I’m not asking this question in a general skeptical sense. I’m not asking what we do when we suspect that we’re wrong, how we examine whether we’re wrong, or how we know when we’re wrong. I’m asking a very specific question.
Thousands of people, possibly millions, are sounding alarms about the Trump administration. We’re warning about hard-Right nationalism, racism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, corrupt intertwining of government and business, and extreme hostility to opposition and to the press. We’re screaming that these are the defining features of fascism; that if we don’t push back, hard, right now and for as long as it takes, we could lose this country. What if we’re wrong?
What if it’s bad, but not that bad? What if the United States government doesn’t start registering Muslim citizens, walling off their neighborhoods, and putting them in concentration camps? What if the government doesn’t start shutting down newspapers and killing journalists? What if Trump doesn’t begin aggressive global wars, for no other reason than to distract from scandals and soothe his ego? What if the many constitutional crises we’re facing don’t lead to the collapse of the republic? What if this is less like Hitler or Mussolini and more like Nixon or Reagan?
I’m going to answer in a way that, as a skeptic, I rarely do: So what?
For starters, if the Trump administration winds up being bad but not that bad, we have to consider the possibility that it turned out that way because of the resistance. Ever since the election, there has been massive resistance to this regime and to the social and political forces that created it. The opposition started immediately and has been widespread, sustained, and fought on many fronts. There have been marches, legal challenges, phone-call blitzes to elected officials, fund-raising, educational efforts, town-hall meetings, hard-core street protests, intensive media investigations into possible corruption and criminal behavior, and much more.
If this administration turns out to be horrible but not utterly devastating, it won’t be absurd to think that, to a great extent, it’s because of all this work.
History is weird. You can’t experiment with it the way you do in many sciences; it’s not a video game or a Pick Your Plot book, where you can go back and see what would have happened if you’d chosen differently. You can certainly look at similar historical situations and see how they unfolded. That’s exactly what those of us sounding the alarms are doing: we’re looking at history, reading descriptions of the rise of fascism by people who lived it, and listening to the experts in social and political history who have studied fascism. But we can’t be sure. Every historical situation is different, and while our fears are well-informed, we have no way of knowing if we’re right.
So, what if we’re wrong? Shouldn’t we be resisting anyway?
I keep thinking of a political cartoon by Joel Pett depicting a speaker at a global climate summit showing a PowerPoint slide reading, “Energy independence. Preserve rainforests. Sustainability. Green jobs. Livable cities. Renewables. Clean water, air. Healthy children. Etc.” An audience member is yelling, “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”
That’s what I keep thinking about. What if we’re wrong? We’ll have mobilized the Left, stood up for basic human rights, forged powerful alliances, refused to let our elections be taken over by a hostile foreign power, educated millions about civic engagement, inspired progressives to run for office, and spoken up against bigoted hatred and willful ignorance. Will all that have been for nothing?
I’m not saying that because it’s led to all this mobilization and activism, Trump’s election is ultimately a good thing. That would be dehumanizing and callous. Even in the best-case scenario, far too many lives will be damaged and even destroyed by this administration’s policies and appointments, by its contempt for democracy and the Constitution, and by the emboldening of the hatefully bigoted far Right. Lives will be ruined, and I’m not going to view those lives as grist for the mill. I’m saying there’s a silver lining in this cloud of shit. And I’m saying that even if our worst fears aren’t realized, even if our worst fears will never be realized, the least-bad scenario is still worth resisting.
As a matter of pure intellectual curiosity, it might be interesting to know whether the Trump administration would turn completely fascistic if unchecked. But I’m not willing to run that experiment. Other countries have, with disastrous results. The worst outcomes are all too plausible; the risks are far too great.
My wife, Ingrid, is a nurse practitioner, and she often says that in the medical field, they don’t run tests if the results won’t change what they do. So when I think about political resistance to the Trump administration and the rise of the hard Right in the United States, and when I question whether our predictions of doom are correct, mostly what I think is this: If I’m wrong, would it change what I do? Should it change what I do?
The answer is no. The work is worth doing anyway.
Author’s Note: Some ideas in this essay are drawn from my colleague Miri Mogilevsky.