As a public intellectual, playwright and longtime foundation executive, Colin Greer has a unique view on politics and grassroots-oriented change. Formerly a CUNY professor and an expert on education and immigration—he wrote The Great School Legend along with nine other books—he was a founder of Change Magazine and Social Policy Magazine, and was a contributing editor to Parade Magazine for 17 years. Since 1985, he has been president of the New World Foundation, one of the few philanthropies in America that primarily funds grassroots organizing. He also chairs the boards of the Stella Adler Studio of Acting and the Lark Theatre. Greer is a board member of the Independent Media Institute, the parent organization for AlterNet.
Don Hazen: Trump’s scapegoating and lies are causing emotional trauma for many Americans, especially immigrants and people who have been sexually and emotionally abused. Do you agree that this trauma has been heightened by Trump?
Colin Greer: I don’t actually agree that the trauma is new. No, I think that Americans have suffered trauma at a high level since that election in 2000 when the Supreme Court gave the election to George Bush in Florida.
DH: Because of the court decision?
CG: Yes, absolutely. First of all, there was a real sense that what we believed in actually did not work. Everybody knew the decision was not true, that it was a lie. The court voted against its own standard—that is States’ Rights, right? We were suddenly seeing corruption at the highest level. Then Bush and Cheney took us to an unnecessary war that we learned very quickly to have no basis—no evidence for it—despite mass U.S. protests, which were shown to be meaningless to those in power. …[T]he intelligence was wrong—in fact, contrived—but they drove us to war.
DH: So Bush is getting off lightly, here in 2017?
CG: Absolutely. That war continues. It has destroyed stability in the world, especially in the Middle East. It intensified terrorism to a level we had not seen it before. It mobilized ethnic Muslim communities all over the world into being enemies of us because of the invasion of Iraq. It destroyed the economy that Obama inherited. [We were] facing intensified loss already under way since Regan showed what limited leverage organized labor possessed. Then, we were powerless to influence the terms of the capitalist theft that was the bail-out, and since which the basic security of workers has been badly undermined and health care out of reach for many Americans so that injury and disease was able to destroy families. Bush, et al., probably had the most traumatic effect of any administration since the early part of the 20th century.
All of this was of course followed by the mobilized racism against our black president. [This] demonstrated once again our progressive powerlessness and the distance between people’s needs and government callousness after 2010, which has been the experience of many working Americans continuously since welfare reform and finance deregulation in 1990.
DH: So you are saying Bush has been much more destructive than Trump, so far.
CG: Yeah, and we haven’t paid attention to it. We need, as progressives, to tell that story, both that it happened, [and] that it’s unresolved. We’ve been powerless to reverse the right-wing movement advances for a long time. Everybody knows that. The public has taken that in viscerally; that’s trauma’s process in action. The right wing was advanced ironically by Obama getting elected and immediately attacked. McConnell said, “Our definition of success will be your defeat every day of your administration.” There was a declaration of war. Basically, a declaration of the Civil War all over again, and they basically paralyzed the government that was a Union government run by Confederates. That’s essentially what we’ve had.
Meanwhile, young people are turned off by political leaders, religious leaders, and face enormously reduced expectations of career, asset growth, freedom from debt. So trauma is running wide and deep cross-generationally. And so it has been for decades now.
DH: Do you think Trump will have the opportunity to out-Bush Bush over the next three and half years or more?
CG: My greatest fear is that his paralyzed government, which will continue to be frozen while the Russian investigation continues, will increasingly frustrate him. Then the shadow, the guy we’re not talking about anymore, Stephen Bannon, will emerge. That comedy of a Cabinet meeting with Bannon looking on: Was he looking out for the internal strength of the cords being woven to strangle democracy? Everyone around that table, everyone should have experienced traumatic assault on their integrity. To quote Orwell, their slavery was dressed up as free will and their fear paraded as hope.
My fear is that they will use surprise events to puncture democracy pretty badly. Either an event from outside or from here at home that allows them to undermine the Constitution; or take an action in the world that diverts from what is happening to numbers of Americans here through budget cuts, deregulation, and assault on the press. That kind of action could make him popular by evoking patriotic response because he’s defending America. Given who he is, he could just do that unilaterally. Then, I think, all bets are off because the politics get shaken up. There will be a lot of uncertainty. Independents will overcome their distaste in a patriotic sense of loyalty.
