamacare without coverage. Trump’s campaign promise that he would not allow insurers to exclude people with pre-existing conditions is an empty promise, because the insurers could raise their premiums for people with such conditions to unaffordable levels.

The strength of a popular backlash against the Obamacare repeal is difficult to judge. In a post-election poll, 52 percent of Republicans wanted Obamacare repealed, down from 69 percent in October. Trump, Tom Price, and Paul Ryan may have their hands full.


The expansion of Medicaid, the program for low-income individuals and families, has been the most successful portion of the ACA, adding 10 million Medicaid beneficiaries in 31 states plus the District of Columbia. (Most Republican governors refused to expand Medicaid in their states.) Medicaid is now the country’s largest health insurance program, covering 73 million people. In Medicaid expansion states, everyone (except the undocumented) with incomes below 138 percent of the federal poverty line ($33,500 for a family of four) is eligible for Medicaid. In most expansion states, Medicaid beneficiaries have no premiums or deductibles and no or minimal copayments. Most states enroll Medicaid beneficiaries in managed care plans that have been quite successful in reducing the growth of Medicaid costs.

For years, Paul Ryan and the House Republicans have pushed to transform the entire Medicaid program into block grants. Currently, each state government pays managed care plans a certain amount per Medicaid beneficiary or it pays hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies when Medicaid beneficiaries receive care; then the federal government pays the states a certain percentage of those costs—50 percent for higher-income states like California, 90 percent for poorer states like Mississippi. For states that have expanded Medicaid under the ACA, the federal government has paid almost all of the costs. How would block grants change this payment model?

Under block grant legislation, the federal government would send each state a lump sum each year, which would be considerably less than what states currently receive from the federal government. States could then decide how to address the severe funding reductions. Some states could cut Medicaid beneficiaries from the program; others could reduce the services provided under Medicaid (such as eliminating dental care); others could pay hospitals and doctors and nursing homes less, which would cause those providers to stop caring for Medicaid beneficiaries.

The preferred model for state policy under a block grant program is currently underway in Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s Indiana, and it was devised by Seema Verma, who Trump has nominated to run Medicare and Medicaid. Indiana’s Medicaid program requires enrollees to pay a monthly premium of $1 to $27 depending on income. Enrollees below the poverty line who choose not to pay the premium are charged copays for physician visits and prescriptions. If the premium is not paid, beneficiaries above the poverty line lose Medicaid coverage for six months, whereas those below the poverty line must make copayments for services. About one-third of individuals who apply for Medicaid and are found eligible are not enrolled because they do not make a premium payment.

A large body of research shows that premiums and cost-sharing are barriers to care for individuals with low incomes and significant health care needs. State savings from cost-sharing and premiums accrue more because of declines in coverage and utilization than due to increases in revenues. In its 2003 redesign, Oregon Medicaid created a “standard plan” with premiums of $6 to $20 per month; people who missed a premium payment lost their Medicaid for six months. In addition, copays were instituted. Due to these patient cost-sharing requirements, 77 percent of Medicaid standard plan beneficiaries dropped their coverage. Many reported increased medical debt and financial strain related to healthcare costs. Fewer people went to the doctor. Many who lost coverage remained uninsured and experienced major unmet healthcare needs. Florida, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin saw similar declines in enrollment when they raised the premiums in children’s health programs. Other states have abandoned enrollee cost-sharing (premiums and/or copayments) because it was too expensive to administer.

The combination of block grants and patient cost-sharing requirements will make Medicaid —the program for the most vulnerable populations—the most damaged health care program in the country.


For years, Republicans have tried to privatize Medicare. Rather than automatically receiving a Medicare card upon turning 65, elderly people would be given a voucher to be used in buying a private insurance plan. However, the voucher would be worth far less than the cost of the insurance plan, forcing Medicare beneficiaries to pay far more for their coverage and their care. Medicare administrative costs, now about 3 percent, would jump to 15 or 20 percent.

Medicare is not exactly cheap for seniors now; it currently pays for only 58 percent of the average beneficiary’s health care costs, requiring the majority of beneficiaries to buy private plans to fill in the gaps. But under the Obama administration, some of these private plans—the Medicare Advantage plans—have actually offered good deals for seniors while saving money for the government. Trump’s campaign promise to reduce Medicare drug prices has already been placed on the back burner, likely never to surface again.

Prior to the election, Trump promised to leave Medicare alone. But his HHS Secretary pick, Tom Price, agrees with Paul Ryan that Medicare should be privatized. Pressure from the grassroots will determine what happens, but Medicare is not safe.


About half the population is covered by employer-sponsored health insurance and will be less affected by Trump’s health policy; but the other half—those on Medicare, Medicaid, and individual private insurance—will find their health care coverage on the chopping block unless the public resists with a massive voice. Most vulnerable is Medicaid, which, as a program for low-income people with less political clout, could be destroyed beyond recognition.

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*Thomas Bodenheimer is a medical doctor who has practiced in San Francisco. He is the co-author with Kevin Grumbach of Understanding Health Policy: A Clinical Approach (2012).

Header image (left): “Healthcare Is a Human Right” by Juhan Sonin, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.

Gender and Trump

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Carol C. Mukhopadhyay*

The 2016 election truly set a precedent for gender politics. The Democratic Party became the first major US political party to select a woman, Hillary Clinton, as its presidential candidate.  As is now well-known, she won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes but lost in the Electoral College. Among the multiple factors responsible for her defeat, gender played a major—though under-analyzed—role. The failure of (mainly male) political consultants and pollsters to recognize how gender issues and misogyny permeated this campaign may be one reason they miscalculated Trump’s appeal and the election results. Yet post-election discussions, often by these same pundits, continue to downplay gender, or simply draw upon long-standing cultural and religious models that blame women for personal and societal failures. So we blame Hillary for being such a “weak” candidate (by what standards?), or “white” (Euro-American) women for “abandoning” Hillary Clinton, despite evidence to the contrary relative to previous elections.

Therefore, as we assess the likely impacts of a Trump/Republican presidency, we must not ignore gender, especially since the progressive Left has often prioritized other “isms” and injustices over gender justice. In what follows, I will sketch some of the ways this election has affected and will continue to affect gender issues in the United States.

Women on the US Political Leadership Stage

In 2016, for the first time, two women participated in televised presidential primary debates. Millions, including children, saw articulate and accomplished women competing with men for the title of Commander-in-Chief. In three presidential debates, millions watched Hillary Clinton successfully handle the prototypic Alpha male, Donald Trump, as he alternatively bragged, growled, interrupted, smirked, insulted, even stalked, and in other ways tried to dominate and intimidate his presidential opponent. Untold numbers of women decided they, too, were “nasty women,” and proud of it! The positive role-modeling impacts were incalculable… But how long will they last, now?

The Gendered White House Family

The 2016 presidential campaign challenged, at least momentarily, the traditional gendered institution of the White House’s First Family. If the president’s spouse were to be male, what would happen to the First Lady role? Who would be “help mate” and “listener,” handle “domestic affairs,” and organize important social occasions? Had Hillary Clinton become president, gender would have come to the forefront as the “First Gentleman” role evolved. Certainly no one expected Bill Clinton to choose China patterns, redecorate, or become a fashion setter.  

The First Family and First Lady who will inhabit Trump’s White House symbolize a retrograde, pre-feminist vision of gender and family. News reports already show Donald Trump surrounded by and conversing with men… except for the strikingly dressed, heavily made-up, spike heels–wearing, visually present but silent and voiceless future First Lady. What role model does Melania Trump represent for US girls? And for girls (and boys) globally? It is a model of womanhood where looks are more important than having something to say, and physical appearance rather than educational or professional accomplishments is the route to success, wealth, and power.

Consensual Sexual Interactions

The Presidential campaign stimulated a discussion of often-ignored gender-related topics.  Despite some progress, sexual harassment and sexual assault, including rape, remain widespread at work and colleges (see the Stanford case), as well as the pressure on women—and institutions—to remain silent. The backlash against women willing to share their Trump stories during the campaign illustrates why women are reluctant to come forth; but it also inspired thousands of other women to go public with their own experiences.

The ability of the Trump campaign to deflect—and of voters to ignore—Trump’s brazen bragging about sexual assault, the multiple well-researched cases of Trump’s unwanted sexual aggressions, and his denials and threats of retaliation against accusers do not bode well for the future. Voter reactions indicate that “locker room talk” and unwanted sexual “advances” are still considered normal and acceptable by some, perhaps many. After all, “boys will be boys”… just like our president!

Double Standards and Patriarchal Stereotypes

The 2016 presidential campaign reflected a double standard for women vs. male candidates. Hillary Clinton’s competence and stamina were subjected to scrutiny and criticism not applied to male candidates. Additional gender-specific criteria were imposed: likeability, smiling, warmth, and appearance—she did not look” “presidential.” But had she been 6’1” ft. tall, with large biceps, and “tough,” she would most likely have been disqualified from the start!

Acceptable male traits—being ambitious, goal-focused, strategic, and wanting the Presidency—became part of a “power-hungry” critique of Hillary Clinton, and many voters perceived her as less trustworthy and truthful than Donald Trump. At Republicans rallies, shouts of “lock her up” bore a frightening resemblance to mob violence against African Americans, or Jews, gays, and socialists in Nazi Germany; or to the violence that fueled Medieval European witch-burnings of women.

Reproductive Rights

One of the most troubling consequences of Trump’s election concerns reproductive rights. For women who grew up without access to birth control or legal abortion, and for feminists who have studied gender systems, reproductive rights are essential for achieving gender equality. Under a Trump/Republican administration, we can expect assaults on and attempts to criminalize abortion, and increases in forced pregnancy and forced motherhood.

Any Supreme Court justice nominee must pass an anti-abortion, anti–Roe v. Wade litmus test with profound consequences for court decisions. States will increasingly pass restrictive laws requiring abortion clinics to have hospital-level facilities, or defining a fertilized cell (sperm-egg fusion) as a person, with any pregnancy termination constituting “murder.” Even if abortion remains legal, we can expect other burdensome regulations, such as parental or spousal consent, invasive vaginal probes, long waiting periods, or requirements that physicians provide biased, often false abortion “information.”

The virulent anti-abortion rhetoric of the Republican primaries and Trump’s electoral win will embolden anti-abortion activists to intensify protests and intimidation tactics. Some Planned Parenthood clinics have reported more verbally aggressive protestors, harassing clients with shouts of “Don’t kill your baby.” We may see challenges to laws restricting protestors (e.g., blocking clinic access), as well as clinic bombings and murders of physicians and other abortion providers. Fewer medical schools will teach abortion procedures, and even fewer physicians will take the risks (physical and financial) of providing abortions. Today, with Roe v. Wade intact, less than 15% of all US counties have a legal abortion provider. That percentage will decline.

The war on Planned Parenthood will intensify. Planned Parenthood, under current law, cannot use public funds for abortions. Defunding Planned Parenthood essentially means making it ineligible to receive Medicaid reimbursement for other health-related services like cancer screenings, pregnancy, family planning, or genital infections. This affects poor women the most, and millions could lose access to basic health care and contraception. Planned Parenthood will survive; but its resources, ability to serve current clinics and populations, will decline. And all reproductive rights organizations will have to expend resources to challenge restrictive laws or defend against new attacks (e.g., accusations of fetal tissue “sales”).

Under the lead of conservative religious Republicans, comprehensive sex education programs may be replaced by abstinence-only programs that only advocate sex within heterosexual marriage (despite their documented failure). Even if contraception coverage should survive new attacks of the American Family Foundation, more private businesses, like Hobby Lobby, will probably refuse to cover employees on grounds of their personal religious beliefs.

Recent declines in unplanned teen pregnancies will likely be reversed as comprehensive sex education is defunded. Female fertility rates will increase, most among younger, poorer, less educated women from conservative religions. If history repeats itself, we can expect negative impacts on girls schooling and on education-dependent jobs and careers. Women and families will struggle to feed, care for, and educate additional unplanned children; and local and state governments will strain to provide education and other services for a growing population. Less contraception access leads to more pregnancies… and to more abortions, legal or not. Currently, an estimated 22 million women experience unsafe abortion worldwide, causing approximately 47,000 deaths each year. Those numbers will go up.


Trump’s election in many ways represented the reemergence, indeed the triumph, of hyper-masculine, hyper-sexualized, hyper-aggressive, tough-guise masculinity… and a successful assault on the models of gender and gender relationships represented by Hillary Clinton and many of her supporters. Some younger professional women were apparently shocked at the level of sexism and misogyny revealed by this election. They had naively assumed that they were living in a post-feminist, post-sexist, post-misogyny world.

Perhaps one positive impact of Trump’s victory will be to awaken these young women (and men), to stir them to action and into taking ownership of the next wave of feminism. The fear is that it might take several years to recover from the damages of a Trump/Pence/Republican administration.

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Additional Resources and Links
Center for American Women and Politics
Pew Research Institute (US and International Data)
Presidential Gender Watch

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*Dr. Carol C. Mukhopadhyay (website) is Professor Emerita in the Department of Anthropology at San Jose State University. She specializes in gender, family, sexuality, race/ethnicity, methodology, and comparative education, and has conducted field research on gendered activities in domestic, political, and public life in India and the United States. Recent publications include How Real is Race? A Sourcebook on Race, Culture and Biology (with R. Henze and Y. Moses, 2014) and several articles and chapters in edited books.

Header image (left): “Keep Abortion Safe, Legal & Accessible” by Debra Sweet, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 / Cropped and modified.

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Latin America vs. Trump

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Clifford Welch*

The new year had barely begun when the sting of a yet-to-be-installed president Trump rocked Latin America with Tweets supporting the Ford Motor Company’s decision to abandon construction of a car plant in Mexico. This one event, coupled with Trump’s reported attempts to cause Toyota and General Motors (GM) to downscale their operations in the region, seemed to confirm the troubled future a variety of Latin American pundits have projected for US–Latin American relations once Trump is inaugurated.

During the campaign, Latin America was rarely mentioned. Since voters elected Trump, however, discussion around the region has hovered like a drone over uncertain targets: What will the future bring? How will access to the United States change—for tourists, immigrants, investors, and products? What will the new hemispheric security arrangement be? How can the region benefit from Trump’s presidency? These questions and more have been debated in the media and the academy since Trump became the GOP presidential candidate.

Most readers know that US–Latin American relations have often been tense. The United States generally supported movements to end Spanish colonialism in the 19th century but gradually sought hegemony over the region with new forms of commercial and ideological domination in the 20th century. A few periods were marked by closer relationships. One of these occurred during the Great Depression and World War II, when the United States needed resources and security assistance from Latin America; another came after the Cuban Revolution culminated in 1959, when the United States allied with diverse authoritarian governments to operate counter-insurgency programs in the region. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, counter-insurgency operations morphed into counter-narcotics and counter-terrorist initiatives, and trade agreements grew in importance. To some extent, relations improved with the ongoing Middle East crisis in the 21st century, because it caused the United States to pay less attention to the region, allowing increased autonomy so long as the region presented neither security nor commercial threats. As a result, the region lessened its dependency on the United States by increasing its relations with other countries, especially China.

Trump’s election called into question these more recent security and commercial arrangements. As the former Mexican diplomat Jorge Castañeda wrote about the advent of Trump, “one thing seems certain, the international order that emerged after the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1989 will change.” In the context of Ford’s announcement, Mexico’s La Jornada reported that Trump threatened Toyota, too, for its plans to build a factory in Mexico. Trump similarly threatened GM with an import tax on any Mexican-made vehicle it attempted to sell in the United States The threats and pull-out, which was said to be motivated by reasons other than Trump’s tweets, angered Mexicans and sent shock waves as far away as Argentina, where the Clarin news organization associated the threats with Trump’s “protectionist, antiglobalization policies” aimed at generating industrial jobs in the “depressed Mid-West.”

The irony is that NAFTA, the free trade treaty constructed between Mexico, the United States, and Canada nearly a quarter-century ago, has benefited the United States much more than Mexico. Millions of peasant farmers lost their land and livelihoods when NAFTA allowed US farmers to export their corn to Mexico and transnational agribusinesses to grow produce for export to the United States without fear of tariffs. In fact, the US agricultural trade with Mexico tripled under NAFTA, and the destruction of suddenly unprotected traditional agriculture sent millions in search of jobs. The economy failed to absorb the flood of new jobseekers, whose presence also depressed wages. Thus, Mexico’s poverty rate has not improved since NAFTA’s launch. As a consequence, one of NAFTA’s main goals—discouraging illegal immigration from Mexico to the United States—failed to materialize. In fact, Central American and Caribbean countries that have also signed free trade agreements with the United States join Mexico as major sources of undocumented immigrants to the United States. Trump’s interventions, which already eliminated hundreds of Ford construction jobs and a planned 2,800 factory jobs, only worsen prospects for improvement.

The lesson of the Ford case for La Jornada is recognition that the end of the development model based on free trade agreements is close at hand and that Mexico must “urgently reconfigure” its economy around “el mercado interno y … la diversificación commercial.” The intellectual and campesíndio activist Armando Bartra had made these points a month earlier in the same newspaper, anticipating that Trump’s neoprotectionist and migrant-expulsion plans would make 2017 a “catastrophic” year. He saw in Bernie Sanders’s phenomenal electoral appeal hope for a leftist victory in Mexico and called on voters to support candidates who represent indigenous Mexico and “un programa consensuado de salvación nacional.”

