Update on signs of fascism in the U.S.

I took a vacation from updating my signs of fascism spreadsheet and now I’m back with a big picture update. Short version: Trump seems to be failing at one of the most basic requirements of fascism, which is winning popular support and suppressing public dissent.

Trump was sworn in yesterday with the lowest approval ratings of a president-elect since we started measuring approval ratings, and his ratings are still falling. Congressional representatives are still acting like they are worried about getting re-elected, and are changing their votes when their constituents pressure them. The puny attendance and visible lack of enthusiasm at Trump’s inauguration, especially as contrasted with the various protests, is another sign of his failure in this important area. Trump is also failing to recruit artists and pop culture in general, another thing fascist movements are usually at least partly successful in doing.

My conclusion: we’re not currently on the path to total fascism in the U.S. If someone competent takes over the Trump administration (Bannon?), that could change quickly, but as far as I can tell, Trump is fundamentally unwilling to give anyone that level of power. An increase in U.S. fascism is still an imminent danger and something we should be alert for, but I’m feeling more hopeful about the resistance.

The biggest problem with my signs of fascism spreadsheet is that the actions column I created to tell myself what to do – pack, leave, flee, etc. – depends so much on a lot of factors not in the spreadsheet. For me, as a disabled white cis woman living in California who has healthcare through the ACA, things are okay right now, but any changes to the ACA will have a major effect on my safety. For others, many people have left the U.S already; others want to leave and can’t. Trans folks, Black people, Muslims, immigrants both documented and undocumented, disabled folks – we’re all more vulnerable to the upcoming administration. And that’s not reflected in the spreadsheet.

I’ve decided to start tracking four things for myself on a scale of 1 to 10: how much I’m resisting, how much I’m collaborating, what my personal danger is, and how hard emigration is for me personally. My fear is that, like the author of Defying Hitler, I’ll gradually collaborate more and more without realizing it.

The future is still scary and fucked up, and many bad things have happened, are happening, and will continue to happen. I am still working with my immigration lawyer to have options to live and work outside the U.S. I still have a go bag packed. I’m still getting copies of all my identity documents. But I’m also actively involved in resistance movements and I’m seeing the results of our work (including behind-the-scenes changes that I can’t talk about in public). People in the U.S. and around the world are connecting and mobilizing and speaking up.

I’ll close with a quote from Rebecca Solnit:

Many people are still trying to figure out what to do; others are doing it. They give me hope, in some portion of humanity, the portion that will resist Trump and defend our ideals. It will be hard. It will be ugly. Our job will be to be embody and protect all of those things most antithetical to authoritarianism, racism, misogyny, kleptocracy, an atmosphere of lies and indifference to science, fact and truth.

In easy times, we grow slack; this will require us each to find our capacity for heroism. Some will, and my hope lies with them. Or us.

One way to resist Trump: become an Ally Skills Workshop teacher

We have a problem in the U.S.: 63 million people who voted for Trump, either despite or because of his record of advocating and practicing racism, sexism, xenophobia, ableism, transphobia, religious hatred, and other cruel and backward beliefs. This election made it clear how important it is for people of good will to learn the skills to stand up for their values, and, when possible, to change the hearts and minds of people who don’t yet understand the implications of supporting someone with these beliefs. You can be a crucial part of changing some of these 63 million minds – keep reading to learn how.

I teach a workshop based on the idea that people who have the most power and influence in society should take on more of the work of fighting systemic discrimination. It’s called the Ally Skills Workshop, and I’ve been teaching it since 2012 along with co-creator Mary Gardiner, Leigh Honeywell, Kendra Albert, Y-Vonne Hutchinson, and many others. In this workshop, I teach people simple, everyday techniques for standing up to systemic oppression as well as making systemic changes to reduce oppression. It teaches people a wide range of responses, from simply saying, “Not cool, dude,” at a party to helping people be heard in a meeting to reforming the way your company interviews new employees. Kendra Albert recently created a version of the workshop specialized for talking to friends and family who support Trump’s policies.