That’s the negative potential, of course. But it builds on a readiness for emergency response and irrational reaction that is preset. Remember the Patriot Act is an expansive permission to squash opposition. With trauma in mind, it’s worth remembering since 2002 through 2016 (so far), each president has intensified our fears and expectations of repeated attack by renewing the declaration of a state of emergency. It can be worse but the tracks have been laid. I think it’s important to look at the tracks and the current danger, but not only to look at the current danger.
DH: Does that lead to a certain kind of fascism?
CG: That’s the potential, I think. We have a president that relies on demagoguery. He’s not yet ruled through demagoguery. But he has tried to change our reality through demagoguery by turning the only institutions we have that can stand against him into enemies. Like the press, like the intelligence services; anything with any level of independence, he scapegoats. You go after the institutions that hold government accountable. That’s the end assault on liberty. And people buy it like it’s what they chose.
The thing that I fear domestically is a constitutional convention. We are getting closer to that, and they’re planning for it. Who knows what will be on that bill of particulars if two-thirds of the states go that route. It’s scary. They are now seven states short of the power to call a convention. But that’s not so far off. While a “balanced budget” amendment is top of the list, some legislatures and leaders are interested in a multi-issue convention. Imagine constitutional amendments calling for a balanced budget, prohibitions against abortion or gay marriage, even extending the tenure of the presidency. It’s important to remember the frog in boiling water. Authoritarianism grows slowly but steadily before dictatorship develops, and even if it doesn’t a right-wing oligarchy is fearsome too.
DH: What’s to be done about that?
CG: What do you do about all that? Too many people in the not-for-profit political world are talking about a 30-year strategy. I don’t think we have 30 years to defend against this. Progressives did that in 1984 with Reagan. We lost that second election. Then, when Clinton was disappointing, “We need a 30-year strategy.” It’s always a generational strategy. But the fantasy that the rising diverse electorate would close off reactionary homogenous voters was futurizing as destiny. It ran its music all the way through the Obama administration, even while legislatures were going to the right and Democrats lost control of 30+ states.
DH: It is true that the whole notion of the dream demographic change that will lead to long-term Democratic party power—that we will have a minority-majority country soon—does not factor in gerrymandering, a right-wing Supreme Court that virtually eliminates the Voting Rights Act, many new restrictions on voting that has turned, e.g., Wisconsin from blue to red, the millions who can’t vote because of felony disenfranchisement, and a lying, manipulative, reality TV star as president.
CG: Right. And the Democratic message to some voters that we don’t need you has converged with the right and Trump to make the non-white electorate rather fearsome to traumatized white workers and suburban whites. For the last 20 years white identity has been racialized and established itself at the core of conservative politics. We were divided, and then Republicans using the census and gerrymandering were able to massively move the country to the right while Obama was president, probably in part because Obama was president.
DH: Sounds like the Bernie lament. What can we learn from what Corbyn did in Britain?
CG: What Corbyn did was open up the party to open admission, basically. The more people that joined, the more young people that joined, the stronger he got. I think, pretty clearly, that he was able to hold Theresa May to a very narrow victory because of young people voting. That’s the phenomenon I think we need to be paying attention to…
DH: The millennials?
CG: Yeah. We need to pay attention to what’s real in the current resistance politics. It’s young people and older women. It’s not issue politics. There’s a resistance to what Trump represents that’s growing and is the phenomenon we should be supporting.
DH: So okay, we have a mess on our hands. And agreed, Bush trauma predated and led to Trump trauma. That adds up to a lot of trauma. What might be effective approaches to addressing trauma and political anxiety?
CG: Trauma can be ubiquitous when political power is wrested from any popular base and used counterproductively with respect to people’s interests. This results in profound uncertainty, sense of powerlessness, and actual loss. We’ve seen peace politics, economic justice drives, immigrant rights and union strength painfully diminished. Even under Obama, immigrants and Latinos took great losses. Under Clinton, caring and responsible economic and social policies took major hits.
Trauma, like scar tissue, can intensify and do new damage.
I do want to caution that it’s never fully accurate to use clinical diagnostic terms to describe collective behavior or the mental health of a whole society.
