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Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes' remarks on behalf of the Working Families' Party in response to Donald Trump's State of the Union is a powerful reminder that Trump's politics are being upended by citizen action.

The rambling State of the Union address that Donald Trump delivered Tuesday was a chaotic mess that reflected the incoherence and desperation of his failed presidency. All that will be remembered of it is his attempt to bully the Congress into abandoning its constitutionally mandated oversight duties with a threatening rant about how “ridiculous partisan investigations” would prevent the work of the nation from getting done.

Too much attention to this tragic president might suggest that government must be dysfunctional. But the truth is that visionary political figures are already pointing the way forward. Georgia’s Stacey Abrams, the Madison-born legislative leader and author who mounted a groundbreaking gubernatorial campaign last year, presented that alternative in the official Democratic response to the president’s desultory remarks. And what Abrams had to say was complemented by Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who delivered a response on behalf of the Working Families Party, with which he and other progressive leaders have long been associated.

Barnes was sharp in his criticism of the president, saying, “What we heard from Trump tonight won’t help solve the real crises Americans are facing. We heard rhetorical gestures at unity tonight, just like he did a year ago — but that was a lie then, and it’s a lie now, and it won’t change who Trump is or how he governs.”

But what made the remarks by Barnes so powerful was his reminder that Trump’s politics are being upended by citizen action.

“For me, the biggest cause for hope is the people who are stepping up and speaking out, marching and organizing in communities around the country,” said Barnes, who explained: “People who are continuing the proud tradition of organizing to make this country rise to the promise of our democracy.”

Barnes hailed the activism of “young people demanding action on climate change or gun safety, or survivors of sexual assault who confronted U.S. senators over their votes for Brett Kavanaugh, or teachers striking for fair working conditions and a better education for their students from West Virginia to Los Angeles” and of “immigrants and Dreamers fighting for the place they call home, or people standing up to demand that Black Lives Matter.”

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“We aren’t just taking to the streets,” noted the 32-year-old activist and organizer who on Nov. 6 was elected as Wisconsin’s first African-American lieutenant governor, “we are wielding power at the ballot box.” He recalled: “Trump tried to make the 2018 midterms about fear. He tries to divide working people from each other, so we won’t stand together.” Barnes noted: “Many Republicans up and down the ballot embraced it. It wasn’t dog-whistle racism, it was yelling-out-loud racism, playing to people’s worst instincts and fears, not our hopes for a better future.”

But it didn’t work in 2018. And it will not work in 2020, when Mandela Barnes reminds us: “We can turn the page on Trump.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. and @NicholsUprising. 

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