How to Start a Revolution
CHAPTER 1 POLITICAL AWAKENING
My political awakening was also literal. I opened my eyes the morning after the election and thought, “Holy shit, I have to do something about this.” I’m a writer, so I wrote. More specifically, I’m a journalist, so I began to research and report. Before Trump won, my writing was often lowercase “p” political in the sense that it dealt in cultural power hierarchies, but I never thought I would write about traditional politics. The day after the election, it was no longer possible to write about anything else.
It was clear to me that lasting change would start with young people who felt the same way I did. I put a call out on Twitter, looking to interview young people who had undergone a political awakening in response to Trump’s election. I expected to get maybe fifty responses total. I received more than three hundred and fifty emails within twenty-four hours, many including impassioned essays detailing the profundity with which everything had changed. I continued to hear these testimonies long after the election as I traveled the country, speaking to more and more young people in the midst of their political awakenings.
Details differed, but the central question remained the same.
Across my interviews, the newly awakened were asking, “Who makes the rules?” No longer were they willing to accept the unquestioned authority of politicans and media gatekeepers. The result was a stunning new sense of agency. Young people were rethinking their approach to civic participation, insisting on personal responsibility. (This should happen continuously in government supposedly by and for the people.)
Many of the young people I spoke to felt overwhelmed. “I felt a sense of hopelessness and that the problems were too big to change,” a twenty-eight-year-old named Andrew wrote to me, identifying himself as the son of a Mexican immigrant living in Chicago. “I still felt that things might not pan out if we tried to organize for change,” he said, “but if we didn’t we’re all well and truly fucked.”
In one of my earliest interviews, a recently graduated political science major said it was only after Trump won that she saw that she could have a role in government. “I know it sounds stupid,” she told me over the phone, “but I guess I thought of politics as a thing that important men did off in a room somewhere.” One engineering PhD student was similarly baffled by his own passivity. “I understood that citizens could be attending town halls,” he said, “but I never understood that I should be doing that.” (By the time of our call, he had gone a step further and begun working as a labor activist on campus.)
This experience was eerily similar across accounts. Most of my interviewees sounded like people who saw the light and decided not to be assholes anymore. Time and again, I heard these five words: “I had no other choice.”
“I genuinely never cared much for politics,” a Temple University student named Monica told me. “Upon hearing the results of election night, I knew I had to educate myself to be able to support my opinions and express my views.”
Seeking out information was the first step. But there was more to do. “Before 2016, I thought I was politically engaged because I had a subscription to the New York Times and would skim a couple articles every week,” said a Case Western Reserve University student named Rachel. “I had never called to voice an opinion to my representatives, nor could I have even told you what their names were.” After the election, she became a field organizer for Organizing for Action, a political group in Ohio. “I’d never contacted any of my members of Congress, rallied, protested, etc.,” echoed a then twenty-nine-year-old named Stephen, who was raised in a conservative Southern home. “I’ve now done all of those, as well as challenged friends and family both online and face-to-face.”
Across this wide range of experiences, there was consensus on what had changed, too. Before, caring about politics seemed like a secret club, coded in respectability and expertise. You had to have a particular set of qualifications, and, ideally, multiple pairs of boat shoes. Politics was something “important men did off in a room somewhere.” Now, armed with knowledge, young people began to speak out on the issues that mattered most to them. They joined marches and protests, regularly contacted elected officials, volunteered for local candidates, and took action in other ways they’d never considered possible before. Some started nonprofit organizations or decided to run for office themselves.
I suspected this paradigmatic shift carried historic potential for a re-democratizing revolution. Even in its earliest stages, it was clear this moment was about more than the results of the 2016 election. Trump was just the allegedly-243-pound straw that broke the camel’s back.
“WE ARE THE ONES WE HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR”
For example, on November 9, 2016, that switch flipped for Heather Ward, Rebecca Davis, and Kat Calvin. All three experienced the literal day-after awakening moment and radically altered their approach to civic participation as a result. Heather decided to run for office. Rebecca started a local activist group. Kat quit her job to start a nonprofit. All of that was stuff they’d thought about doing, but they hadn’t felt the same sense of agency before.
Heather first thought about running for the school board when she was still covering it as the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. In writing about the proceedings, she was struck by how out of touch the appointees seemed to be with the day-to-day lives of students. There were lawyers and a few wealthy moms but no one who might provide this crucial perspective. The purpose of the school board was to govern student life, and yet there was zero representation of the governed. Heather thought she might run for one of the volunteer positions someday. She filed the idea in her “eventually” folder. She wasn’t qualified yet, she thought. One day she might be.