The inward turn represented by Trump and somewhat by Bartra and La Jornada’s editorial writers is present in other responses to Trump’s election. In sum, both Trump’s pro-US discourse and his actions have stimulated nationalism in Latin America. They have restored relevance to the nation-state in the context of globalization’s celebration of internationalism. Humberto Vacaflor, writing in the venerable El Diário, emphasized similarities between Bolivian president Evo Morales and Trump, noting that Morales shares the American magnate’s suspicion of trade agreements, since they “take advantage” of countries like Bolivia. Trump says he wants foreign states to pay more for the presence of US armed forces, but Morales does not want US military support. In the war on drugs, Trump’s nationalism may help Bolivia avoid pressure to cooperate with the US military, since Bolivia’s cocaine is sold in Brazil, Argentina, and Europe, not the United States. In a tweet congratulating Trump, Morales defiantly expressed his hopes to work jointly against racism, machismo, and xenophobia.

In the case of Cuba, the story is somewhat inverted, as the country has struggled bravely against US-imposed isolation ever since the Soviet Union collapsed. President Obama helped change the situation by negotiating to normalize relations with Cuban president Raul Castro. However, nearly all of his initiatives took the form of executive orders that Trump has threatened to revoke, demanding sweeping changes in Cuba in exchange for normalization. Trump’s plans to restore the old order provoked Cuba to react traditionally to the United States’ threats: a few days after the US election, Castro ordered four days of strategic military exercises.

Venezuela is another country searching for a silver lining in Trump’s triumph. Undermined by low oil prices, president Nicolás Maduro’s government also faces fierce political opposition. Part of his strategy for maintaining power has included representing the United States as a threat. By insulting the United States, Maduro may stoke Trump’s wrath, Vacaflor suggests. With the stroke of a pen, he could cut off oil exports to Venezuela, provoking further economic havoc. This would hand Maduro’s enemies one more weapon. For them, Trump’s victory is an example of the dramatic electoral change they have longed for since Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1999, initiating close to 15 years of radical change in the country. For his part, Maduro congratulated Trump on his election and expressed his admiration of the president-elect’s defense of national sovereignty and self-determination.

In covering Ford’s reneging on the car plant in Mexico, the Argentine press followed some distinct lines of argument that held out hope for US investments. They gave special attention to reports claiming that the company’s decision was related not to Trump’s tweets but to changes in forecasts for the auto industry, especially to increased interest in self-driving vehicles. According to this perspective, Ford abandoned expansion plans in Mexico because they envisioned slow sales for the cars they planned to build in the plant and little chance of reorienting production toward self-driving cars because such a high-tech operation “necesita personal que tenga conocimientos de informática, más graduados de la universidade que de la escuela secundaria, mano de obra altamente calificada, más fácil de conseguir en Estados Unidos que en México”—as the Argentinian Infobae news outlet polemized. Since Argentines infamously see themselves as more European than Latin American, the subtext of this story is that such a pull-out would not have occurred in Argentina.

With the recent election of neoliberal Mauricio Macri as president, Argentina quickly became the new model for Latin America’s future. Last March, Obama visited the country to “affirm Argentina’s shift to the center.” Whereas Trump cancelled planned talks on construction projects in Argentina as part of his response to concerns about conflict of interest, his son Eric visited the region early in 2017 and commented on how Argentina had changed under Macri to become “un mercado mucho más receptivo para las inversiones.” In fact, Donald and Mauricio have known each other for more than 30 years. Macri’s father was a real estate developer in New York who fell afoul of the mafia that controlled construction and trucking. Trump played the senior Macri like a puppet, selling him five mansions for a high price and buying them back from him for a low price once Macri gave up on the project. Macri just didn’t have the connections Trump enjoyed.

If Trump really does break the free trade treaties that govern many multinational and binational relations between the United States and Latin America, the region’s leaders will have to be careful not to be taken advantage of like Macri’s father. The first to pay for such errors are the poor and the needy and the state institutions designed to further social justice. Although Morales will soon be replaced as president, voters in Bolivia and other Latin American countries may find in Trump stimulus to support politicians who, as Bartra indicated, will place questions of social justice ahead of economic growth schemes that seem to backfire.

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*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

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Some Aspects of the Trump Administration’s Foreign Policy

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Gregory Shank*

In 2016, Donald Trump’s right-wing populism splintered the coalition constituting the Republican Party and coopted issues that set apart the most vibrant wing of the Democratic Party, the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. That platform suggested movement toward a noninterventionist approach in foreign policy, opposition to globalization strategies and multilateral agreements favoring liberal internationalists within the corporate elite, and, implicitly, a condemnation of the harmful effects of post-2007 austerity (caused by the excesses of financialization) on the increasingly marginalized middle and working classes of the United States (and Europe, perhaps with the exception of Germany).

The core of Trump’s foreign policy is outlined in his campaign speeches before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPEC) Conference in March 2016, before the Center for the National Interest in April, and in his September national security address in Philadelphia. Further evidence comes from the post-election appointments to key positions in the national security apparatus and the cabinet portfolios responsible for foreign policy. Finally, although the chief executive may enjoy the greatest freedom of action in the foreign policy arena, all options are severely constrained by the wars and crises handed off by the previous administration, a reality President Obama also confronted.


Trump’s address before 18,000 people at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC, sought to bring his candidacy into the mainstream and to lay out policies that might smooth over relations with the Jewish community. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kurshner (a Trump senior advisor on domestic and foreign policy), Haaretz newspaper reported, wrote the speech. He consulted with Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer (a longtime Trump admirer, who defended Trump strategist Steve Bannon against charges of anti-Semitism), on matters relating to Israeli diplomatic and security policy. Kurshner, a real estate investor, AIPAC donor, and Orthodox Jew with connections to Israel’s Likud party, also enlisted the help of Ken Kurson, the editor of the New York Observer (a Kurshner property). Kurson offered expertise and experience as a speechwriter and close collaborator in advancing Rudolph Giuliani’s presidential aspirations.

The content of the speech is derived from materials provided by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It highlights vintage global war on terror threats concerning “rogue states” and terror networks emanating from Iran (and its “puppet states”) intent on destabilizing and dominating the region, while dismissing Palestinian claims to sovereignty and freedom from occupation because their schools and mosques produce a “culture of hatred” and indiscriminate death, again thanks to Iranian funding. Trump reiterates that Israel will remain a strategic ally; his intention to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, “the eternal capital of the Jewish people” (a hot-button issue fortified by David Friedman, Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel); his opposition to United Nations (UN) resolutions that condition an eventual agreement between Israel and Palestine; and his ambivalent plan to either dismantle the Iran nuclear accord or simply “enforce the terms of the previous deal to hold Iran totally accountable.”


Given the primacy of Israel, plus the March 2016 naming of militarist foreign policy advisors and the incorporation of Iraq War hawks James Woolsey and John Bolton as Trump national security and foreign affairs advisors in August and September, early critics understandably concluded that the incoming administration’s international initiatives would differ little from the dominant neoconservative practices of the Bush and Obama presidencies. Worse yet, human rights would probably be downplayed internationally, including unabashed Ronald Reagan-style support for foreign dictators. Yet that view overlooks a novel element in the Trump victory: the probable ouster of the entire foreign policy establishment serving George H.W. Bush onward and the demotion of covert regime change initiatives organized primarily by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Middle East. If personnel choices translate into policy, this could portend a significant shift. It would account for much of the Never Trump movement among Republicans and some of the bipartisan post-election fury surrounding Russia, which aims to undermine Trump’s amorphous but stubborn moves toward détente.

The repudiation of neoconservative interventionists in the Democratic and Republican parties had multiple sources during the 2016 campaign. Rand Paul libertarians, along with personnel from the Charles Koch Institute and the Koch-funded Cato Institute, launched a think tank called the Defense Priorities Foundation and an advocacy arm, the Defense Priorities Initiative, to lobby for a less militaristic foreign policy (the Kochs did not finance these new entities). The Trump campaign outflanked this initiative on the right, with differences centering on the purported security threat posed by immigration and unconditional support for Israel. Each campaign and set of institutions called for an end to perpetual war, arguing that the lethal military power pursued over the past fifteen years in the Middle East, including the expanded use of drones, had failed to protect the United States. Each buttressed the case with respected military officers, veterans of the string of limited wars and counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

In a March interview with the Washington Post, Trump signaled his intention to take a noninterventionist approach in world affairs or at least to lighten the US footprint worldwide. Despite unrest abroad, especially in the Middle East, Trump said the United States must look inward and steer its resources toward rebuilding domestic infrastructure. These themes were flushed out in two critical speeches, one on “America First” at the Mayflower Hotel and the other on “Peace Through Strength” at the Union League of Philadelphia. The central message is that Trump’s foreign policy will be tempered by realism and will dispense with the long-dominant foreign policy wing of the Republican Party. After the struggle against German and Japanese imperialism and the succeeding Cold War, Trump told his audiences, the United States has been on a downward arc for lack of a new vision. An arrogant democratizing and nation-building mission in the Middle East and elsewhere has produced chaos and genocide, while overextending national resources. With war-fighting generals at his side, he will avoid endless wars and no longer topple regimes, a policy that has created power vacuums and immigration insecurity across Europe and the United States. Supposedly temporary post-World Way II security structures such as NATO and the nuclear umbrella have become an outdated, unaffordable luxury, and countries that have enjoyed American largess (especially Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia) must assume more of the burden to defend themselves.