However, both as a metaphor for serious dysfunction and in recognition of many years of war and social trauma, many have suffered great loss. The economic crash and the ongoing decline in the trades, in union strength, and the constant punditry about the shrinking of white America has left us in bad shape. Meanwhile, poor and working-class whites now feel themselves as experiencing dispossession, oppression and alienation. And that was not supposed to be when through unions and local politics, they once saw a path to realizing American destiny. Now they feel that they took the wrong road. They can’t see another except to express anxiety and place hope in putative strong men.
The blame game is on as a result. And the president epitomizes it.
There are limits of trauma theory and theories of change too. Rejection of the oppression and domination paradigm requires looking closely at “what is.” That is critical. Expecting answers via psychological and social theory is not going to work. Allowing the motivation of our fear to create an illusory sense of opportunity. Looking at what we face and examining how to interrupt and avoid further consolidation of right-wing forces in all the avenues of power, including a mobilized popular base is critical. What is going on to resist is visible, real, and needs to be supported.
Calls on historic resistance lessons that are not particular to the current circumstance are not so useful unless they are grounded phenomenologically in “what is.”
There are a few straight-forward phenomenological questions to ask ourselves:
First, where is the action, who is the subject of threat by police and legal assault? Second, who are the sympathetic supplementary allies in service oriented non-profits and NGOs? This is a valuable but poorly activated progressive force. Frank Riessman’s work in “self-help” and left study groups has been instructive to me. Frank wrote and often talked about the latent political power in the self-help and service sector domain. He saw groups forming around chronic illness and likened them to study groups formed out of chronic economic and political dis-ease. This was power to harness for mutual benefit through state policy, budgets, and services. Finally, can we find ways forward calling all these elements into a coherent alliance of political infrastructure and robust resistance and advance, remembering that if local and national electorates can participate and lift voting by 10 percent, we likely win.
DH: Do any of the famous international political thinkers of the past, people you’ve admired and read, have anything to teach us about the political climate we are in?
CG: Political thinkers of the recent past are often stimulating, but not terribly useful because almost none of them has a political practice.
DH: What does it mean to have a political practice?
CG: It means… What do you do? What do you do on Monday morning? What’s your short-term, what’s your long-term agenda? With whom? Why? What is there to build on?
So thinkers like Adorno, Deleuze, Derrida did not have a way to put their thinking into practice. As Richard Rorty said, “Philosophy is great for the people that love to do philosophy. If you want action, you need a different kind of discipline.”
These thinkers have things to contribute, but they don’t have action to contribute. Adorno has the whole notion of anxiety and the negative dialectic. People are anxious and that can create a dialectic that’s built on the negative rather than on the positive. You can have a synthesis that’s fascism, as well as you can have a synthesis that is the good society. That’s a good warning.
Derrida has this wonderful conception that logic is a form of face. Don’t get tied up in positivism because the rational thinking doesn’t tell you enough about human experience.
DH: Who of the big thinkers does do politics directly in their thinking?
CG: Well, Gramsci. Gramsci did politics, but he ended up in jail for it. And it didn’t end fascism.
DH: Gramsci was Italian and this is during Mussolini’s time?
CG: Right. He gave us some concepts that were really important. One major concept is civil society: Don’t look only at the economy, which is the Marxist tradition. Civil society is the important form that exists in an alternative sphere and you can make change through civil society. Secondly, we must fight for common sense. Hegemonic systems own common sense. Knowledge and information are crucially important. Study groups and dialogue are key. Claiming national platforms for ideas is essential. Finally, winning airtime in national and local media is necessary work. That’s a great warning and we have not paid enough attention to it. We talk about shaping public opinion, but not how do you actually create deep common sense? That’s a big hole. The only times I know where we actually shape common sense is through movements. When movements rise, they change the fabric of thinking.
DH: Are there any great philosophers of movements?
CG: Well, there are great philosophers in movements, because they’re philosophers of action. There is Gandhi and Martin Luther King. The thing they have in common is they’re the phenomenologists. They look at what’s happening, not what might happen, nor what the theory of change is, but what is happening and what can be mobilized. For King, it’s obvious. For Gandhi, it’s obvious. Now it would be, there are these rising movements. There’s opposition politics, but what strength is there in it, phenomenologically, that can actually be coordinated and grown. Not be directed by a theory of change, not be directed by political philosophy, but what’s the actual practice that can currently be commanded to organize for real change?
DH: What’s the movement potential out there today?
CG: In the end, it is the practice of how you bring people and issues together. What do you actually do about it? Who has the resources to commit? Are resources committed over time? Will leaders and others actually allow their issues to be integrated in a whole picture? You’ve got to work toward a whole picture, because they’re all the same issue in the end. The ecology of social justice is that it’s all one challenge.