Heather was successful throughout her college career at Villanova. She studied hard while earning her accounting degree and received stellar grades. She was one of those kids who had her first job lined up by sophomore year. For Heather, it was a spot at Ernst & Young. She had few concrete plans beyond filling the position on November 8, 2016, right before everything changed.
On the day of the 2016 election, Heather was studying abroad in Milan. She’d been following the campaigns closely and intended to watch the results despite the time difference. Before going to bed, she set alarms for two a.m. and six a.m. She wanted to catch both the results and Hillary’s victory speech. This was a historic moment, after all. America was about to elect its first female president. At two a.m., when Heather woke to news that Trump was in the lead, she promptly went back to bed, assuming it must be some kind of fluke. A few hours later, when she discovered that he had won, it felt like a bad dream—and only partly because she was still half-asleep.
The next day, Heather walked around Milan crying. “I don’t know if any of my Italian friends had any idea what was going on,” Heather explained later. She called her younger sister, back home in Pennsylvania, who reported that kids at the high school were crying, too. Heather was trying to make sense of what had happened herself, though she couldn’t help but wonder what all those kids at school were feeling. That was precisely when she decided she was going to run for the school board. If not her, who? And if not now, when?
“I thought, ‘Okay, that’s it,’?” Heather said. Heather is soft-
spoken, with a mass of frizzy brown curls. She seems like the prototypical shy girl, but I caught the bite in her words. “I still didn’t think I would win,” she told me. “But I had to run.”
Heather officially announced her decision in January of 2017, and in February connected with Run for Something, a nonprofit organization that works with progressive candidates on downballot elections. Even with that support, Heather wasn’t convinced that she would win, but she threw herself into her campaign, knocking on more than fifteen hundred doors and making hundreds of phone calls. A host of enthusiastic volunteers did the same on her behalf. The primaries came during finals week at Villanova, so she slept approximately two hours a night taking her candidacy and college career to the finish line in tandem. Throughout the campaign, she was targeted aggressively by her opponent and remains vaguely unnerved by the adversarial strategy of a school board campaign. “Hold on,” she said, flipping through the photos on her phone to show me an example. My phone buzzed to reveal an image of a poster calling her both “too inexperienced” and “too political,” in bold capital letters.
I asked why she endured all that—the attacks, in particular—if she didn’t think she was going to win. “I just thought a student had to try and run,” she said.
After lunch, she texted an addendum to our interview. “Hey!” she wrote. “Probably unimportant but you had me thinking about why I worked so hard if I thought I was going to lose and I realized it was because I didn’t want to let people down.” The only choice was to try.
Either way, there was no going back to the way it was.
On November 9, 2016, while Heather was in Milan, Rebecca Davis was in New York City, thinking about how she didn’t want to let people down. But unlike Heather, Rebecca wasn’t crying alone on the street. People were crying alongside her.
Rebecca took the subway to work that day. She remembers that, instead of actively avoiding eye contact, commuters shared in collective grief. Rebecca couldn’t stand it. She wanted to do something about what had happened. She couldn’t think of what, exactly, so she texted a few friends, asking them to come over that night. The whole city was behaving as if someone had died, so she figured her gathering would be a lot like sitting shiva. She picked up too many bottles of wine and prepared to mourn in good company, until her guests started to show up. And then something unexpected happened.
She didn’t realize it before the 2016 election, but Rebecca knew more about politics than most of her social circle. She had canvased, phone-banked, and volunteered for campaigns, and, for some people who came over, that made her their only friend who had ever engaged in political activism. Rebecca had been hoping to find someone to give her marching orders. She looked to Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union at work that day, but both organizations seemed to be scrambling to respond. Now Rebecca had a room full of people who wanted her to tell them what to do next. She knew she needed to capitalize on that responsibility. “I had to do something then and there,” Rebecca told me. “If someone didn’t capture them in that very small window of opportunity
right then, it would be lost and they would go back to what they were doing.”
Many New Yorkers opposed Trump. Still Rebecca had long been bothered by the fact that New York isn’t as progressive as its inhabitants may think. Upon further research, she discovered things were even worse than she’d imagined. “Did you know that abortion is considered unconstitutional in New York?” When we first spoke, Rebecca explained that abortion was technically a crime according to New York State law. (New York legalized abortion three years before Roe, but retained abortion in its criminal code, rendering abortion a crime with major exceptions.) I could easily imagine Rebecca unpacking this at her November 9 gathering. Her friends were grappling with a setback in 2016, unaware they had long been governed by a law passed in 1970. That was something Rebecca could try to fix.
Challenging the results of the presidential election felt impossible, but working to pass the Reproductive Health Act in New York was in the realm of possibility. The legislation was easy to explain and easy to understand—and Rebecca knew that was crucial for enlisting her friends. That night, Rebecca conceived of a project that would go on to be called Rally+Rise. In the months that followed, she devoted herself to launching the nonprofit, which aims to make politics accessible to those usually left out of the conversation, especially young women. She crafted a website, which has the aesthetics of a funky enamel pin from Forever 21, written in the voice of a friendly DM. “Rally+Rise is a grassroots group committed to making New York a progressive haven—all while redefining what it means to
be an activist,” the homepage reads. “And yes, you’re def invited to join us.”
One of the people who decided to join Rebecca was Alessandra Biaggi. Alessandra had heard whispers about antiquated reproductive laws in NewYork, but in speaking to Rebecca she was struck by the severity of the issue. That was part of what inspired her to run for the New York State Senate. Alessandra was Deputy National Operations Director for Hillary Clinton. The results of the election pushed her to run for office herself. At thirty-two years old, she joined a group of insurgent candidates in the state, and resolved to challenge long-term incumbent Jeff Klein, who The Cut called “New York’s worst Democrat.” He raised more than $3 million in an attempt to defeat her, and lost. Less than a month after she was inaugurated, Alessandra joined a group of newly elected insurgent Democrats who passed the Reproductive Health Act, and it all began with Rebecca’s spinning into action the day after Trump’s win.
On November 9, 2016, in LA, on the other side of the country, Kat Calvin was—like Heather and Rebecca—thinking about how she didn’t want to let people down. Where Heather had been simmering over the lack of representation on the school board and Rebecca had been wondering about the backward New York senate, Kat had spent the past several years concerned about voter suppression.
In 2013, Kat followed the overturn of Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Supreme Court struck down section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, effectively gutting its protections. The ruling allowed widespread voter suppression and discrimination at
the polls. Kat was devastated by the results of the case when the ruling was first issued, but she assumed the Democratic Party would take the initiative to find a solution. That didn’t happen in 2014 or 2015, and in 2016, when Trump was elected, Kat determined that if someone was going to do something about voter suppression, it would have to be her.
A few months later, she traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to launch the organization that would be called Spread the Vote. Kat hadn’t been sitting things out before. She had worked as an activist in the past, and on the day of the election, she was working for a voter protection organization in Las Vegas. But after Trump’s win, Kat was livid. She responded by changing absolutely everything about her life.
Kat knew she was diving headfirst into a new chapter as she packed up the things in her sun-flooded home on the West Coast, but she couldn’t have had any idea of the extent to which voter suppression was boxing out the public in a government supposedly by and for the people.
After just a few weeks on the job, Kat learned that a government ID is necessary not only for voting but for basic survival. Some shelters refuse to accept people without a government ID; some food banks do the same. Requirements differ from state to state, but there is so much paperwork to complete to get a government ID, and fees, too. “Did you know you need a birth certificate to get an ID and an ID to get a birth certificate?” she asked me. I didn’t.
Kat shared dozens of stories, each more confounding than the last. Perhaps the most upsetting was the account of a
homeless man for whom she raised $630 for a secure government ID. He’d received heaps of fines for things like sleeping on a park bench and couldn’t get a government ID without paying them off. That stuck with me: he had nothing, and yet he was supposed to pay several hundred dollars to participate in our democracy.
When Kat launched Spread the Vote, she understood government IDs allowed citizens to vote, but what she didn’t know was that they also allowed people access to their citizenship. As she put it, “I wanted to help people vote, and it turns out they are being denied things way more fundamental than access to the ballot. They look at me and say, ‘Sure, I’ll vote, but I have to eat first.’?”
Now Spread the Vote is active in Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia, with plans to continue growing. Along with her team, Kat has obtained IDs for hundreds of thousands of people, previously rendered invisible by the government created to serve them. If Trump hadn’t won, she might still be in LA, hoping the Democratic Party would do something.