US military strength, Trump says, must be bolstered by expanding the capacities of all branches of the service and updating the arsenal of nuclear weapons, to match Russian and Chinese efforts. US economic strength must be leveraged to gain more cooperation from China in terms of North Korea and the South China Sea; and the American technological lead must grow in terms of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare. These tools, plus financial and ideological warfare, will be used against terrorist threats. Resort to military force may be necessary, but the emphasis is on restoring stability, peace, and prosperity, not war and destruction. Russia and China share interests with the United States and need not be adversaries (unlike Iran). The nation-state is paramount, and globalism in the form of international unions is unnecessarily constricting. For instance, the NAFTA agreement has hollowed out the nation’s manufacturing capacity and eliminated jobs. Reversing these agreements, and investing in military modernization and cybersecurity, will provide jobs for young Americans—including in the inner cities.

This hybrid set of goals derives from several conflicting political currents. The more visionary dimension is reflected in the host of the April 27 speech: the Center for the National Interest (CNI). Jared Kushner facilitated the choice of CNI, which publishes the National Interest. Its editor, Jacob Heilbrunn, promotes the “realist” school of foreign policy, which advocates balance-of-power geopolitics, careful circumspection about intervention abroad, and the need for the United States to husband its resources. Layne’s “Graceful Decline,” published in The American Conservative (owned by Silicon Valley software developer Ron Unz) systematically sets out in polished form the key concepts that Trump refers to elliptically in his speeches. After describing why the United States has declined internationally, Layne argues that the current era of globalization is ending, with Pax Americana to be replaced by an international order that reflects the interests, values, and norms of emerging powers, such as China, India, and Russia. In this multipolar world, the United States must coexist with rising powers, especially China.

The new US global posture would involve strategic retrenchment, burden shifting (which rolls back current security commitments to NATO, Japan, and South Korea, while providing advanced weapons and military technology to friendly states in Europe and Asia), and abandonment of the global counterinsurgency campaign in the Middle East. The default US foreign policy of intervention must end, meaning the sidelining of the counterinsurgency lobby in both major political parties, including their respective private think tanks. In short, the emerging strategy reduces the importance of nonstate terrorists or minor powers, because great powers can only be defeated by other great powers.

The European Right

Another policy current consists of Trump advisors who identify with European right-wing movements. Some coalesced around the anti-immigrant focus of Jeff Sessions’ congressional office, others drew support from Mercer-funded entities that are now involved in the upcoming French and German elections (using Breitbart, just as Cambridge Analytica was in the pro-Brexit Leave.EU effort, to Trump’s delight), along with denizens of the national security apparatus (such as national security adviser Michael T. Flynn), with concerns over the spread of “radical Islam.” Steve Bannon views in Trump the possibility of restoring true American capitalism, assisted by the right-wing populist uprisings in Europe to “undo the global power structure—the banks, the government, the media, the guardians of secular culture.” Symptomatic of this insistence on the menace of immigration, notably absent from Trump’s speeches was any notion that the continent of Africa (except Libya) exists or that below Mexico the hemisphere includes Central and Latin American nations. Most realists take offense at this, as do Silicon Valley companies that rely on an international pool of skilled coders, engineers, and entrepreneurs.

Trump’s unique turn of phrase, the “folly of globalism,” may originate in the writings of Garet Garrett, an Old Right luminary and part of the generation behind the 1940s isolationist America First mass movement (see Raimondo 2008). The phrase also figures prominently in the lexicon of the European far Right, such as in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National, where globalism (mondialisme, not globalization) refers to the homogenizing influence of world markets on peoples and cultures, promoted by open borders, massive immigration, and the transference of sovereignty to a supranational European Union (see Zúquete 2015). In Trump’s “Declaring American Economic Independence” speech, his stances on trade and supranational agreements such as NAFTA align him with that position, but also with critics like Joseph E. Stiglitz (2016), who argues that “Americans are economically worse off than they were a quarter-century ago” and that trade and financial liberalization have not delivered the general prosperity promised.

Although Layne’s realism calls for deep reductions in defense expenditures, Trump’s “Peace through Strength” speech is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s duplicitous missile-gap message. The term often signifies peace through war and an overreliance on force over political and diplomatic solutions, but Trump has stated that resort to force is a sign of weakness. Why, then, field an army of 540,000 troops (the size of George W. Bush’s full-scale invasion forces in Iraq and Afghanistan)? Military Keynesianism would appeal to defense contractors and a planned reversal of sequestration of military spending for all the services would help to defuse opposition by the civilian neoliberal counterinsurgency lobby. Yet, increasing the defense budget by 55 to 80 billion dollars per year cannot be offset by better controls on fraud or by policing procurement inefficiencies. This will necessitate cuts in the domestic safety net. As an employment strategy, military spending creates far fewer jobs than the same dollars do when invested in education, clean energy, or health care.

Anti-Sanctions Internationalists

Secretary of State-designate Rex Tillerson personifies another foreign policy current within the Trump administration. Attention has focused primarily on ExxonMobil’s pent-up Russian holdings, but the interests (wealth and power) of the US-based anti-sanctions corporate wing are constrained more broadly by international regulatory structures in the form of coercive sanctions on Russia, Iran, and elsewhere. In practice, the profit-rich and internally stable Iranian market became available to European firms after sanctions were lifted by the Iranian nuclear accord, and the Russian market will gradually become available to the Europeans as sanctions over the Ukraine and Crimea expire. German firms, in particular, would willingly partner in a Russian initiative to strengthen multipolarity and to push for a continent-wide European-Russian common industrial and energy zone. Trump suggested lifting US sanctions on Russia as part of a nuclear weapons reduction deal and centered criticism on the European Union as an instrument of German domination. A US-Russian tactical alliance could accelerate the stabilization of the Middle East. It would enhance control over world energy markets (with Saudi Arabia, the two nations rank among the world’s top three oil producers). Trump has threatened to end all US oil purchases from Saudi Arabia, likely to curtail its financial support of Salafist jihadist forces. A growing Israeli-Russian alliance draws on Israeli strengths in policing the pacification stage in Middle East conflicts. Russia’s negotiated Syrian settlement included Iran, Turkey, and later the Trump administration. This configuration creates uncertainties for Palestinian and Kurdish hopes for national sovereignty, while asserting and constraining Iranian regional aspirations.

Preliminary Conclusions

Unlike initiatives in the domestic policy arena, some of Trump’s foreign policy proposals, such as a reduced role in the Middle East, détente, and a scaling down of the post-World War II global security architecture, may not be unreasonable. However, there is no guarantee that the Trump coalition will accomplish this realignment. In the past, a civil war over foreign policy was waged in the shadows, and then openly, by opponents of Richard Nixon’s policies of détente with the USSR, rapprochement with China, and a negotiated end to the Vietnam War. That group coalesced as the neoconservatives, who sabotaged Nixon’s foreign policy agenda and his presidency (Colodny & Shachtman 2010). Today, those neoconservatives are joined in their counterattacks by Clinton Democrats such as Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Democrats engaged in post-election autopsy sessions should look hard at the yawning gap between the hawkish candidate they offered and the consistent popular sentiment against US military involvement abroad.

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Barrett, W. 2016. Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention. New York: Regan Arts.
Colodny, L., and T. Shachtman. 2010. The Forty Years War. New York: Harper Perennial.
Raimondo, J. 2008. Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Stiglitz, J.E. 2016. “How Trump Happened.” Project Syndicate, October 14.
Zúquete, J.P. 2015. “‘Free the People’: The Search for ‘True Democracy’ in Western Europe’s Far-Right Political Culture.” In The Promise and Perils of Populism: Global Perspectives, edited by Carlos de la Torre, pp. 231–64. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.

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Gregory Shank is the Co-managing Editor of Social Justice and lives in San Francisco.

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Death by a Thousand Budget Cuts: The Need for a New Fight for Poor People’s Rights

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Tina Sacks*

You’re living in your poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs, 58 percent of your youth is unemployed—what the hell do you have to lose?
—Donald J. Trump on the presidential campaign trail, August 2016

As of January 2017 it appears that, we, indeed, have everything to lose. Donald J. Trump’s rhetorical exhortation to urban—i.e., Black—voters during the 2016 presidential campaign seems all too real now that he has ascended to the US presidency. Much has been made of the looming threats Trump poses to the safety net, including the Affordable Care Act, Obama’s flawed but remarkable piece of legislation that has expanded health insurance to 22 million Americans, protected people with preexisting conditions, and allowed young adults to remain on their parents’ insurance until age 26. Although the dismantling of the ACA is a horrifying prospect, particularly for people who have benefited from the Medicaid expansion, Trump’s deadliest actions may be felt by our fellow Americans living in poverty.

