US vet: ‘There is no precedent for these protests’

February 2, 2017

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio host who lives in the United States. He's a member of Veterans for Peace and the National Writers Union. A former US marine and Iraq War veteran, he spoke to Green Left Weekly’s Pip Hinman about the first days of the Trump administration and the mass protests that have broken out.

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How would you describe the political atmosphere in the US after the Trump inauguration?

Well, it depends. If you're a racist or a member of the 1% you're feeling pretty good about things right now. The Alt-Right is emboldened. Neo-Nazi organisations are empowered. The same is true of the police. Trump, unlike most US presidents, is actually delivering on his campaign promises, at least some of them — a point we can return to later. Right now, the Trump administration is implementing a sort of blitzkrieg shock doctrine strategy, but it's also created an amazing response.

As the world knows, the US experienced the largest single day of protests in the history of the country. That's quite an accomplishment. Local organisations are forming in areas where nothing previously existed.

Remember, the Democratic Party is more conservative than your Labor Party and our unions have been decimated. Roughly 11% of the workforce is unionised. In other words, leftwing political institutions are severely lacking. NGOs are not the answer, though some of them do good work.

People are seeking alternatives. That's a daunting task, but it's also a wonderful opportunity to break with the past and develop new institutions, ideas, values, programs, and so forth. Here, I find inspiration. All of that being said, we have to be intentional about creating those alternatives.

In many ways, we've been here before: we've experienced six years of Nixon, eight years of Reagan, eight years of Bush II, and now Trump. In the past, leftwing political movements haven't been able to create an electoral alternative to the Democratic Party and that remains a serious challenge.

Activists are struggling with how they should relate to the Democratic Party. Often, movement energy will be sucked back into the utterly absurd US electoral process, which, as most people know, is far too long and expensive. It's a huge distraction. Some nations elect prime ministers in less than five weeks. So, how do we break that cycle? That remains a serious question. How do we create serious alternatives? We can't allow bloated NGOs, establishment Democrats and other faux-progressive groups to hijack what is currently a very organic, multicultural, and in some ways, quite militant movement.

Does the scale of the anti-Trump protests have any precedent in the history of US presidential inaugurations?

The protests immediately following Trump's inauguration have no precedent: they were the largest rallies we've ever seen on a single day in the US. The following two weeks have also been unprecedented. The breadth of the protests, civil disobedience and direct actions has been breathtaking.

On a personal note, I'm hearing from friends and family members who have never been involved with political movements. Now, they want to get involved. It's the only silver lining I can see from Trump's victory: increased participation.

I told my friend the other day that I feel like we've fast-forwarded to 2007, when Bush was very unpopular and quickly losing any level of credibility and respect, not only within the US but also abroad. The energy is very contagious.

But again, we've been here before: we know how to protest. And we're getting better and better at it. But the Egyptians also knew how to protest. They were able to dispose of a dictator by occupying public spaces. But that didn't equate to serious political reforms or a restructuring of power.

Immediately, we have to focus our energy on discrediting Trump. That strategy is working. But we can't make the entire movement about being anti-Trump. I see parallels, once again, with the Bush era. I remember going to protests and people viscerally denouncing Bush and Cheney. However, by focusing on Bush and Cheney and individuals, the movements created during that period were unable to create alternatives — electoral or otherwise.

Sure, we elected the nation's first black president, and that's quite an accomplishment in a nation built on slavery and institutional racism, but let's always remember that Obama's centrism was a major factor in Trump's rise to power.

The more we can focus our critiques on the institutions of power and not those who temporarily occupy those institutions, the more successful we'll be in the long-term. The short-term goals, at least from what I can tell from conversations and observations, is to make the country ungovernable.

Now, what does that exactly mean? We'll see. It's wintertime in the US, so once it warms up, say in a couple of months, I expect major direct actions and civil disobedience, possibly on a scale previously unwitnessed in the history of the US. I think you'll see small-scale and even large-scale strikes. I can imagine activists occupying public spaces, corporate offices, public lands, extraction sites, airports and the like.

How divided is the US establishment over the Trump presidency?

Well, not to sound too cynical, but the Democrats are behaving exactly how most of my leftwing friends expected them to behave: they're approving Trump's nominees for his cabinet, which is filled with alt-right media personalities, Southern racists, CEOs and military generals. The corporate coup d'état is happening in real-time, and it's quite scary.

Republicans, as always, are acting virtually in lock-step with the Trump administration. The media is painting a picture of a divided Republican party, but most of that is superficial.

Only two Republicans voted "no" and only on one of Trump's nominees, Betsy DeVos, the sister of Blackwater founder and CEO, Erik Prince. Both Prince and DeVos are ultra-Christian and hold some of the most regressive views imaginable. They are truly dangerous people. DeVos will be running the Department of Education. Her brother, Erik, is currently advising Trump's national security team.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, was recently confirmed as Trump's Secretary of State. Here's a corporation, Exxon, that's being sued because they knew their industry was creating climate change since 1987, yet intentionally misled the public about the issue for 30 years.

