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Tomgram: Engler, The Transformative Power of Democratic Uprisings

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This article originally appeared at To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: From Jeremy Scahill and Eduardo Galeano to Nomi Prins and Max Blumenthal, this website has for years worked with Nation Books, an independent, forward-looking publisher of the first order, sharing authors who, in both essays and books, have the urge to change our world (or reveal its grim realities). Today, TomDispatch and Nation Books join together around a new book that should help us rethink our lives, Mark and Paul Engler's This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Once again, we couldn't recommend it more strongly. Tom]

"'Do not go into Iraq. Do not attack Iraq'... I said it loud and clear, 'You'll destabilize the Middle East.'" So the ever-prescient Donald Trump recently recalled of his role in the months before the Bush administration launched its invasion of Iraq. An apparently committed anti-war activist in the lead-up to that conflict, he proudly reminded American voters about how he had "fought very, very hard against us... going into Iraq."

I thought my memory might be faltering, so I went back to TomDispatch's 2003 coverage of that moment to look for any mention of Trump leading an antiwar march or speaking at a demonstration. Had he been spotted holding a candle at a peace vigil at Trump Plaza? Had it all just slipped my mind?

The evidence for any of this? Nada. So I broadened my search, checking out mainstream coverage of that moment when millions took to the streets in cities across the globe to protest the coming invasion and there, too, it was the same story. I found, for instance, reports of eight million or more people protesting the coming war on February 15, 2003, but not a single Trump sighting. Nor did he seem to have played a role in any of the other major demonstrations from that bygone era.

That's not to say that Trump kept mum on the war. "Are you for invading Iraq?" shock-jock Howard Stern asked him in September 2002. Trump's reply: "Yeah, I guess so." And one day into the March 2003 invasion, he told Fox News's Neil Cavuto that it was looking like a "tremendous success from a military standpoint." Wall Street, he prophesied, was "just gonna go up like a rocket, even beyond, and it's gonna continue and, you know, we have a strong and powerful country and let's hope it all works out." A day after that, though, Trump could indeed be found speaking out emphatically on the war -- or, rather, on his contribution to countering possible home-front malaise. "War is depressing, but something like the Miss USA pageant is positive and brings you out of that funk," said the co-owner of the upcoming Miss USA beauty pageant.

Later in March 2003, Trump did finally term the war "a mess." In September, he said, "I would have fought terrorism, but not necessarily Iraq." In November, however, he noted that while "more and more doves" were coming forward, Bush needed to stay the course and the next month he assured Cavuto that toppling Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein had been "a huge day for our country," adding, "we have to win." In fact, it evidently wasn't until April 2004 that Trump publicly and unambiguously stated: "Iraq is a terrible mistake."

What if The Donald had begun his anti-war "activism" in 2002 or early 2003 instead of a year into the conflict? Might he have helped send even more protesters into the streets and might that have made a difference? Could committed activists, even a fervent billionaire casino capitalist, have helped turn the tide? Can disruptive social movements change the world or are we better served by take-it-slow, Trumpian-speed, wait-a-year-or-more-to-speak-up, incremental change? Mark and Paul Engler make a case for the former, arguing in their new book, This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century, that supposed pragmatism often stands in the way of genuine progress. Their analysis of past protest movements and uprisings suggests that the grand slogan of Paris, 1968 -- "Be realistic, demand the impossible" -- is actually remarkably sage and sober advice for those interested in affecting change.

Major modern movements suggest, they point out, that Bernie stands a far better chance than Hillary of altering the grim status quo in Washington; that today's activists fighting for immigrant rights as well as those battling the forces of climate change can, in fact, make a major difference -- even against long odds, great doubts, and business-as-usual Beltway intransigence. Pretending later to have fought hard to prevent a war, on the other hand, will never actually stop one . Nick Turse

Three Times When the World Broke Open -- and Two When It Might Again
In Praise of Impractical Movements
By Mark Engler and Paul Engler

Bernie Sanders's insurgent presidential campaign has opened up a debate about how social change happens in our society. The official version of how progress is won -- currently voiced by mainstream pundits and members of a spooked Democratic Party establishment -- goes something like this: politics is a tricky business, gains coming through the work of pragmatic insiders who know how to maneuver within the system. In order to get things done, you have to play the game, be realistic, and accept the established limits of debate in Washington, D.C.

A recent article in the Atlantic summed up this perspective with the tagline, "At this polarized moment, it's incremental change or nothing." This view, however, leaves out a critical driver of social transformation. It fails to account for what might be the most important engine of progress: grassroots movements by citizens demanding change.

Social change is seldom either as incremental or predictable as many insiders suggest. Every once in a while, an outburst of resistance seems to break open a world of possibility, creating unforeseen opportunities for transformation. Indeed, according to that leading theorist of disruptive power, Frances Fox Piven, the "great moments of equalizing reform in American political history" -- securing labor rights, expanding the vote, or creating a social safety net -- have been directly related to surges of widespread defiance.

Unlike elected officials who preoccupy themselves with policies considered practical and attainable within the political climate of the moment, social movements change the political weather. They turn issues and demands considered both unrealistic and politically inconvenient into matters that can no longer be ignored; they succeed, that is, by championing the impractical.

Such movements, of course, face immense barriers, but that shouldn't stop us from acknowledging their importance and highlighting the key role played by moments of mass defiance in shaping our world. Outbreaks of hope and determined impracticality provide an important rebuttal to the politics of accommodation, to the idea that the minor tweaking of the status quo is the best we can expect in our lifetimes.

Here, then, are three moments when the world broke open -- and two when it still might.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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