The most vulnerable Americans depend on the United States’ rather meager social safety net, which Trump seems hell bent on dismantling. Although Trump has been described as non-ideological, his unholy alliance with Speaker of the US House of Representatives Paul Ryan must certainly be characterized as deeply dogmatic. Ryan, a devout Roman Catholic, is almost without peer in his open hostility to the poor, and Trump has no better angels to call upon to resist him. Ryan has previously outlined plans to gut school lunches, food stamps, and Medicaid. Not even children, once held harmless like motherhood and apple pie, are off limits for the Ryan (and now Trump-Ryan) juggernaut. Given that we spend less than 10% percent of the federal budget on all safety net programs combined, it seems unlikely that insisting that millions of poor kids forego a turkey sandwich at lunchtime will really balance the budget. Instead, it seems Ryan is determined to shame, control, and penalize the poor, and he seems to have found a new ally in Trump, a man who extolls the virtues of being rich as evidence of superior moral character.

A Trump-Ryan alliance should be terrifying for anyone who cares about how little separates the American poor from abject misery. In fact, the official US poverty line is just under $12,000 ($11,880) for a single person or just over $24,000 a year for a family of four. In 2015, 43.1 million Americans were officially classified as poor, and yet little was made of their material deprivation during the election. If four people living on less than $25,000 is already an undeniable hardship, Ryan’s radical approach to government indicates he intends to further disembowel our measly safety net. Programs that were previously considered sacrosanct—such as Social Security, the holy grail of the welfare state developed during Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Medicare and Medicaid, developed during Johnson’s Great Society period—are now likely under threat. Ryan has repeatedly called for block granting or privatization schemes that will fundamentally alter these programs, leaving them vulnerable to the vagaries of the market instead of being a shelter from them. Under almost any presidential administration, Republican or Democrat, this would be unthinkable. Tinkering with Social Security and Medicare has long been the third rail of American politics, largely because these are programs with broad, i.e., white and elderly, constituencies. But, as many others have noted, nothing about this election or Trump has been normal.

Ironically, the national media has coalesced around the vulnerability of the white working class while omitting the very real and persistent condition of Black, Brown, and white people who are poor or extremely poor. In 2011, poverty scholars Shafer and Edin found that approximately 1.55 million US households were raising 3.55 million children on less than $2 per person per day. Almost 4 million children: that’s almost as many people as the city of Chicago and its suburbs who subsist on less than $2 a day. For these families, who are often working in very low-paying, precarious jobs, the high-end manufacturing work we heard so much about during the election must seem like a relic from a different century. In other words, for the minority poor who are often last hired and first fired, high-quality jobs have never seemed like an entitlement.

And yet, although everything about Trump brings a chill to my bones, Ryan may be the most wicked of them all. In contrast to chief strategist Steve Bannon, Ryan casts himself as the suited up, scrubbed clean Midwestern everyman, ready to decimate everything we’ve fought so hard for. Where Bannon uses his media platform to spew white supremacy, Ryan uses the indiscernible tool of block granting to codify institutional racism and economic exploitation. Under Trump-Ryan’s dystopian vision, Black, Brown and poor white people will suffer death by a thousand budget cuts.

But we cannot let that happen. The long fight for poor people’s rights, and anti-oppressive struggles in general, predates the Trump-Ryan impending apocalypse (see Davis 2014). Poor people’s movements, like other social movements, have long emerged in the face of repression and exploitation (see Piven and Cloward 1979). One such movement, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), developed in the 1960s, led primarily by Black women sick and tired of toiling in the low-wage labor market. These women developed a broad national coalition that fought for minimum income floors, adequate food, and minimum standards for furniture and clothing. The women of NWRO coalesced during a period of great social upheaval, and they successfully (for a time) reclaimed the idea that society had a social and fiscal responsibility to poor and non-white women raising our nation’s children.

I am not naïve enough to suggest that this historical moment mirrors the 1960s. Yet, we have much to learn from the history of anti-racist, anti-colonial, worker’s, feminist, and anti-capitalist movements. Now is the time to look to collective action movements for substantive lessons in vigilance and solidarity. As austerity and authoritarianism are reemerging across the globe, it is clear that the United States is vulnerable to these modes of governance. As Trump and Ryan lead this wave stateside, we are called upon to resist the metaphorical tyranny of allowing children to go to school hungry. Collective action and social movements can, and always have, push back against the plunder of social institutions and social programs. Fighting for the most vulnerable is indeed a fight for our way of life, because democracy cannot function without a safe harbor from the vicissitudes of capitalism. If we are to reclaim our republic, we must pay attention to our neighbors with too little food, medicine, or shelter.

The Trump-Ryan alliance is ready to ransack what remains of our system of social security. As people of conscience, we must be one step ahead of them.

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References and Further Readings
Davis, A. 2014. Freedom is a Constant Struggle. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Piven, F.F. and R.A. Cloward. 1979. Poor People’s Movements. New York: Vintage Books.

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*Tina Sacks is Assistant Professor at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California, Berkeley. Her fields of special interest include racial disparities in health; social determinants of health; race, class and gender; and poverty and inequality.

Header image (left): Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (1968) (edited). From Wikicommons.

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The End of Welfare?

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Gwendolyn Mink*

The war on welfare was won long before Donald Trump’s election. The celebrated bipartisan welfare overhaul of the mid-1990s began a two-decade process of federal disengagement from the well-being of poor people, especially single mothers raising children alone. By 2016, the welfare system that once provided a modicum of income support for families in poverty was unrecognizable, in good measure because the federal government had changed the terms of support for individuals and had broadened the states’ flexibility in spending block-granted welfare money. By the time Donald Trump was elected, many states had decided to spend their block grants on services rather than cash assistance: services—such as marriage promotion—that sometimes have been aimed as much at non-poor heads of families as at poor ones.

The key accomplishment of the 1996 welfare reform has been the end of the guarantee of welfare assistance to all who needed it. Additional provisions of the 1996 welfare law compounded the brutal effects of cancelling poor families’ entitlement to aid, most notably: the imposition of a lifetime time limit on welfare eligibility, regardless of continuing poverty; strict work requirements for those who did manage to receive welfare aid; and incentives for states to substitute hortatory and disciplinary services for income support.

Because the war on welfare succeeded, the long-standing political strategy to win white majorities by demonizing racialized welfare mothers was not foregrounded during Donald Trump’s racist and misogynist 2016 presidential campaign. But the elements of that strategy—mobilizing white voters through race-baiting appeals—were deployed shamelessly throughout the Republican campaign. One consequence of Trump’s electoral college victory is the Republican claim of a mandate to do as Trump promised in the campaign: ban Muslims, deport undocumented immigrants, return to “law and order,” and more.

Trump’s social policy agenda is unclear: he had little to say about welfare, poverty, or income security during the campaign. But other Republicans have explicit plans to unravel policies that help Americans cope with the economic effects of inequality, weather economic vicissitudes, or navigate life circumstances such as old age or single motherhood. Those Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan, have been chomping at the bit to impose the welfare reform model on all programs conceived to help struggling individuals and families make ends meet. To be borrowed from the welfare reform model and deployed more generally against the safety net are work requirements, block grants, and further withdrawals of economic assistance guarantees.

The current leader of the crusade against the New Deal social contract, Paul Ryan, has been advancing ideas to defund safety net programs for at least 10 years. As member of the Simpson-Bowles Commission in 2010, House Budget Committee Chair from 2011 to 2015, and as Speaker of the House of Representatives, Ryan has argued for tax-cutting the path toward deficit reduction by gutting spending for the poor and economically insecure. He is not merely a deficit hawk; his ideas are fleshed out by an Ayn Randian anti-government ethic tying social improvement to individualized self-help.

Ryan’s agenda cohabits with Trump’s proposed tax cuts for the rich, as Ryan’s plans would cut social spending considerably. For starters, Ryan would like to consolidate important safety net programs—food stamps, housing vouchers, and child care, for example—into a single block grant to states. The defining feature of block grants is capped spending: each state receives a fixed sum to spend toward designated goals, with a few strings attached (such as work requirements) but no elastic for when funds are tapped out.

Correspondingly, Ryan aims to drastically slash direct assistance to individuals. For example, he would like to roll back Pell grants and phase out Head Start. He would also achieve cuts by imposing conditions on benefits: hence Republican calls to intensify work requirements for (block-granted) food stamps and to tie work requirements to (block-granted) Medicaid and federal rental assistance. Ryan’s idea that work participation must be the goal of poverty assistance does not leave any population untouched: the Ryan plan calls for diverting the focus of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for low-income disabled children from cash assistance to work preparation.

Although welfare policy provides a model for dismantling the welfare state, Ryan’s plan does not leave it undisturbed. The very first set of recommendations in his 2016 poverty white paper, A Better Way, concerns the need to strengthen work requirements for individuals in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and to reduce state flexibility to exempt recipients from work engagement. With Republicans in control of all branches of government, the question for TANF reauthorization will be just how fast and how far the federal government will go to make poverty assistance unattainable or its terms untenable for poor families.

The Republican takeover of the federal government forecloses immediate debates about how to fix the current welfare system to make it work for low income families, especially families helmed by single mothers, disproportionately of color. For the next little while, poor people and their allies will have to fight to preserve the status quo ante—to maintain such assistance as is currently provided by the tattered safety net. But a sizable majority of Americans did vote against the Republican way, and for a presidential candidate and party that advanced an intersectional understanding of inequality and poverty. The popular majority that voted for the Democratic candidate voted for equal pay, a higher minimum wage, paid sick days and accessible child care—all policy goals that would mitigate the economic vulnerability of low-income single mothers and their children.

Democrats did not articulate a platform for restoring the safety net in 2016. Nor did they look beyond the labor market as they strategized mechanisms to attenuate economic insecurity. But the outsize rate of single mother poverty (36% in 2015) commands our attention not only to the labor market, but also to the role played by the distinctive tension between full-time care-giving and full-time wage-earning for mothers who are parenting alone. We must center the ways in which caregiving and the lack of social support for it distort our economy and society and expose millions to the kind of vulnerability that undermines women’s self-sovereignty and the well-being of families.

One bright spot in the Democratic conversation in 2016 was unabashed support from both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton for imputing economic value to family caregiving in the algebra of social security benefits calculations: both candidates wanted to credit workers who take time out of the labor market to care for a child or sick adult so that they are not punished for, as Clinton put it, “taking on the vital role of caregiver.” This powerful acknowledgement of the irreducible importance of family care work should smooth the way to future policies that build upon the principle that poor mothers (and fathers) care, too.

In the meantime, however, we need to resist in order to move forward. We need to defend access to social supports, however meager, and preserve funding levels, however inadequate. As we work to defend against further broadsides against social provision, we must do so in a way that broadens both the feminism and the economic egalitarianism that popular majorities support, but that have been trammeled by the Electoral College. Centering a poverty agenda on the multiple inequalities endured by the worst-off women—poor single mothers, disproportionately of color—would do just that, while also keeping alive the goals of reversing the damages wrought by the 1996 welfare law and improving social supports for families in poverty.

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*Gwendolyn Mink is an independent scholar. She is the author of several books, including The Wages of Motherhood (Cornell University Press, 1995) and Welfare’s End (Cornell University Press, 1998). With coauthor Felicia Kornbluh, she is completing a new book titled Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform after Twenty Years.

Header image (left): Poor People’s March at Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (1968) (edited). From Wikicommons.

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The “Immigrant Problem”: A Historical Review and the New Impacts under Trump

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Marla A. Ramírez*

Despite the widespread rhetoric that depicts the United States as a country of immigrants and a land of opportunity for all, and despite the fact that people from all over the world have made the United States their home since the nation’s infancy, immigrants have not been easily accepted in the country. Since the nineteenth century, different ethnic and racial immigrant groups—Southern and Eastern European, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, and Mexican immigrants—have been classified as irreducible “others” and as a threat to the nation’s safety, racial purity, and cultural values. In many cases, laws have been enacted to deport specific ethnic and racial groups and prevent future immigration from certain regions. For instance, the Act of 1881 required federal inspectors to examine immigrants—who at the time were mainly Europeans arriving though Ellis Island—and deny entry to “undesirables.” Immigrants who were diseased, morally objectionable, or whose immigration fares were paid by someone else were denied admission into the United States. Only a year later, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was renewed in 1892 and made permanent in 1902, effectively banning Chinese immigrants and making them ineligible for US citizenship for 61 years. This law was finally overturned in 1943. Filipino and Mexican immigrants have also been labeled as “inassimilable”: during the Great Depression, Mexicans and later Filipinos were perceived as highly dependent on public assistance, blamed for the economic ills of the country, and removed in mass regardless of their legal status.

Fear of immigrants and the insistence to scapegoat them for the problems of the country is nothing new. In this sense, Trump’s immigration discourse resembles and recycles weary immigration narratives that date back to the early twentieth century. In 1931, for instance, Jane Perry Clark, a political scientist and immigration consultant to the U.S. Federal Government, conducted a study on the mass deportations during the years leading up to the Great Depression and concluded that:

Deportation of aliens whose presence in the United State is believed to be undesirable is not new, but it has become increasingly emphasized as a panacea for our economic difficulties, particularly unemployment. “Send them unnaturalized aliens out of the country!” is the cry. “Let them go home so that our citizens can have their jobs!” (Clark 1931, 119)

Donald Trump delivered an almost identical anti-immigrant message to his supporters during his presidential campaign by promising to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.” This rhetoric continues to create a hierarchy of “valued” citizens based on whiteness as well as gender, race, and class backgrounds.

Historically, anti-immigrant narratives have resulted in “good vs. bad” immigrant models. The “good” or “ideal” immigrants are those who immerse themselves in US culture, are not dependent on public assistance, have no criminal record, and have secured upper socioeconomic mobility. However, as several immigration scholars have argued (see further readings below), the “ideal immigrant” image is unrealistic given the structural barriers of inequality and racism that prevent immigrant minority groups from achieving upper mobility and inclusion. The “bad” or “undesired” immigrant, by contrast, is the opposite of the mythical ideal immigrant, and often categorized as criminal. As a result of such discourses, historically the imagined “ideal” immigrant has been welcomed, whereas the real “undesired” immigrant has been denigrated and deported.

It is in this respect that Trump’s presidency might signal the emergence of something new. Trump, indeed, has taken this anti-immigrant discourse to a new level by targeting both the socially constructed “good” and “bad” immigrants. He promised that if elected president, he would immediately terminate President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). DACA grants deferred action (low priority for deportation) and a temporary work permit that is renewable every two years to eligible applicants. DACA recipients represent “ideal” immigrants because they are mostly undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children, have good moral character, value US culture, and in many cases hold college and advanced degrees. At the same time, Trump has also targeted the perceived “undesired, criminal” immigrant by promising to deport 3 million undocumented immigrants with criminal records. The concept of criminal records has been broadly defined in this area, and people with traffic violations, for instance, have been placed on deportation under the Secured Communities program that Trump promises to enforce nationwide.

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign popularized a narrative that vilifies all immigrants, specifically targeting Mexicans and Latinas/Latinos, and makes little or no difference between the socially and historically constructed “ideal” and “undesired” immigrants. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he stated on June 16, 2015, during his now infamous presidential candidacy speech in which he also classified Mexican immigrants as a threat to US society and blamed them for bringing drugs, crime, and rape into the country: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” His proposed solution, as is well known, is the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.

Moreover, Trump’s immigration discourse, while not new, is not entirely consistent with historical approaches to immigration. Trump has scapegoated immigrants not only for the economic ills of the nation, as seen in the past, but also for most, if not all, the nation’s problems. “We will enforce all of our immigration laws,” emphasized Donald Trump on August 31, 2016 during his step-by-step immigration plan speech in Phoenix, Arizona—a speech that was delivered only a few hours after a surprise meeting with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto. In his immigration speech, Trump outlined 10 steps to fix what he referred to as a “terrible, terrible, problem,” and justified his proposal by stating: “We’re in the middle of a jobs crisis, a border crisis, and a terrorism crisis like never before. All energies of the federal government and the legislative process must now be focused on immigration security.” The promise that unemployment, drug trafficking, and terrorism will be solved by mass deportations is not only false and unrealistic, but also dangerous, as it incites Trump supporters to physically and verbally attack people who are perceived as undocumented immigrants. Such attacks have already been reported and documented (see, for example, here and here).

We will not know exactly what effects Trump’s presidency will have on immigrant communities until he is in office, and probably not until some years after his term is over. What we already know is that so far Trump has backed up on some of his immigration promises. For example, Trump initially promised to build an impenetrable wall along the US–Mexico border to be paid by the Mexican government; as of January 6, 2017, however, he is proposing that the U.S. Congress, and by extension all taxpayers, including undocumented immigrants who do pay federal income taxes, pay for the wall. After public criticism, he retracted in a tweet by stating that Congress will pay for the wall first and then Mexico will reimburse the U.S. government for the expenses (though he has not explained how the Mexican government will be made to reimburse the United States for these expenses).

Trump Twitter

What we also do know is that immigrant communities and allies have historically fought—and will continue to organize and resist against—oppression, hate, and exclusion. The constitutional rights and protections guaranteed by the US constitution to all people living in the United States, regardless of immigration status, income, race, ethnicity, gender, age, or sexual orientation, have been fought for by different generations; today, we must continue to strategize to protect equal rights for all. Immigrant organizers and allies have fought (and we should continue to fight) to:

  1. Demand due process in deportation proceedings.
  2. Launch “know your rights” workshops nationwide to inform people about their rights when interacting with immigration officials.
  3. Establish sanctuaries for immigrant, queer, and Muslim peoples. The more cities and college campuses become sanctuaries, the harder it will be for Trump to follow through with his campaign promise to block funding for sanctuary cities.
  4. Organize congressional visits, meetings with representatives’ local offices, and phone banks to push against exclusionary legislation.
  5. Educate others in the workplace, school, and through social media about our country’s immigration history and the myths around immigration debates.
  6. Listen to the concerns others face to discuss and propose solutions that center on inclusion and reject hate.

