Conflict and Justice in Donald Trump’s America – Part 1


Like many Americans, I have been lost in a swirl of emotion, confusion, shock and dread since 3am on November 9th, 2016, when Donald J. Trump was deemed the President-Elect of the United States of America. Let me repeat that: The United States of America. Trump won by winning the Electoral College vote 290-232 but losing the popular vote by over a million ballots.

It is in this context that I today serve as the Director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. I have devoted my career to finding new and better ways to help people address, manage and resolve their most important and contentious differences. Trump’s pending Presidency and its association with campaign rhetoric rife with racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism presents our work with a sea of daunting challenges. In response, many of my students have begun to question the relevance of constructive conflict engagement during such times. But there is much work to do to help our citizens a) resist our more destructive and divisive tendencies while b) building bridges that can help rectify our deep structural, cultural and moral divides in order to c) work together more effectively to address the many critical problems we face nationally and globally. This work is filled with traps and contradictions, but can be managed if we work strategically, adaptively and persistently.

For those of us still traumatized by, or feeling particularly vulnerable in, this emerging political reality – please allow yourself time to recover. But when you feel ready to get back to work, here is a nine-point strategy to help guide your efforts.

  1. Clarify your Aspirations. What are your intentions? In times like these it becomes crucial to reflect on our aspirations for our country and for our work. I take our American motto, E Pluribus Unum, seriously. It is the Aristotelian ideal, the essence of democracy, of creating unity out of our diversity. It is often a struggle, and goes against our baser instincts to move away from or against people different from us, but it is an idea and an ideal well worth the effort as it is a primary source of our strength as a nation. Our differences are a wellspring of energy and innovation, especially when they conflict, if we can see past them to our shared concerns and interests. Nelson Mandela held strong to his vision of a more just multicultural South Africa through decades of oppression, violence and imprisonment during Apartheid. This vision, combined with a particularly adaptive form of leadership and striving, proved unstoppable. If Mandela could persevere for justice and tolerance under almost fifty years of Apartheid, surely we can navigate four years of a potentially regressive administration in service of a similar vision.
  2. Clarify your Bottom Line. Today, there are many issues at stake that will likely be challenged by new policies, laws and executive actions proposed or implemented by the new administration. Climate change, women’s rights, voting rights, immigration reform, affordable healthcare and financial and banking regulations are just few. There are likely to be some aspects of some of these issues that are negotiable, such as the need to reform inefficient components of the Affordable Care Act. We should work with this new government to renegotiate these. However, there will be other issues that we will need to simply stand and fight for, and we should be clear on these. Now more than ever we need to track dependable sources of news and information and be on the lookout for those actions and issues that are, to us, non-negotiable.
  3. Get Prepared to Stand Effectively. Our rights to freedom of speech and assembly are granted us by the U.S. Constitution and represent the core of non-violent resistance. But they need to be exercised if they are to have any real utility for our nation. However such actions can be costly and ineffective, especially when they are employed piecemeal as tactics. In order to stand up effectively, knowledge and training in the strategies of non-violent civil disobedience employed by the likes of Gandhi, King and countless other activists are paramount. Like Mandela, these activists had a long game vision, and employed tactics of non-violence adaptively and artfully in service their broader strategy. Fortunately, Saul Alinsky, Gene Sharp, Rinku Sen and others have spent decades documenting effective strategies of non-violent resistance. Here are 198 different non-violent tactics offered by Gene Sharpe (


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Peter T. Coleman
Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.