How We Got Here: The 2020 Political Crisis and the Future of Social Change (Part I)

Part I: Introduction — Tribalism Meets a Conflict Long in the Making

Josh Greenberg
7 min readOct 6, 2020
From Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

This piece is part of a treatise which consists of the following sections and will be published in the form of a series over several days.

As I write these words, forces of evil are committing heinous crimes and appear to be preparing an organized, murderous assault on our country.

Those in power are putting into action a violent white supremacist agenda that spares no vulnerable group; sterilizing immigrants in detention centers; abducting peaceful citizens; manufacturing violence at peaceful protests; employing vastly disproportionate force; dehumanizing many Americans by casting them as “enemies of the state,” “anarchists,” and “terrorists;” and overthrowing our system of government.

Some of these acts may well progress to atrocity crimes, if they have not already.

Even though a majority of Americans voted against the white supremacist candidate in 2016, how have we reached a point where hate is openly expressed and becomes more extreme by the day?

How have we reached a point where our political discourse — on all sides — has turned from toxic and divisive to retributive?

How have we reached a point where we have two competing, polar opposite camps in the country with entirely different conceptions of reality?

How have we reached the brink of civil war?

The seeds of conflict have been present within our country from the start, stretching back to its original grounding in racial injustice.

That injustice left a long, violent legacy that has always infected our politics and policies, laying the groundwork for Donald Trump’s oppressive agenda today.

However, even as our country has appeared to make progress on matters of racial justice, we now face forces of evil that defy the imagination.

How could we have possibly reached this point? What conditions have allowed Trump to rise to power? What conditions have given rise to extremist hate? What might we have done to prevent this crisis?

Those who say that Trump has given unprecedented validation to white supremacists and that the current events would be unlikely to transpire under any other peaceful president are correct. For his oppressive agenda, Trump must be denounced and punished in the strongest possible form.

However, pinning the blame on Trump alone amounts to a superficial explanation for our sociopolitical problems — for Trump could not gain validation for his white supremacist agenda without benefiting from the power he derives from his base.

Nevertheless, this observation is not to say that Trump’s entire base is explicitly white supremacist; all that Trump needs for his violent agenda is a “critical mass” of explicit, extremist white supremacists and a “sufficient mass” of indifferent supporters.

Rather, the main point is that we must understand the deeper origins of Trump’s base if we wish to untangle our sociopolitical crisis.

As many people have indeed recognized, our problem of Trump is hardly about Trump alone. Our systems are broken, the manifestation of which is our toxic politics and the demagoguery of our leadership.

Any full analysis of the underlying causes leading to this juncture will require volumes of books, on topics ranging from racial injustice to demographic and cultural change to economic inequity to democratic erosion to geopolitics to political corruption to climate change — and on timescales ranging from a couple years to centuries. I cannot possibly address all of the explanations here or even scratch the surface.

To situate the perspective that this treatise takes, note that all historical events are the product of shorter-term causes and triggers overlaid on more fundamental, long-term determinants.

For the purposes of this treatise, before looking in-depth at many of the abovementioned long-term causes, I will first turn inward — by examining how those of us resisting Trump could have done better.

By learning from the mistakes of this period, we have the power to alter our strategic decisions moving forward, significantly influencing the outcome of the current crisis.

In this fashion, I will focus on the short-term period of roughly the past four years. I choose this perspective because this recent span of time (compared to longer spans of time) includes decisions and events that have fallen most within the control of the progressive movement fighting Trump.

By learning from the mistakes of this period, we have the power to alter our strategic decisions moving forward, significantly influencing the outcome of the current crisis.

Specifically, this treatise begins with the social rift that has developed between urban and rural America.

This divergence is the story of the American dream getting too far out in front of us — for those who achieved and benefited from the American dream ultimately became disconnected from their fellow citizens who did not.

As the rift has widened, the American dream has reached a state of non-existence: wages are stagnant, intergenerational mobility is almost hopeless, and lives and livelihoods are being lost.

Our country has never truly grappled with this divide, instead feeding a longstanding denialism and classism toward members of Trump’s base — even though they have legitimate grievances rooted in socioeconomic decline.

As we have failed to provide Trump supporters with any positive alternatives, including a true agenda of national economic justice, our nation has continued to fracture, and the grievances of Trump supporters have begun to turn to conspiracy theory and extremist hate.

Overlaid on our social divisions, the progressive movement has made strategic, tribalistic missteps in a drive toward moral purity that has often suffered from an excessive focus on identity.

In our pursuit of justice, we have lost sight of the equally important pursuit of unity. These two priorities need not trade off with one another — for it is possible to pursue a unifying justice.

However, even though the progressive movement may have had the best of intentions, its agenda has often only had the effect of exacerbating divisions. Throwing sparks on the fire, the missteps of the progressive movement have come in place of implementing humanistic, love-centered approaches to address both the short-term and long-term determinants of hate.

In our pursuit of justice, we have lost sight of the equally important pursuit of unity.

Now, as our nation has become lost in identity politics at the expense of unity, we have allowed a demagogue to pit multiple marginalized groups against one another, even though these groups should have shared significant common cause.

Given that our country may now be on the path to a mass, race-based atrocity — which is fundamentally what makes the current crisis so morally emergent — I must also note how the arguments herein relate to the centuries-old streak of racial injustice in our social fabric.

From the standpoint of this treatise, our country’s institutionalized racism is a long-term determinant of the current crisis. Even though progress has been made in the cause for racial justice, the curse of racism has never been eliminated from our country.

This unresolved history has helped set the stage for the present events, making it possible for a president to pursue a violent white supremacist agenda against Black Americans and other Americans and immigrants of color.

Perhaps most of all, the longstanding devaluation of Black lives in our country has desensitized the general population to the untold suffering that Black Americans have experienced at the hands of the state over the course of our nation’s history.

Furthermore, many of the tactics used to deprive Black Americans of their freedom throughout our country’s history have provided the framework to now assault the freedom of many more Americans. For example, longstanding efforts to disenfranchise Black Americans are now being expanded to disenfranchise other sections of the populace as well.

Despite this ugly history, there is no inevitability in the path to war and possible atrocity.

Nothing dictates that short-term causes must conspire with our country’s longstanding racism to produce human catastrophe.

Certainly, over the longer course of history, if we truly wish to make our society resilient to catastrophe, the ultimate solution is to erase racism from our country, as well as to resolve the multiple other long-term determinants of this crisis.

Nothing dictates that short-term causes must conspire with our country’s longstanding racism to produce human catastrophe.

In recent years, however, it has been challenging to take concerted legislative action toward these ends, due to the highly restrictive political environment that is itself at the heart of the current crisis.

Despite this impediment, the progressive movement has remained in control of many short-term actions and strategies in its response to Trump’s oppressive agenda. It is this set of responses that is the primary focus of this treatise, particularly because the strategies employed to date have largely only added fuel to the fire.

To be clear, there is zero sense of proportionality in the moral responsibility of Trump and his enablers on one side and the progressive movement on the other side.

However, my arguments center on the actions of the progressive movement because these actions can be used either to further inflame or to help de-escalate the crisis. By altering its strategies, the anti-Trump resistance can become more effective.

As I write on this subject, my aim is to adopt a humanistic approach.

Therefore, my central concern is with the human experience, regardless of whether the particulars of any given human experience or human conviction are “morally justified.”

To be clear, I will also comment on matters of morality, which Americans must urgently recognize and act upon in the fight to save our country and to prevent atrocity.

However, I focus on the human experience for several reasons. First, because every individual’s experience is a legitimate form of human experience, regardless of how we may assess that individual’s moral character. Second, because the human experience is fundamental to our quality of life. Third, because, in pursuing the moral truth, we often dismiss the human experience, a mistake which itself feeds back to undermine the moral truth.



Josh Greenberg

Human, activist, scholar. Physician-Economist-in-training @UMich. CEO @proghealth. @FulbrightPrgrm Awardee. I work on anything that matters, locally & globally.