The above is not a comprehensive list, and I am sure that immigrant communities and allies will certainly develop new strategies not included here. As an immigrant myself, I am not fearful of the effects of the Trump administration. I am, instead, inspired by the power of the people who across the history of this country have come together to further inclusivity and respect across differences.

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References and Further Readings
Arredondo, G.F. 2008. Mexican Chicago: Race, Identity, and Nation, 1916–39. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Clark, J.P. 1931. Deportation of Aliens from the United States to Europe (New York: Columbia University Press.
Ruiz, V.L. 1998. From Out of the Shadow: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press.
Suárez-Orozco, M.M. 2000. “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Assimilation but Were Afraid to Ask.” Daedalus 129(4): 1–30.

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* Marla Andrea Ramírez was born in Michoacán, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States at the age of twelve. She joined San Francisco State University in Fall 2016 as an Assistant Professor of Sociology. She specializes in oral history, Mexican migrations, mass forced removals, immigration law and policies since the 20th century, gendered migrations, and the “Mexican Repatriation” Program.

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Donald Trump and Immigration: A Few Predictions

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Ray Michalowski*

As the great Yankee’s baseball catcher and American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “Only a fool would make predictions. Especially about the future.” With that caution in mind, I am going to hazard a few predictions about the likely impact of Donald Trump’s election on immigration policy.

Prediction #1
Shortly after taking office, President Trump will rescind the executive order establishing Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), initially issued in 2014 by President Obama.

Why Trump Might Rescind DACA. Trump listed canceling DACA as his number-one priority for his first 100 days in office, a promise that was highly popular with his anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican base (Politifact 2016). Reversing DACA is a low-hanging political fruit. Trump can easily fulfill this campaign promise because DACA was created by an executive order that the new president can rescind with the stroke of a pen (NBC News 2016, Le 2015).

Why Trump Might Not Rescind DACA. Allowing Dreamers to stay in the country, and eventually become citizens, is broadly popular with the American public, if not with Trump supporters. About 66% of the public believes that youth who meet DACA criteria should be allowed to stay in the country (Pew Research Center 2014). At the moment, Trump is a minority president. Wise political advisors (if he has them) might caution him against what would be an unpopular action. On the other hand, if he allowed DACA to continue, he would have to confront an angry base that wants undocumented immigrants out of the country.

Why Rescinding DACA Might Fail. Although rescinding DACA would be easy, removing the three-quarters of a million American-looking and American-acting young people will be a logistical and public relations nightmare for the Trump administration. Efforts to deport those with deferred action will be met with a firestorm of lawsuits that will tie up actual removal of Dreamers in the courts for years. The ACLU has already promised this. Also, many DACA youth are picture-perfect “citizens” who graduated from US high schools and colleges and who are serving in the military, working, building families and so on. They will get a lot of sympathetic coverage from news media, particularly because their undocumented status was not a result of their own actions. In the face of this, Trump may find it politically difficult to deport them.

Prediction #2
Trump will propose suspending immigration from “terror-prone” countries and implementing “extreme vetting” of anyone trying to enter the US from “terror-prone” regions.

Why Trump Will Propose This. This too was one of his promises for the first 100 days in office. He will need to be seen making an attempt to block immigration and visitations from the Middle East to keep the anti-terrorist, anti-Muslim portion of his political base on board.

Why This Will Probably Fail. The U.S. Code section governing entry into the country sets forth a number of highly detailed criteria for refusing visas or immigration status (8 U.S. Code § 1182 – Inadmissible aliens). It does not, however, authorize blanket prohibitions on immigrants or visitors from specific countries or regions, or with particular ethnic backgrounds.

Some have argued that section 8 U.S.C.§ 1182 (C)(i) grants this authority (Swan 2015). However, this section reads that entry can be denied to “an alien whose entry or proposed activities in the United States the Secretary of State has reasonable grounds to believe would have potentially serious adverse foreign policy consequences for the United States is inadmissible.”

This section refers to “an alien,” not to a class of people (i.e. people from specific countries or regions or with specific backgrounds). This language would in all likelihood require ICE to establish the “adverse” grounds in each individual case, opening any attempt at a blanket prohibition to a wave of lawsuits.

Also, this section refers to “adverse foreign policy consequences.” In other words, the government would be required to establish that allowing people from countries with large Muslim populations (and make no mistake, that is what Trump is talking about here) would somehow damage US international relations. Actually, the opposite is more likely. Denying Muslims entry is what would have negative foreign policy consequences.

Prediction #3
Trump will make a half-hearted effort to “build the wall” and “have Mexico pay for it.”

Why Trump Will Do This. This was another thing Trump promised to do during his first 100 days as President. It was one of his most popular proposals, as can be seen in many videos with masses of supporters changing “Build the wall, build the wall.”

Why the Effort Will Be Half-Hearted. First of all, walling the US off from Mexico is a fool’s errand, and I don’t think Trump is a fool. History tells us that walls rarely work. Of equal significance, the United States has been trying to build a wall between the US and Mexico for the last 7 years. Currently, about 700 of the 2,000 miles of the border are walled off. Much of the remaining areas pose significant challenges due to terrain, as anyone who has spent time traveling along the US–Mexico border knows. According to the Department of Homeland Security, building a large and solid wall between the US and Mexico on this terrain will likely cost $10 million per mile (Global Security 2016).  This comes to around 13 billion dollars, almost half again as much as the 8 billion dollars Trump quoted for his proposed wall. This is only the cost to build it. The cost of maintaining such a wall would be significant, something that is rarely mentioned by proponents of the wall.

It is my guess that cooler heads in Homeland Security and elsewhere will prevail. There will be some expansion of the current wall to make it appear that the Trump administration is keeping its promise, but the “great, great wall” between Mexico and the United States will not be built on Trump’s watch. It has taken 7 years to wall off the easiest 700 miles. There are 1,300 miles to go. Do the math.

Attempts to extend the wall along the entire border will also be bogged down by lawsuits, since much of that land is either critical habitat or Native American land. I would not be surprised to see activists creating encampments to protect these areas and/or to protest the wall. These will prove another legal and public relations headache for the Trump administration, just as the Dakota Access Pipeline protests proved for the Obama administration.

As for getting Mexico to pay for it, that was campaign bluster. It can’t be done. Mexico is a sovereign nation, and one that is more than a little concerned in protecting itself against US pressure. Mexicans will not pay for the wall unless they are given something of equal or greater value in return, which means US taxpayers will be footing the bill anyway.

Prediction #4
Despite Trump’s promise to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, by the end of his first term the number of undocumented immigrants living in the US will be only slightly smaller or about the same as it is today.

What Will Trump Do? Shortly after taking office, Trump will order ICE to begin mass deportations of undocumented immigrants from the United States. He promised to do this, and risks significant political backlash from many of his supporters if he does not at least appear to be trying.

What Will Happen? Deportations under President Obama were higher than at any time in recent history—nearly 500,000 people a year. About half of those deported had criminal convictions, although the majority of offenders deported had not committed the kind of serious felony offenses the policy was supposed to target (Rosenblum & McCabe 2014).

Obama’s deportation efforts have strained ICE and the immigration courts. Since the majority of undocumented immigrants in the country have been here for more than five years, they are entitled to a hearing in an immigration court. People who have built lives in the United States are not likely to accept deportation easily. They will ask for hearings on their cases. Currently the immigration court backlog in many jurisdictions is running about three years (Human Rights First 2016). The present system simply cannot manage mass deportations without collapsing.

Mass deportation will require either that Congress repeal the right to an immigration hearing or provide significant new funding allocations for a massive expansion of ICE and the immigration court system.

It is my expectation (and hope) that Congress will not eliminate judicial review for immigrants. Doing so would be a fundamental strike against the rule of law and would hopefully not survive significant legal challenges. Whether or not Congress would fund a massive expansion of ICE and immigration courts is an open question, and my crystal ball is rather murky on this.

Dangers. A potential danger lurks behind calls for mass deportation. There is a possibility that emergent vigilante groups or current Three Percenter militias will take it upon themselves to round up undocumented immigrants and turn them over to ICE. This would be illegal. However, given that the Fraternal Order of Police and a union representing immigration officers endorsed Trump’s candidacy, there is the (hopefully remote) possibility that these law enforcement agencies will stand aside and let the vigilantes facilitate mass deportations. This would create a significant divide in the law enforcement community and seriously undermine the rule of law in the United States.