I want the workshop to reach more than a few dozen people a week. That’s why I teach other people to lead the Ally Skills Workshop with a train-the-trainers class. The next train-the-trainers classes are on January 15, 2017 in Oakland, California, and January 22, 2017 through online video. Tickets are priced on a need-based sliding scale, with free tickets available if you email me directly and tell me more about why you’d like to take the training. There’s no fee or charge for teaching the workshop later on – all of the materials are freely reusable and modifiable at no cost.

Teaching the workshop isn’t for everyone. From my experience, here are the three most important qualities for an Ally Skills Workshop teacher to have:

  • A fairly broad understanding of the issues facing a number of different marginalized groups
  • Comfort with speaking extemporaneously in public, including interrupting or confronting people when necessary
  • A strong sense of empathy for a wide range of people (or the ability to turn your empathy up during the workshop)

I often recommend that people teach the Ally Skills Workshop in pairs so that it’s less pressure on one person to be able to answer all the questions or respond appropriately in the moment. (I also teach people how to handle not knowing the answer to a question along with other useful teaching skills.)

If teaching the Ally Skills Workshop isn’t for you, I and many others are willing and able to teach this workshop around the world. Email me at contact@frameshiftconsulting.com to find out more.

Fighting American fascism depends on understanding American anti-Black racism

Like many people, I slept badly on the night after the 2016 U.S. election. One nightmare in particular is burned into my memory: I dreamed that Rudy Giuliani, dressed in a Nazi uniform, was smiling gleefully as he explained to me that he was going to kill me with chlorine gas. Then I felt the chlorine gas filling my lungs and I knew I was dying.

My nightmare reflects the reality that American fascism originates in (is identical to?) American anti-Black racism. I know Rudy Giuliani mainly as a passionate advocate of the NYPD’s blatantly racist stop-and-frisk policy, which began while he was mayor of New York. This is a man who seems to take positive pleasure in systematically violating the bodies of Black men and boys in particular (Black and Latinx people of all genders were also unfairly targeted). At some unconscious level, my brain made the connection: a man who supports a policy whose main effect is to physically assault Black and Latinx people is someone who would be happy – thrilled! – to run Trump’s as-yet theoretical death camps.

Nonetheless, it’s taken me weeks to fully make the conscious connection between American anti-Blackness and American fascism. I’ve been reading books and articles on German and Italian fascism, frantically trying to understand enough to effectively fight American fascism. Gradually, I’m realizing that learning about American slavery, the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, Jim Crow laws, American lynching, redlining, the Black Panther Party, the school-to-prison pipeline, stop-and-frisk, anti-Black police violence, our refusal as a nation to own up to our racism and atone for it, and the construction of American whiteness and the invitation of successive groups to join it – all of that is preparation for fighting fascism too. We need to learn lessons from parallel (but not identical) modern struggles as well – Russia, Turkey, France, the U.K., etc. – if we want to be up on the latest tactics of fascist regimes. And the victims of American fascism include many non-Black people. But the history and on-going expression of American anti-Blackness is crucial to understanding and fighting our own home-grown brand of fascism.

In my opinion, any group that wants to be effective in fighting American fascism must have a leadership with a broad and deep understanding of the history of American anti-Black racism.

My request to you: please leave a comment on this post suggesting your favorite anti-fascists who have this knowledge, along with a link to their work. In the mean time, here are a few of the anti-fascists I support and follow on Twitter (note that the first tweet is from *2014*):








Why tech worker resistance is crucial to preventing large-scale human rights abuses in the U.S.

Today I signed the “Never Again” pledge along with hundreds of other tech workers. We pledged to take a variety of concrete actions to stop the U.S. government from using databases to target people for human rights abuses. One of those actions is “We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.”

Some people have criticized this pledge as empty because they claim these databases already exist and are available to anyone with the money to buy them. They often back this up with a screenshot from a commercial marketing data broker listing a few hundred thousand phone numbers or emails. They argue that tech workers are just fooling themselves by thinking that their actions as individuals matter now, after these databases have been created.