DH: As a long-time foundation executive, how do you think philanthropy is responding to Trump and the many crises he is creating?
CG: Badly. Badly, but that’s not new. Most of philanthropy usually responds badly to critical situations. Habit, fear of controversy, legal concerns, institutional over victory calculus all take a toll. It helps me to think about three sectors in philanthropy. There is the right wing, and they just throw money at the issues because they’re in it for themselves. There’s the social engineering philanthropy, which is, “We can make the world a better place by teaching people how to do things better, creating better policies.”
DH: Is that the Gates model?
CG: Yes, Gates. It’s MacArthur. It’s generally the bureaucratic foundations and some big, new donors. Then there’s the left philanthropy, which is, by and large, on behalf of other people, not for themselves. Progressive rich people don’t have skin in the game in the same way right-wing rich people have. They don’t lose if they lose… The conservatives are just as foremost concerned to preserve, consolidate and advance their own hold in power, and so they invest in power. Progressive philanthropy is one step removed. Not ill-intentioned, but one step removed. Their lives are not bound in it in the same way. On a spectrum of those three categories, liberal and progressive philanthropy have the least amount of money to spend and we spend it least generously.
DH: What do you think of Andy Stern’s model of the basic living wage as an antidote to automation and job loss?
CG: We don’t know what that looks like. How people will use their time? People are identified by work, particularly in this culture and all through western culture. Freud and Marx, most everybody has agreed that work is a defining aspect of identity until you get to the society where you achieve Marx’s goal of human fellowship in which our value is what we provide each other in community. We’re a long way from that society, of course, but we do need to imagine a world in which freedom from work gives you leisure to serve in your community from arts to service to governance. Don’t let’s forget WPA and its family programs. And the union movement’s current expansive and expendable efforts to train for actual jobs that are here for something from construction to nursing. There is a ton of jobs to be created if we have the will, infrastructure, service and community quality of life assets which give us the space to build goodwill and purpose for the changes coming.
DH: Like the arts which became controversial with the Public Theatre’s “Julius Caesar” with Shakespeare in the Park.
CG: In my opinion, that was a big mistake. It could have been done so differently, if they’d been a bit more political imaginative instead of a reflexive liberal aversion to the gutter government is groveling in. If it had been Nixon, for example, and not Trump. If it had been Trump and not Melania. I mean, having the wife of Caesar be blonde with a Slavic accent?
Caesar is a metaphor for a demagogue and the problem of removing a dictator without democratic means. You use the sword against the sword and you live by the sword. So it tells that story, but it’s a metaphor. To make it concrete takes it out of the realm of theater and makes it propaganda.
DH: You’re talking about this as a playwright? How would you have done it?
CG: I would have either reset it so that it took place in a butcher shop, so it was ordinary life and it was somebody was vying with somebody else for control, or a real estate industry like Ibsen does with “Master Builder”; it’s a real estate builder. I would set it like that, out of the construct of imperial, or I would have put it in another period of American history, like Hamilton or like Nixon. So you see it played out, but you’re not actually talking about the murder of the current President of the United States.
Times like these I believe require strategically shaped purpose and impact. That can include preaching to the choir but not to simply feel good and righteous.
Trauma, like murder, will out, to paraphrase the Bard. Emotions are extreme and they are explosive unless and until we try to deploy the cerebral cortex too. The enormity of the danger we face requires our fullest selves and our most robust mobilization of a new “common sense.” The story progressives tell is not yet in sync with either the risk or the injury that’s being sustained in in most sectors of society.
Look, devastating social conditions can de-legitimize a sitting administration. Protest and vision have been powerful forces against proto-fascist tendencies and paranoid behavior before. What was Jim Crow, after all? So none of what I am saying is about inevitability. It’s about waking up to the moment it is, seeing that it’s been a long time coming, but also that its popular base is shallow and not at all synonymous with Republican electoral power. The relentless drive to a desperate presidential choice is also a desperate cry for change that progressives must respond to with vigor, smarts, and outreach to the public on a scale reminiscent of past opposition and transformational politics not the knee-jerk Democratic Party search for brand edge. It always comforts me, and I pray it’s not false comfort, that a 10 percent in voter turnout in most state and national elections would begin to heal the wounds.