Who’s resisting who? Michelle Alexander’s excellent first New York Times column

Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)
Michelle Alexander (MSNBC screengrab)

Did you read Michelle Alexander’s inaugural opinion column in the New York Times over the weekend? If not, kindly read it now.

The announcement in June of her hiring as a Times opinion columnist – as a black woman, as an eloquent, erudite civil rights activist, and as a holder of unshakeable ideals — was cause for celebration, especially given several other recent hires.

Now, her first column is out and it’s a powerful, progressive call to arms in the form of questioning the chief rhetorical conceit of the Trump era. Her alternate formulation: It’s Trump who’s resisting, not the “resistance.”

And what is he resisting? Nothing short of “the struggle for human freedom and dignity” and “the centuries-long quest to create a truly equitable democracy…. A new nation… a multiracial, multiethnic, multifaith, egalitarian democracy in which every life and every voice truly matters. ”

When you recognize that, you recognize that simply resisting Trump is not enough. Alexander explains:

Resistance is a reactive state of mind. While it can be necessary for survival and to prevent catastrophic harm, it can also tempt us to set our sights too low and to restrict our field of vision to the next election cycle, leading us to forget our ultimate purpose and place in history.

Alexander’s primary focus has been on changing the criminal justice system. in 2010, she wrote what has become a seminal book in modern civil-right-activism: “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

The book began a long overdue and still ongoing national conversation about how the war on drugs and the resulting mass incarceration of poor people of color is effectively – and not accidentally – a racially-biased system of social control reminiscent of Jim Crow.

I’m proud to say that I was on the jury for one of the first (but hardly the last) prizes conferred on the book, the Constitution Project’s 2010 Constitutional Commentary award. Read Alexander’s devastating acceptance speech.

Different people will take different things away from Alexander’s column.

My biggest takeaway is that in the area that concerns me the most — the accumulation of power by the executive branch and the absence of effective check and balances – resisting Trump is, just as she writes, not nearly enough.

I’ve never been clear on what “the resistance” really is, or does. But I do know that any group that includes advocates of near-absolute executive power –just because they happen to share a temporary aversion to a specific president — can’t be trusted to pursue the kinds of reforms this country so desperately needs.

The good news is that the new and old groups out there fighting to preserve the independent judiciary, advocating for a more activist Congress, warning about the president’s unilateral national-security powers, and conducting intense oversight seem to be looking beyond the end of the Trump presidency.

The key is not just to be satisfied once Trump is gone.  It’s to learn from all the ways he violated norms, broke rules, coopted a major political party, used disinformation for political gain, attacked the judiciary, politicized law enforcement and the military, ignored foreign interference in our elections, turned the American people against each other, and generally demonstrated that the constitutional system of checks and balances is dramatically out of whack.

And then try to fix things.

Leave a Comment