I believe that the resistance of individual tech workers against the creation and use of databases like this is highly relevant. I’ll briefly summarize my argument, then I’ll tell you my personal experience of working with one of these databases. I will finish up by going into detail about the lessons I learned from that experience.

TL;DR version: Many commercial databases are low quality and barely usable for the purposes of large-scale human rights abuses like mass deportations by race, religion, or national origin. Higher quality databases are expensive to create and update, and tend to be highly protected. Any existing databases require maintenance, support, and tools to keep them up to date and make them usable. All of these things are provided by tech workers. By refusing to do these things, we can materially block, slow down, and frustrate attempts to commit large-scale human rights abuses by the U.S. government.

Now for my personal experience with one of these databases. A few months ago, I volunteered with a political organization. My job was to send text messages to thousands of voters of a particular ethnicity in swing states order to encourage them to vote in the U. S. presidential election. To do this, I used a computer-based tool to send and reply to text messages. The list of phone numbers we sent text messages to was bought from one of the commercial marketing data brokers. The text messages we sent included the purported first name of the person owning the phone number.

The first thing I noticed is that the most common reply we got (after no reply at all) was “I think you have the wrong number.” Many of the people with these phone numbers did not even match the names that we were given to go along with them, and if the people owning them were our target ethnicity and location it was only by accident. I also noticed that a lot of the people we were texting were not of the ethnicity that we were targeting. We had one set of text messages that asked this question explicitly, but people also volunteered this information in their replies (sometimes using abusive Twitter hashtags).

We almost immediately started having problems with the software we were using. Some of the problems were volunteers having difficulty understanding how to use the software, but there were also out-and-out bugs that caused serious problems that couldn’t be fixed by users. The software programmers who wrote the text messaging tools had to make emergency fixes and edit the databases during our volunteer session. We ended up switching software tools entirely at one point. As one of the few tech-savvy volunteers, I spent a lot of time helping other volunteers figure out how to use the software and work around bugs.

This is just one person’s experience working with one database of people by ethnicity, and I’m sure there are better ones out there. But I also have over ten years of experience with data, software, and Murphy’s Law. Here are my beliefs about the role of tech workers in using existing databases of people by race, religion, or national origin:

  1. Many commercial databases are incomplete and error-riddled. These databases leave out a lot of people who should be in them, and include a lot of people who shouldn’t. This is fine if you are sending a mass marketing email, or targeting an Facebook ad. But if you want to send thugs to the doors of every person in that group (and not to people who aren’t in that group), you’ll need to put in a lot of work. Correcting these errors is extremely expensive because it takes human work and intelligence. (For example, the U. S. Census employs hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to create its gargantuan dataset.) It will require the cooperation of many individuals to make these databases usable for the purpose of deportation or other violations of human rights. We can refuse to do that.
  2. Databases of personally identifiable information need to be updated frequently. I’ve moved over a dozen times in my life. The DMV’s record for my address has been wrong more years than it’s been right. Gamergate can’t even get my address and phone number correct when I post it on my company web site. Updating these databases to reflect moves, changes in locations, new phone numbers, changes of religion, marriages, births, deaths, etc. will take ongoing support – from tech workers. We can refuse to do that.
  3. Higher quality databases tend to already have systems in place to make them harder to abuse. For example, the personally identifiable information in the U.S. Census data is protected by federal laws and every person who has access to it has sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of that data. Will that prevent it from being misused? Ha ha, no – but it outlines the importance of individuals refusing to be complicit in human rights abuses. A limited number of people can turn this data over for use by a human rights abusing regime, and they have already thought deeply about their personal responsibility in this situation. They can refuse to do that, and we can stand in solidarity with them.
  4. Databases of millions of people require tech support to use. Even if we had access to a magical database that updated itself with the name, location, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status of every human in the U.S., we would still need tech workers to build and maintain and run the tools to use that data. We would need tech support to help people use the tools. We would need technical writers to document the tools. We can refuse to do that.

