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OpEd: How We Resist Extremism

In all of this we learned what the resistance in America must know: things are going to get worse before they get better.
Charleston In Mourning After 9 Killed In Church Massacre
People hold a vigivl on the Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridge on June 21, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

From the historic Women’s March to #NoBanNoWall protests at airports to the Senators who have committed to filibuster the richest cabinet in US history, Americans are learning how to resist Trumpism. But our problem goes beyond an unhinged President with historically unprecedented disapproval ratings and the emoluments that place him in violation of the Constitution. Contrary to his delusions, our resistance isn’t about Donald J. Trump. The extremism that threatens to undo American government is an assault on our deepest moral and Constitutional values. Millions know we have to resist; the question is how.

Long before President Trump was anything more than a TV personality, the extremism that now has power in Washington took over the Republican party in my home state of North Carolina. Its sponsors were many of the same people who backed Trump’s campaign. Their rhetoric was similar to the caustic campaign and “alternative facts” of Trumpism. But, as we learned, all of this was largely a distraction from their systematic work to dismantle the government and subvert democracy in service of a wealthy, white oligarchy.

The language of left versus right isn’t sufficient to challenge extremism. We need the language of right versus wrong.

After taking over the state house, winning the governor’s mansion, and stacking the state Supreme Court, North Carolina’s extremists saw 2013 as their opportunity to turn vision into policy. They re-wrote the tax code to benefit the state’s 23 wealthiest families while taking away the Earned Income Tax Credit that even Ronald Reagan had endorsed for poor working families.

Defunding state government necessarily led to cuts in education, but Republicans offered “alternative facts” about increases in teacher pay as they defunded teacher assistants and increased class sizes. They dismissed environmental protections and gun laws as “unnecessary regulations” and attacked experts who tried to explain why they mattered.

Demonizing the recipients of social services, they denied Medicaid expansion to half a million people and unemployment insurance benefits to another 170,000. After all of this had been accomplished in a single legislative session, they passed the most extreme voter suppression bill since Jim Crow and spent millions in public funds to defend it in federal court.

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While this was happening, 16 other moral leaders and I, including young people and an elder in a wheel chair, were arrested for exercising our constitutionally protected right to instruct our legislators. This sparked 13 weeks of “Moral Mondays” throughout the remainder of the session and a sustained moral resistance that, four years later, has unseated extremists from the executive and judicial branches in North Carolina and won a federal court order for special elections to address the racially gerrymandered districts represented in our legislature. Here in North Carolina, we’ve learned how to resist extremism.

First, you have to change the language. It’s not enough to simply call out lies, because Republicans will respond that Democrats are lying too. The language of left versus right isn’t sufficient to challenge extremism. We need the language of right versus wrong.

It’s wrong to attack people because of who they are, to serve the wealthy instead of the common good, to pass laws that hurt teachers, children, the poor and the sick. Ours is a pluralistic society, but even in the Bible Belt, we found that a broad coalition of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other people of conscience can agree on a basic sense of morality that goes deeper than partisan allegiance. 11 percent of those arrested at Moral Mondays were Republicans; we educated and organized in majority white, majority Republican counties, subverting the divide-and-conquer tactics of the Tea Party.

But we know language is not enough. You also have to create a platform for people who are being hurt. Week after week, we invited teachers, doctors, the unemployed, and the uninsured to tell their stories on the state house lawn.

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We didn’t allow politicians from any party to speak from the stage, but paired the testimony of directly affected people with the exhortation of community leaders who came in their clerical attire, lab coats, and union hats. When the cameras showed up, they broadcast images of the diversity we were advocating for—men and women, gay and straight, rich and poor, black, white and brown together.

Still, we insisted that our resistance couldn’t be about a moment in Raleigh alone. Because extremists had the votes, we knew we weren’t going to win immediately. We committed ourselves to longterm resistance in the streets, in the courtroom, and at the ballot box.

Through nonviolent direct action, we escalated our struggle, demonstrating the willingness of 1200 citizens to sacrifice personal freedom for the good of the whole. We developed a legal strategy to challenge unconstitutional extremism in the courts. And we followed politicians home to their districts, organizing 150 local events over 3 years, in addition to an annual mass moral march in Raleigh. We never endorsed a candidate, but we asked every candidate regardless of party to embrace our moral agenda and we published their record on issues for all to see.

In all of this we learned what the resistance in America must know: things are going to get worse before they get better.

We will lose some battles, and some of us are going to spend some long nights in jail. But, as they used to say in South Africa, “only a dying mule kicks the hardest.”

We have to write this where we can see it every morning. We have to go to bed every night knowing that we’ve done all we can to stand together for justice and truth. And we have to know that, however long it takes, we will win.

Rev. William J. Barber II is president of the North Carolina NAACP, founder of Repairers of the Breach, a progressive ecumenical organization, and chief architect of Moral Mondays, a grass-roots movement for racial and economic justice. He is the author of The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement.