For almost 400 years, Rhode Island has held forth a lively experiment in American society. It was founded as a haven of tolerance for those whose views made them unwelcome elsewhere. More than a year before Bostonians were throwing tea into the harbor, Rhode Islanders were burning a British customs ship down to the water line. When disenfranchised citizens grew tired of a small, rural elite controlling the government, they held a People’s Convention, wrote their own constitution and elected their own governor. We were the first state to declare independence from Britain and the last of the original 13 colonies to ratify the constitution. We have, to put it mildly, a track record of problems with authority.
Our tradition of resisting oppression and providing a home for free thought and expression will face yet another test later this month when Donald Trump is sworn in as president. Many have counseled patience and a willingness to work with the new president on areas of common ground. No less a figure than Hillary Clinton said, “We owe him an open mind and the chance to lead,” and Trump himself promised to be president for all Americans, not just those who supported him. He has even softened his tone on some of issues that defined his candidacy. But the fact remains that if the president-elect makes good on some of the promises he issued on the campaign trail, if he continues to display his characteristic disregard for political norms and belligerence towards any who oppose him, he will be a very dangerous presence in the Oval Office.
We are fortunate to live in a state that is uniquely suited to grapple with that danger. Our congressional delegation, made entirely of members of the opposition party, has already shown a willingness to hold the incoming president to account. Our State House, too, is in the hands of the opposition, which is important at a time when the assertion of state’s rights may prove to be a thin line of defense against executive overreach.
Local officials have also been mindful of the dangers of a Trump presidency. State Representative Aaron Regunberg helped organize an “Emergency Meeting: Next Steps to Resist Hate,” the weekend after the election, and nearly 1,000 people showed up. Mayor Elorza has vowed to use the powers of city government protect the most vulnerable members of our community from violence and discrimination.
More important than any institutional ability to resist, however, may be our people and culture. (Especially as Trump has demonstrated that our institutions are more fragile than we might have hoped.) We were born as a refuge of liberty and tolerance, and must continue to define ourselves as such over the next four years. We cannot let bigotry, xenophobia, jingoism or strident nationalism creep into our unique social (dis)order here in this weird little corner of America. We must be prepared to resist. That resistance must be steadfast and unflinching, but it also must be sober, peaceful and built on the common ground that unites us.
People around the state are already taking steps to prepare for what may come. Protesters have taken to the State House lawn. A group called Resist Hate RI quickly developed from Regunberg’s meeting; its Facebook page amassed more than 4,100 followers in less than a month and it has become a hotbed of discussion about ways to help. A group of local Jews organized a Rhode Island event connected to a nationwide Day of Jewish Resistance protesting the appointment of Breitbart firebrand Steve Bannon to the White House. Donations have poured in to organizations that protect the people and freedoms that may be threatened by the next administration’s policies.
If there has been a silver lining to the catastrophe that was the election of Donald Trump, it’s that people are realizing they can’t afford to sit on the sidelines. A very irresponsible man is about to take on the most important responsibility in the world. Giving him the benefit of the doubt is no excuse for complacency. Rhode Island has resisted tyranny for centuries. It’s now our job to continue that lively experiment.