These are just a few examples. As I listened to these stories, and others, I understood that Heather, Rebecca, and Kat had been waiting for their turn or assuming someone else would take up the mantle eventually. Then Donald Trump became president, and they were rocked by a realization, one that the poet and activist June Jordan translated into the sublime: “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
Like Heather, Rebecca, and Kat, my political awakening forever altered my life, but only some of it was intentional.
“DONALD TRUMP IS GASLIGHTING AMERICA”
Before Trump’s election, I was only half joking when I told my friends I wanted to be a pop culture anthropologist. I worked as an entertainment reporter at the Huffington Post before going freelance. (Some of the pieces I was proudest of included a dissection of what liminal adulthood looks like on-screen for the woman-child as opposed to the man-child, a deep dive on the way The Rocky Horror Picture Show has offered up a space for outsiders, and a profile of DJ Pauly D.) I often think about what my life would be like under a Hillary presidency. My pores would be smaller, maybe I’d have a yoga teacher certification, and I’d be parsing some cultural phenomenon with the dispassionate interest of a scientist peering through a microscope.
In the fall of 2016, I had started working on a piece about the commodification of sleep. I wanted to explore the way our need for rest is being turned into a product to be bought and sold. To that end, I interviewed William Dement, the psychologist who is largely recognized as the foremost researcher of the topic, about how much rest we actually need and why we never seem to get enough of it. But when I got back to my apartment the night after the election, I crumpled up the notes from our call. Now that I was awake, it seemed absurd to be writing about sleep.
As a journalist, it seemed to me that the most pressing item of concern was Trump’s war on the truth. His cruelty toward the marginalized and his shameless authoritarianism made for a cornucopia of dystopian concern, but it would be impossible
to combat any of it if the American public couldn’t be certain whether what he said was true. Over the course of two days, fueled by a steady diet of coffee and wine, I wrote a book proposal attempting to grapple with the factors that brought us to the 2016 election. The sample chapter was an essay titled “Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America.”
“Gaslighting” is a psychological abuse tactic in which victims are made to doubt their own sanity, and that, I argued, was exactly what Trump was doing to the electorate. I saw a chance to unpack his strategy of disinformation. If we recognized this method and understood how it worked, it would be easier to combat.
Trump spent his campaign undermining his own statements, sending aides out to contradict one another—lying over and over again, and then lying about ever having lied in the first place. The goal of this tactic was not so much to deceive as to confuse. Every time Trump opened his mouth, he issued a different version of the truth. It quickly became so hard to keep track of the deceptions and corrections, it seemed easier to give up entirely. With this method, Trump attempted to make the American people lose our grasp on reality. I saw Trump’s gaslighting as a fundamental attack on democracy. It all comes down to this: without the truth, we have no foundation from which to resist.
At the time, I was working as Teen Vogue’s weekend editor. I’d accepted the job because the site took young women seriously. National and political news were covered with the same fervor as the latest in fashion and entertainment. I was working the weekend the Pulse terror attack claimed forty-nine lives.
We covered the shooting like a breaking news desk, and also frequently published updates regarding the content of Kylie Jenner’s Snapchat.
I was working the Saturday in December after news broke that Trump contradicted the CIA’s report on Russian election interference. It was far from the first time the incoming administration had lied to the American people, but his statement on the matter marked an objectively egregious act of deception. Trump had been dishonest throughout his campaign, but now that he was president-elect, his words bore the seal of the White House, escalating his statements to state-issued disinformation. I sent the essay to Teen Vogue’s digital editorial director, Phillip Picardi. We introduced it with the news of Trump’s comments and clicked publish. My life has never been the same.
The essay went viral. I thought that maybe I’d had a few pieces go viral before, but this was something else entirely. Going viral is a lot like a first orgasm (when you know, you know). The sheer magnitude of reactions hit me like a tidal wave. My notifications couldn’t load fast enough. Close to a million people read that post in under twenty-four hours, and apparently one of them was Dan Rather. I watched the reactions flow in from my standing desk, logging them like the captain of a space station. “Control, we have a Facebook post from the legendary newsman Dan Rather,” I said aloud in my best walkie-talkie voice. “I repeat, a Facebook post from Dan Rather. Over.”
The article cemented the idea of gaslighting in terms of the Trump administration’s use of disinformation, but it also started a conversation about Teen Vogue’s audience. There was quite
a bit of stealthy patronization in reaction to the piece. “Teen Vogue’s ‘weekend editor,’ whose last piece was on Selena Gomez’s makeup, ably rips Trump. Thanks!” tweeted journalist and environmentalist Bill McKibben. “Did not expect this exegesis of gaslighting and its relationship to current day politics from Teen Vogue,” wrote NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. As the writer, professor, and editor Roxane Gay put it, “The condescension and surprise directed toward @TeenVogue for publishing great writers is a measure of how women/girls are underestimated.”
