Commitment in the Age of Trump: Two Practical Steps Forward

My favorite high school teacher has this poster in his classroom: “Don’t just do something, sit there.” It’s a wise message for the first week after the crisis: I worry if we jump into “The Response Plan” too early, we will repeat the same mistakes that brought us here. You can already see it happening in our newsfeeds, as everyone’s plan for the Age of Trump seems to be: “Everybody just needs to double down on my worldview.” Carving out time for reflection in spaces outside of campaign politics—reading spiritual books rather than pundits’ hot takes, watching a play rather than a cable news show, reaching out to real people rather than ranting about the latest stranger’s horrible comment thread—is crucial if we hope to shine a path out of here.

I also, however, believe in Roberto Unger’s insight about hope and action: “It is a common mistake to suppose that hope is the cause of action. Hope is the consequence of action. You act, and as a result, you begin to hope.”

So, this week, what then should we do? My proposal: alongside carving out time for reflection and offering immediate care to our neighbors, we should spend this week making a commitment. Concretely, we should make a commitment to a certain amount of time and a certain amount of money that we are ready to consistently give to our country in the coming years. Very specifically, we should each commit to a number of hours we are ready to give each week and a percentage of our paycheck we are ready to give each month.

See, in the end, the projects we care about survive on time and money. Some projects are more time-based and some projects are more money-based, but the same rule applies to all civic projects: if they lose hours and lose cash, they die. If they gain hours and gain cash, they grow.

We have a choice of how we want to primarily express our citizenship in the coming years: through virtue signaling or through civic work.

The Age of Trump will give us endless opportunities to signal our virtue. Each scandal will give us an opportunity to broadcast our rejection of Trumpism and validate our place among the redeemed.

Vocalized resistance to Trumpism is part of the path forward, but it is only a small part. The idea that there is an elect few who are aware and innocent of social sin is wrong and dangerous. We all are susceptible to the patterns of thought and action that produce our social ills. To think that it is only the others, over there, who have fallen to racism and materialism and militarism is to ignore our own weaknesses and to distract ourselves from preventing our own worst impulses from festering. The greatest atrocities in human history have been committed by those who believed themselves to be the chosen moral few, set apart from the “vulgar mob.”

That’s why the center of our citizenship in the Age of Trump must instead be civic work: real time and real money being given to real groups working on real projects aimed at ameliorating real problems. The rate at which these projects will grow and these problems will be addressed—the rate at which we will overcome Trumpism and get back on track towards that kind and welcoming America we believe in—will be determined by how much time and how much money we give: by how many hours we give each week and by how much of our paychecks we give each month.

So, what then should we do this week? Here’s two concrete steps:

1) This week, get together with your friends and family to make your patriotic commitments: pledge to each other how many hours each week and how much of your paycheck each month you are ready to give. If you can, lock in a specific time each week (“Saturday mornings” “Wednesday and Thursday nights”) for your hours at first: you’re more likely to keep your pledge if you develop a weekly routine.

2) Next week, spend the first hours of your time commitment thinking about which civic arena you want to serve and act in. If you are lost as to where to get involved, one way to orient yourself is to think about three different types of civic arenas: communities, issues, and institutions.

One way to get involved is to draw closer to a community: to get more deeply involved in the lives and struggles of, say, a neighborhood or a town, an immigrant community or a religious community, an age group or a special affinity group. It’s to become more invested in your town’s Iraq War veterans community or Somali immigrant community or small business community. It’s to step up in your church or at your school or on your block. It’s to think about the hopes and needs of the elderly or of foster kids or of prisoners in your state.

A second way to get involved is to draw closer to an issue: to become obsessed with a public policy area. You’d be surprised how much of an impact you can have by spending a year getting into the weeds of an issue, keeping up with the issue in the news, raising awareness about it with your community, and getting involved with political action surrounding it. The more narrow you get with the issue you choose, the more national your scope can be. The more local you get with the scope you choose, the more broader your issue area can be.

A third way to get involved is to draw closer to an institution: to play a part in crafting how, say, our press, our universities, our government agencies, our school systems, our religious institutions, our unions, our political parties, our legal systems, or our medical systems can better live out and extend their missions of serving the public interest. We need civic innovators and institutional revivalists now, more than ever in our lifetimes.

Now that you have hours committed each week, you have time to take test-drives to find which of these civic arenas is the best fit for you.  Civic action has a momentum to it: dip your toes in and you will be swept up.

It is through our example—our example of what the Good America looks like—that we will overcome the Age of Trump. They shall know us by our fruits.

Pete Davis is a civic reformer from Falls Church, Virginia and a member of Harvard Law School Class of 2018. Email Pete at Pete@CivicIdeas.org.

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