Our representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, essentially threatened the rest of the world during her first official press conference, vowing to "take names" of those who reject US hegemony. Trump's Secretary of Defence, General James Mattis, is a war criminal, and the list goes on. This is, without question, the most reactionary administration that's ever been assembled in the modern era.

To the extent that divisions do exist within the establishment, activists should exploit those schisms and use them to our advantage. We have to leverage power. Sometimes, we'll directly confront power. Other times, we have to be very sophisticated about how we interact with and attack concentrated power.

If we can push some Republicans to distance themselves from Trump, great. If we can push Democrats to the left on certain issues, that's fine as well. But I don't think activists should focus too much on what the establishment is doing or not doing. We have to be smart, but we also don't want to fall into the media's game of constantly focusing on what those in power are debating, as opposed to what the people in the streets are debating.

Is there any potential for the mass movement that seemed to develop around Bernie Sanders’ nomination bid to come back in a more powerful and politically independent way?

The movement surrounding Bernie was very inspirational and politically significant, but it was also frustrating and inadequate.

So, on the positive side, millions of people, particularly younger folks, were exposed to an alternative to Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism and the alt-right. That's invaluable. The concepts of democratic socialism were discussed publicly for the first time in my life. People who had never been to a political event in their lives were engaged and mobilised.

Millions of people learned very basic organising skills: how to write a press release; how to make phone calls; how to hold fundraisers; how to knock on doors; and a whole host of other valuable skills and lessons.

Bernie also did really among rural whites, which is something activists should build upon. Right now, there's a lot happening in urban areas, but mobilising progressive whites in the rural parts of the US is essential in my thinking.

There are cultural differences and geographical challenges, but it must be done. Obviously, the [First Nations-led] resistance at Standing Rock [in North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline] has been extremely encouraging. Building on that momentum is also key to moving forward. New alliances are forming — veterans, indigenous communities, environmentalists. Standing Rock, however, is a far cry from Detroit or Chicago.

How can we bridge those gaps? How can we bring black and brown communities together? How can we connect suburban and rural whites, many of whom, at least the younger folks, voted for Bernie, to groups like Black Lives Matter or the Latino communities fighting back? Those are the sort of questions activists are exploring.

I'm currently working on an article titled, "Beyond Bernie." The point of the article is that Bernie helped take progressive politics to the mainstream. Leftwing ideas were discussed in the mainstream. Again, this was great.

But the limitations to Bernie's campaign were not only racial: his foreign policy was pretty bad, actually. He made what are now utterly uncontroversial statements about regime change and the war in Iraq. But remember, Trump also spoke out against the war during the campaign. My point is that only one half of the story was told during Bernie's campaign: the domestic side.

And you can't really tell even that side of the story without also mentioning the other side: US Empire. Something like 54 cents of every discretionary dollar is spent on the US Empire. The state has been completely hijacked by the military industrial complex. Much of the state's resources, time, energy and talent are invested in killing people, which is why the US is really good at killing people.

Our infrastructure is deteriorating, our public schools are being dismantled and basic social welfare programs are being defunded, but we always have money for another war, or another drone, or another tank.

The elephant in the room is still the US Empire. And unfortunately Bernie didn't touch that issue, nor did he create an independent political party or even an independent political infrastructure.

Those are his two main downfalls. But now it's up to activists to build on the successes and failures of Bernie's campaign. The people I'm running into at these events are much more sophisticated and aware of these issues than I was at their age. That gives me hope.

What are the dangers of the Trump administration escalating US military interventions or starting new ones?

Here, I think it's best to prepare for the worst. Steve Bannon, Trump's main adviser who now sits on the National Security Council is the former CEO of the alt-right media platform, Breitbart. He's a known racist, but even more importantly, he's a proponent of this idea of a “clash of civilizations” between the West and Islam.

After fifteen years of the miserable and criminal War on Terror, and after decades of CIA overthrows and US militarism, Bannon wants to escalate the situation.

Some people were fooled into believing that Trump was an isolationist, but that's simply untrue. He's an authoritarian-jingoist who now controls the most powerful military empire in the history of mankind.

Trump now has 1,000 military bases, the world's largest nuclear arsenal, the world's largest navy and the world's most sophisticated weapons systems at his command. I think the dangers posed by this administration cannot be overstated. Like climate change, it would be better for us to hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

In the meantime, we need an anti-imperialist movement to emerge and that hasn't happened, nor does it look like it's on the horizon. A lot of organising is taking place, but as I mentioned above, the elephant in the room is still US Empire. And in order to address US Empire, we must address US nationalism.

And unfortunately, even many progressives have a difficult time dealing with those issues. I think that's changing, but we'll see. That's up to us.

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