I didn’t think much of publishing the piece on Teen Vogue. Other pressing news that Saturday included Neville Longbottom’s getting engaged, a viral video of some kid freaking out about animals in zoology class, and a Selena Gomez Pantene ad, which was newsworthy on account of her extremely cute makeup look. Apparently, mainstream media found it revelatory to juxtapose serious and nonserious interests.
I witnessed a stunning example of this a few weeks after I published the essay, when I was invited to appear on Fox News opposite Tucker Carlson. At the end of a hostile, antijournalistic segment, he questioned my right to participate in the political conversation, invoking entertainment and fashion articles I had published to Teen Vogue. Referencing a post regarding Ariana Grande’s shoes, he told me, “Stick to the thigh-high boots, you’re better at that.”
It was the most shocking iteration of a thing I’d seen many times before. Even some positive reactions to the essay housed a kind of cavemanish attempt to bang the concepts of “young
women” and “politics” together like rocks. Months later, on a Today show special about the success of Teen Vogue, the host was beaming as she asked me, “Do you like politics?”
I cringed but managed a smile. “Of course.”
“Do you like thigh-high boots?”
“Are they mutually exclusive?”
“They are not,” I told her. I continued smiling despite feeling like I was on some ill-fated mash-up of The Twilight Zone and Sesame Street.
It became obvious to me, in a way I had never seen before, that the things young women like are wielded as disqualifiers of intelligence—especially when it comes to politics. It’s based on the hierarchy of white supremacist patriarchy. Your participation in the political conversation is rejected with increasing levels of aggression depending on however many standard deviations you are away from being an old white dude, and it’s a bunch of made-up nonsense.
Young women have plenty of nonserious interests, and so does everyone else. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about politics. Although, to many, apparently that idea was shocking, and not only in regard to gender.
After I appeared on Fox, I was catapulted into the spotlight. I waited patiently for the insanity to die down, until it occurred to me I had to get used to it. As a friend once put it, “It’s like you decided to write about politics, and a volcano opened in the center of the Earth.”
Because “Gaslighting” was published on Teen Vogue, I became
a sort of informal youth ambassador. I was routinely interrogated as to why young people aren’t more involved in our government, why our voter turnout tends to be so low. On a daily basis, people asked that same question, over and over: Do young people really care about politics?
It didn’t seem to me as if it was a matter of “caring.” Certainly, I hadn’t been apathetic before, but I was perplexed as to how I had done so little in the 2016 election. I was being asked to answer for an entire demographic as I pondered how exactly the shift had occured for me. With each interrogation, I imagined myself as a scandalized figure in a Lifetime movie, swarmed by reporters as I tried to leave the house. “Ms. Duca, how did you develop the confidence to express strong political opinions?” they might ask. “Please, Ms. Duca, how do we get young people to vote?”
In various iterations, I was being asked to respond to the same question. Here it is, once more: Do young people really care about politics? It’s a ridiculous question—because of course we care. But as I tried to answer it for the talking heads and anyone else who asked, and as I continued to research and report and ask people like Heather, Rebecca, and Kat to tell their stories, I thought up a better one:
How will young people change American politics?
Young people didn’t “suddenly care” about politics. Our interests and concerns didn’t materialize out of thin air. The 2016 election was a wake-up call that translated our passion into action.
After my political awakening moment, I spoke to hundreds of young people. I asked them questions and listened to their stories of how they understood democracy before and after. I
dug for clues in foundational texts, civic education programs, historical trends, and current generational surveys, trying to articulate the transformation unfolding in young people’s approach to politics—and my own. On some level, my work was driven by a desire to articulate my own awakening moment.
We are asking who makes the rules in our democracy and demanding a role within it.
This moment offers a rare opportunity to rethink America’s approach to civic participation. It will become a movement as the youngest generations challenge authority and insist on a place in the political conversation. We are no longer waiting our turn. A government by and for the people requires our voices, and we are finally demanding a role within it. We are demanding democracy for real.
What follows is a diagnosis of how we got here and a prognosis for moving forward. In the aftermath of this widespread political awakening, young people hold the power to change everything for good.