I’m not one of the people who seriously believes that the cost of deporting millions of people will deter the Trump administration from doing it (one easy way to reduce costs: don’t deport people humanely). But history tells us that, whether you do it humanely or not, this kind of large-scale human rights abuse requires huge numbers of people working together with the full knowledge that they are committing human rights abuses. Tech workers are a crucial part of this system, and if enough of them refuse to do that work, we can have an impact on history.

In the end though, I believe the indirect effects of this pledge may be even more powerful than the direct effects. Tech workers are notoriously difficult to organize, so when we do act in concert, it’s a newsworthy event. In my experience, tech company executives will pay close attention to any cause powerful enough to get tech workers to pledge solidarity with each other and with the most vulnerable in society.

A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

I just published a guide to changing the hearts and minds of lukewarm Trump supporters over at the amazing Captain Awkward advice blog. I took what I learned from teaching the Ally Skills Workshop and turned it into a step-by-step process for changing people’s minds effectively: identifying where you have the most influence, choosing who to spend time, finding shared values, and using compassion and vulnerability on your part to help the listener develop their compassion towards those who need it most. Here’s the introduction:

Many of us are grappling with how to use our skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration and the hatred and violence that it inspires. As Captain Awkward readers, we’ve been practicing setting boundaries, standing up for our values, and making it awkward for the right person. We are uniquely prepared for a crucial part of the next few months or years: changing the minds of people who support the Trump administration, and standing up to the abusers they are empowering. This post teaches scripts and techniques to do these two tasks, along with the theory behind them. It’s for people living in the U.S., but it may be useful to people living elsewhere as well.

And now I will give you some strange advice: Read the comments on that post! Captain Awkward is a case study (along with Metafilter) in how positive and useful a comments section can be if you have a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of reading the comments and enjoying them!

If you have read my last two blog posts, you know I’m not hopeful for the future of human rights in the United States (and around the world). I don’t believe that changing the minds of wavering Trump supporters will be anything like enough to prevent fascism and kleptocracy. However, I think any other effort will fail unless we drastically lower the percentage of U.S. voters who support Trump. That’s why I licensed that guide CC BY-SA – please feel free to copy, modify, and redistribute it without charge as long as you credit the authors.

If you like what you see on Captain Awkward, please consider joining me and becoming a monthly donor (or chipping in a few bucks now). Their work is crucial to the task we have before us.

Spreadsheet of signs of fascism

Several people have asked me to share the spreadsheet I mentioned in my previous post, the one I am using to track signs that the U.S. is governed by a fascist regime. Feel free to copy it and make your own modifications – it is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 Valerie Aurora. Here is the current snapshot:

Obviously this is an incomplete list. I’ll be adding new things to it as new and more creative ways of being a fascist are thought up in Trump Tower.

I made this spreadsheet because I’m afraid I will normalize brutal and inhuman behavior, and wake up one day to find I am trapped in a cruel fascist regime – or worse, actively collaborating in it.

It is true that before November 8, brutality and violence were already a central part of the U.S. government and culture, and many people were already living daily in fear for their freedom and lives. What we lost on November 8 is the reasonable expectation that we could fix this kind of injustice through peaceful political change, in the style of the civil rights movement or the fight for marriage equality. Maybe our democratic institutions will survive the next four years, but I don’t feel hopeful.

2017-01-21: Update here.

Actions I have taken to prepare for the Trump administration

It’s been about 116 hours since I realized that Trump won the United States presidential election. I’ve spent that time having sober discussions with friends and loved ones, reading the news, reading opinion pieces, reading history, making spreadsheets, and double-checking my thought process.

This morning the news broke that Trump made the first post-election announcement confirming he will make mass deportations, outlining exactly which people he will deport and saying that he will make a “determination” about which other people he will deport after that. No one can dismiss this as “election talk” or campaign promises he will renege on when he gets into often.

Just in case you aren’t already deeply frightened by this news: Historically mass deportations are a very strong predictor of mass deaths: mass deportations are difficult to execute because other countries don’t want your refugees, so you put them in camps, which get full, and then you start killing the people in the camps. Mass deportations also require a volunteer paramilitary force that very quickly erodes the rule of law and human rights.

At this point I feel an obligation to let people I care about know what actions I am taking to prepare for the Trump administration. I’m not here to convince anyone, I’m just giving you this information and you can make your own decisions based on how much you trust my judgement. But first here is some relevant information about me that many of my friends don’t know.

I spent about seven years feeling suicidally depressed and anxious, due to side effects of undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. During that time, I developed a set of checks and tests for my decision-making process to avoid making bad decisions out of anxiety or fear. I was pretty successful in this process: I did not commit suicide, I successfully co-founded and grew a non-profit, I worked full-time, I kept strong relationships with friends and family, and I made good financial decisions – all while a voice was telling me that death was the sensible, reasonable, obvious solution. (I haven’t been suicidal or depressed for about three years now.)

I am using these same checks and tests right now, so I don’t think I’m being alarmist or acting unreasonably. I also don’t have a history of overreacting to elections: e.g., I have never in my life joked even once about moving to Canada if $POLITICIAN won. That is, I don’t have a history of “crying wolf” about election results.

Without further ado, here are the things I have already done:

  • Asked my loved ones to install Signal (and all of them did)
  • Started collecting information on my emigration options from friends
  • Made a spreadsheet listing signs helping me decide whether the fascist regime is coming or not, with weights (UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve now published the spreadsheet)
  • Made an agreement with a loved one about exactly what signs will mean it’s time to leave the U.S.
  • Made an appointment to talk to my immigration (emigration?) lawyer this week
  • Called my loved ones and made sure they either had passports or promised to get them this week (and offered them money to expedite)
  • Checked to see how long it will take to cash out my 401(k) (it’s already in money market funds or I would have moved it to that too)
  • Advised a loved one to go ahead with that house sale they were planning for later in 2017
  • Made lists of the most influential progressive people I know and thought about ways to connect them with each other to take action
  • Started designing an Ally Skills Workshop targeted at privileged folks (mostly white people) talking to “reachable” Trump supporters

While putting together this list, I was also struck by how many things I did months or years ago that people are recommending today. I’ve been acting as though my phone conversations were recorded by the NSA for a couple of years now. I’ve been using Signal for several months. I think twice about what I write in email. I set up a recurring donation to the ACLU in July 2016, and one for Planned Parenthood in July 2014. I donated to political campaigns 4 times as much during this election cycle as any previous one, and volunteered as well for the first time.

My basic feeling at this point is that, yes, what I’m doing is going to be costly if my beliefs about the future are too pessimistic. But I’ll be thrilled if, e.g., I spend $20,000 getting ready for a fascist government and it turns out I was wrong. Hurray! I will be thrilled to come back to this post and edit it and say, “Hahaha! Remember when we were all worried about mass deportations in the U.S.? Boy I feel stupid for falling for that!” I want that to happen. I just don’t see any clear path to that future at this point.

What I do during the next week depends on the political news. I have given up trying to predict what happens. As many people have pointed out, one of the techniques used by fascist regimes is to overwhelm people’s mental processing capacity with contradictory, confusing, and frightening information to stop people from effectively resisting or escaping. So many of my friends have stopped watching the news since the election because it makes them feel too horrible. THIS IS INTENTIONAL. Please stay aware and safe. I love you.

I’ll end this post with a plea to read the sections on mass deportations in Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Especially compare the actions of Denmark versus Romania and the enormous difference even a small amount of principled resistance made in saving lives. This is the most memorable passage from the book for me (emphasis mine):

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistances based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors.

I challenge you: be the principled resistor that makes the “ruthless toughness” of the Trump regime melt like butter in the sun.