Coping strategies against creeping authoritarianism

Sheriff Joe Arpaio, of Arizona, walks onto the stage to speak during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. Arpaio was decisively defeated in the election on Nov. 8. (Paul Sancya / Associated Press)

Last Wednesday, when three-quarters of America's eligible voters woke up to the sick realization that an authoritarian boor they didn't support would soon take the same oath of office as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, there was some cheerier election news tucked deep inside the nation's B-sections.

More than half a dozen over-zealous law enforcement officials, from Houston to Phoenix to Birmingham, Ala., were bounced out of office by reformers seeking to improve the criminal justice system. Harris County, Texas, which dominates national statistics in exonerations of wrongfully convicted innocents, replaced controversial incumbent District Attorney Devon Anderson with the county's first Democrat in four decades, Kim Ogg.


Maricopa County Sherriff Joe Arpaio, the power-mad anti-immigration crusader and Donald Trump backer, was sent packing after 23 conflict-ridden years, in part due to the $3 million poured into the race by liberal moneybags George Soros.

Create — and then develop some lasting respect for — policy separation between the federal government and your state/city/county.

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It turns out that when you focus political energy locally against those who have grown accustomed to wielding police power with impunity, it's possible to flip the usual script. That's a valuable lesson for those scrambling around right now for coping strategies and counter-attack plans during the Age of Trump.


Libertarians, who I've heard can be annoying at times, do have some relevant experience at losing elections and playing defense against overweening government. So in the interests of anti-authoritarian solidarity, here are some friendly suggestions for my politically alienated friends on the Democratic left:

1) Create — and then develop some lasting respect for — policy separation between the federal government and your state/city/county. Trump campaigned praising "broken windows" policing, warning (falsely) that crime was as bad as it's ever been and wailing against "sanctuary cities." But you know what? The federal government doesn't have nearly enough cops to enforce those preferences.

You can see some stirrings of local rebellion in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's threat to destroy immigration records of detainees, and in the loose #CalExit talk among your friends on Twitter. This is a healthy reflex, even if some of the resulting policy initiatives might not be.

From speed limits to school tests to health insurance rules, the federal government spends too much time and money imposing one-size-fits-all frameworks onto state and local governments. This places way too much emphasis on the political values of whichever team holds temporary power in Washington.


So don't just go looking for creative workarounds, like legalizing recreational marijuana or applying even stricter guidelines than the Environmental Protection Agency (if that's your bag). Think about taking the next step, and severing unnecessary bonds between Sacramento and Washington. We've nationalized too much of American life and could stand to run more local experiments.

2) Be prepared to make ad hoc coalitions with people you might not otherwise like. Part of playing defense is working on an issue-by-issue basis with whoever is willing. You may not fancy Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), but he is the most influential voice in Congress opposing the nominations of John Bolton or Rudy Giuliani to secretary of State.

Republicans have only a slim majority in the World's Greatest Deliberative Body, and a handful of those senators pointedly spoke out against Trump during the campaign: Arizona's Jeff Flake, Nebraska's Ben Sasse, Utah's Mike Lee. You could already do business with these people on issues like criminal justice reform; now these Trump-shudderers constitute the swing vote in the Senate.

3) Whoever you are most worried about, donate to or volunteer for a nonprofit that protects them. Hashtags have their place, but so do legal aid societies. As the great blogger (and sometimes Opinion contributor) Ken "Popehat" White put it in a post-election piece, "It falls upon all decent people of good faith to defend our friends and neighbors and countrymen…. That fight may involve pro bono help by lawyers, financial contributions to litigation and campaigns, personal support to the targeted, and tireless advocacy in public."

4) Remember that you are entitled to your outrage, but you are not entitled to expect me to re-post that one story about David Duke on my Facebook timeline RIGHT THE HELL NOW even if that makes me even more complicit in white supremacy. I'm not here to tell you to go hug a racist or to perform ideological missionary work in rural Michigan, but I am gently suggesting that browbeating your loved ones about the proper social-media etiquette for condemning Trump is not the most effective method of persuasion.

Many of us are anxious about America's political future. Some of us who have covered Central Europe in particular are wincing at the parallels to countries that have gone sour under Trumpian leaders. But it will take much more than one bizarro-world presidential election to turn this noble experiment into something unrecognizable. Time to get to work.

Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.

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