Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump

For the first time in my life, I am contemplating going to jail in an act of civil disobedience if President-elect Trump moves against people registered for DACA or carries out some of his other campaign promises. I’m not eager to get locked up, but I’d be at peace with it, too.

I wrote about my thinking today at the Nation.

My greatest fear, when I ponder going to jail, is that my 53-year-old prostate wouldn’t be able to handle the long wait until I am booked. Before Election Day, it seemed a little crazy to imagine that I would ever be behind bars. Now it seems a little crazy that the country would be where we are. Like many others, I am weighing what I am willing and able to do in response.

Henry David Thoreau begins his 1849 essay On the duty of civil disobedience with a timely question: “This American government—what is it but a tradition, though a recent one, endeavoring to transmit itself unimpaired to posterity, but in each instant losing some of its integrity?” American government lost more than some of its integrity on November 8, when Donald Trump was elected to succeed Barack Obama as President of the United States…

[S]erious as they are, Trump’s personal improprieties and financial conflicts are not what lead me to ponder chaining myself to a courthouse door. Like no other president-elect in generations, he bluntly challenges bedrock norms of our pluralist democracy. That’s what Trump’s challenges to President Obama’s birth certificate and college transcripts were really about.

More here.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect,, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.

16 thoughts on “Civil Disobedience in the Age of Trump”

  1. It's the reluctant heroes like Harold you want to share the foxhole or the Coliseum with.

    On acting alone: true, protesting in a group raises the risks of confrontation with law enforcement, and exposes you to the rashness of others in a way you can't control. But there is also strength in numbers, from media coverage to psychological and legal support. Few of us (or I should say, you, as I live at a safe distance) have employers as understanding as the University of Chicago.

  2. Registering as a Muslim if he tries to create a registry could actually shut down the program altogether, providing that enough people do it.

    1. I will. I lived in Dubai for a year and Indonesia for seven years, which in itself is highly suspicious. I've stayed in three hotels that were bombed by terrorists - not while I was there, fortunately. The first office I had in Indonesia was next door to the Aussie embassy, and it, like the other offices facing the embassy, was blasted pretty thoroughly when the embassy was bombed while I was in a meeting across town. Fortunately, no one in the office at the time was seriously injured, despite the shards of glass and other shrapnel, but one friend was smoking in front of the building and was blown back through the door. (Fortunately, he just suffered minor injuries.)

      A list of my Facebook friends contains more than a few Muslims; so much so that Facebook thinks my "ethnic affinity" is Asian-American. (I guess it is in many ways, but not necessarily in the way FB seems to think.)

  3. ".. my 53-year-old prostate wouldn’t be able to handle the long wait until I am booked.." In an earlier campaign, after Bill Clinton had been asked 'boxers or briefs', the joke was that Bob Dole responded, 'Depends'. So, as the Boy Scouts suggest, be prepared!

  4. Excellent piece. Throughout the election I've found myself reacting to Trump in ways that immediately remind me of reactions on the right when Obama was elected. Because I felt so much of their sentiment was tribal and partisan, to the extent that it used hyperbole and was catastrophic in thought, I dismissed it as misguided and childish (I recall a moment of absurd furor over Obama giving a message to school kids that was construed as somehow dictatorial and inappropriate). I wonder then, to what extent my feelings are as tribal and misguided.

    But then I remember just how awful Trump's actions and policy proposals have been. No hyperbole required.

    Left-wing protest will no doubt be castigated as mere partisanship. And much of it no doubt has been and will be. But the minute Trump takes office and engages in actions that actually cross lines - not just threaten to, I will seriously consider lending my hand to civil disobedience.

    1. Not to subtract from your points, b/c they're correct about Trump's policies and *actions* being awful. But I think, for a lot of people, it's not just partisanship. I think that might be somewhat the case for Harold. I feel our democracy, our Republic, is at risk, in a way I would not feel it, from a President Pence or Cruz. Maybe I'm wrong. Certainly every constituency in the Dem party would have been nearly as much at risk, from those, as from Trump. But we wouldn't be looking at kakistocracy, at the possibility of war, at our allies and enemies alike make plans for surviving our misgovernment, etc, etc, etc.

      I myself have unfriended anybody who didn't vote for Clinton *this time*. And yeah, there are those who are angry and hurt by this. But there are also those (on the right) who have echoed right back, that yes, this is different from a partisan argument.

      1. Johnson voter here. Your action in unfriending non-herk voters is clearly contrary to any wish you might have to move the country in a herkish direction - these are people who are, or now were, at least somewhat friendly to you. Any access you might have had to them, possibility you could have been convincing that this or that trumpish outrage is in fact an outrage, is now gone. Not a way to win hearts. But, you get to preen about your purity, so there's that.

        1. Speaking to the "other side", preferably in person, seems about the best thing we can all do. I unfortunately have a small circle of friends, none of whom include Republicans. This is as much for cultural reasons than political. But it isn't helping.

        2. Is Glen Johnson agreeable to the registration of people on the basis of religion? I thought he was a Libertarian, with the emphasis on LIberty. Eventually, someone is going to ask him "Where do you stand, brother?"

          1. Thank you. That's what it looked like in context, but I didn't want to assume, particularly as the topic of discussion is what you referred to in another thread as catching more flies with honey than with vinegar, and your point now is, similarly, about maintaining good relations with those with whom one disagrees in order to (among other things) have a positive influence. In that context, the choice of language that is almost certain to be perceived as intentionally offensive by those to whom it is addressed seems to contradict your previous stance.

            But back to the point under discussion. In fact, I take your points about maintaining contact, but would add in support of antiscience's comment that there may well be circumstances where cutting off a relationship is a more effective way of making the point that something is unacceptable. The danger, admittedly, is of closing the circle around both oneself and person one is breaking off relations with. But it can also send a powerful message about the fact that things have gone off the rails in a very serious way, a message that cannot be sent by continuing things as normal. I find the Amish use of shunning to be excessive and indeed often abusive, but the message "this is NOT OK" does seem to get through. And it does the job a lot of the time.

            Of course, this is an exceptional election. It would be silly, in my view, for the results of most elections to include mass unfriendings.

      2. I would be much more afraid of Cruz than of Trump. Trump is just oblivious to the norms of democracy, Cruz is actively hostile towards many of them.

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