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• Global Security. 2016. US-Mexico Border Fence /Great Wall of Mexico Secure Fence. Viewed online at
• Human Rights First. 2016. “Reducing the Immigration Court Backlog and Delays.” Viewed online at
• Le, Van. 2015. “Snapshot of Polling and Public Opinion on Immigration Executive Action & Larger Debate.” Viewed online at America’s Voice,
• NBC News. 2016. “4 Years Later: Lives Built By DACA at Risk in 2016 Elections.” Viewed online at:
• Pew Research Center. 2014. “5 facts about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.” Viewed online at
• Politifact. 2016. “Donald Trump’s campaign promises for the first 100 days.” Viewed online at:
• Rosenblum, Marc and McCabe, Kristen. Deportation And Discretion: Reviewing the Record and Options for Change. Washington, D.C.: Migration Policy Institute.
• Swan, Ben. 2015. “Reality Check: Trump Right About Legal Authority to Ban Muslim Immigrants.” Truth in Media. Viewed online at:

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* Raymond Michalowski is Regents’ Professor of Criminal Justice at the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northern Arizona University. His research areas include criminological theory, international human rights, immigration and border policy, and corporate, environmental, and political Crime. Recent publications include State Crime in the Global Age (with William Chambliss and Ronald Kramer) and State-Corporate Crime: Wrongdoing at the Intersection of Business and Government (with Ronald Kramer).

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A Queer Exemption? What Trump’s Presidency Means for LGBTQ Politics

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Clare Sears*

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was characterized by raging rambling speeches and late-night belligerent tweets that threatened and mocked multiple groups of people. Undocumented immigrants, Muslims, disabled people, and women were frequently targeted—LGBTQ people were not. In a campaign marked by hypermasculine posturing, blatant misogyny, and sexual boasts and accusations, Trump’s decision to pass over a constituency marked by sexual and gender differences is striking. In this post, I reflect on Trump’s queer exemption and consider what his presidency will mean for LGBTQ politics. Specifically, I ask: How can we make sense of Trump’s restrained anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in relation to his persistent anti-LGBTQ actions?

Clearly, Trump’s failure to treat LGBTQ people as a political punching bag does not make him an ally, despite his occasional claims to the contrary. As presidential candidate and president-elect, Trump has consistently supported people and policies that will devastate queer and trans communities. Two examples will suffice:

  • Mike Pence: Trump’s selection of Mike Pence for vice-president provides a particularly stark indicator of his disregard for LGBTQ issues. It is no secret that Pence is a blatantly homophobic evangelical Christian conservative, who views homosexuality as a choice that undermines God’s will and heralds “societal collapse” (U.S. Congress 2006, p. 14796). As Governor of Indiana, Pence passed a “religious freedom law” that legalized discrimination against LGBTQ people; he also oversaw funding cuts for HIV testing sites and a state ban on needle exchange that led to one of the worst domestic HIV outbreaks in recent times. As a member of Congress, Pence took a similar stand against effective public health interventions by opposing funding for HIV prevention programs that featured queer sex-positive messages. He also opposed the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” supported a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage, and advocated “conversion therapy” for LGBTQ people. Trump will likely grant unprecedented decision-making power to Pence, making his virulent anti-LGBTQ agenda all the more terrifying.
  • State-Level Discrimination: Trump also backs state discrimination against LGBTQ people. During his campaign, he announced support for North Carolina’s House Bill 2, a state law that overturns municipal anti-discrimination ordinances protecting LGBTQ people and forces transgender people to use public restrooms that diverge from their gender identity. According to Pence, Trump will also rescind a White House directive that advises public schools to treat transgender students according to their gender identity, rather than the gender assigned at birth, or risk violating federal sex discrimination law. In both cases, Trump paid lip service to the goal of equality but argued that states have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people as they see fit.

Although Trump invokes limitations on federal power to justify inaction on anti-LGBTQ discrimination, he is more than happy to exert federal muscle in other realms. When it comes to immigration policy, law-and-order politics, and health insurance coverage, for example, Trump proposes significant reforms and rollbacks that pose a deadly threat to millions, including LGBTQ people. Indeed, several of Trump’s signature proposals directly target social movements led by queer people of color.

  • DACA: Throughout his campaign, Trump emphasized his plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which provides temporary protection to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, allowing them to attend school, obtain work permits, and receive temporary reprieve from deportation. Queer undocumented youth led the movement for this reform, mobilizing within and against mainstream advocacy organizations that often opposed their radical tactics. Their efforts paid off in 2012, when President Obama established DACA by executive order. Over 741,500 young people have signed up for the program, many of them LGBTQ. If Trump’s plans materialize, thousands of undocumented LGBTQ youth will be caught up in the dragnet, facing mass arrest by ICE officials, incarceration in immigration detention facilities, and deportation to countries they barely know.
  • Law and Order: As public awareness of anti-Black police violence reaches new heights, Trump has taken a stand against Black Lives Matter, the social movement founded by three black queer women. Using barely coded racist rhetoric, Trump has vowed to end “the war on our police” and propagated a dystopian vision of US cities wracked by gun-toting criminals and murderous immigrants. Positioning himself as a law-and-order leader who will “make America safe again,” Trump has promised to reinstitute stop-and-frisk policing, increase police access to military-grade weaponry, and destabilize sanctuary cities. These proposals directly threaten LGBTQ people, particularly those who are black or brown, poor, homeless, and/or involved in street economies (sex work, drug sales, unlicensed vending). Multiple studies show that LGBTQ people are overrepresented in street-based populations and suffer police harassment at elevated rates. In particular, transgender women and homeless queer youth of color will bear the brunt of Trump-era militarized policing.
  • Affordable Care Act: Trump has made clear his intention to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act, which provides healthcare to 20 million individuals, including one million LGBTQ people. If he succeeds, these people will lose health insurance as well as legal protections that are particularly valuable to transgender folks and those living with HIV. These protections prevent insurers from (a) discriminating on the grounds of gender identity, (b) denying coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition (including HIV and “gender dysphoria”), and (c) imposing annual and lifetime caps on coverage that harm people with chronic costly conditions (such as HIV). Under Trump’s presidency, LGBTQ people will face increased discrimination, illness, and death.

Given Trump’s support of politicians and policies that will devastate LGBTQ communities, what are we to make of his decision to exempt LGBTQ people from his trademark rhetorical attacks? Moreover, what are we to make of his occasional pro-gay statements, such as the speech he delivered at the Republican National Convention, where he spoke of LGBTQ people as “wonderful Americans” who deserved to be protected from violence? Some observers applauded Trump’s words, noting that he was the first Republican to speak positively of LGBTQ people while accepting the party’s presidential nomination. A closer look at Trump’s speech, however, reveals a troubling context that sheds light on the relationship between his pro-LGBTQ rhetoric and anti-LGBTQ actions.

During his RNC acceptance speech, Trump spoke of LGBTQ people when addressing the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, which had occurred the previous month. The shooter, Omar Mateen, attacked the gay nightclub on its “Latin night” and most of the 49 people killed were queer Latinx clubgoers. In his RNC speech, Trump described the victims as “wonderful Americans [who] were savagely murdered by an Islamic terrorist” and vowed to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful foreign ideology.” Omar Mateen was not foreign and his connections to terrorism were minimal, but this did not stop Trump from linking his support for LGBTQ people to his anti-Islam nationalist agenda. Clearly, Trump was exploiting the deadliest act of anti-LGBTQ violence in US history for political gain, but he was also testing a particular political formation—pro-gay/anti-Muslim—that will likely resurface throughout his presidency.

In her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar refers to this formation as homonationalism, denoting the ways that nation-states incorporate certain queer subjects (typically white cisgender men) to mark the border between “gay friendly” Western democracies and “homophobic” Islamic nations. According to Jin Haritaworn (2015), this process is in full swing in European cities such as Berlin, where neoliberal governments adopt punitive policies against Muslim immigrants under the guise of promoting diversity and protecting LGBTQ communities. Far-right political parties in Europe are now following a similar path, promoting “Western values” such as gay rights to win support for their populist agendas rooted in white supremacy, nationalism, and anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim violence. Trump’s strategic mention of LGBTQ people in his acceptance speech suggests a similar development on the US political stage that we need to monitor closely in the months to come.

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References and Further Readings
Haritaworn, J. 2015. Queer Lovers and Hateful Others: Regenerating Violent Times and Places. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mogul, J.L., A.J. Ritchie, and K. Whitlock. 2011. Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
Puar, J.K. 2007. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Spade, D. 2011. Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. New York: South End Press.
U.S. Congress. 2006. Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 109th Congress, Second Session. Volume 152, Part 11. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office.

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*Clare Sears is Associate Professor of Sociology in the Department of Sociology at San Francisco State University. Her research and teaching interests include critical criminology, queer theory, transgender studies, historical methods, and disability studies. Sears is author of the book Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco (Duke University Press, 2015) and coeditor of a special issue of Social Justice on sexuality and criminalization.

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