The revival of an activist (left-wing) America
Is Donald Trump Turning Liberals Into Radicals?
By SARAH LEONARD
On Nov. 9, 2016, millions of Americans woke up with a crushing sense that something was terribly wrong with their country.
Donald Trump’s election inspired such moral revulsion and political outrage that by that afternoon, parts of the American electorate had taken to calling themselves “the resistance,” evoking the guerrillas who took to the hills and fought the Nazis during World War II. Just a day before, many of these same people were enthusiastically casting their ballots for a centrist Democrat; suddenly they were self-styled revolutionaries.
The day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration saw enormous protests across the country that incorporated a panoply of groups and interests. For those of us on the left, the millions of protesters in pink hats and the dads toting funny signs was a promising sight: Could this be the moment that liberals were converted into radicals?
The years since the 2008 financial crisis have seen a wave of protest movements, including Occupy, Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights campaigns. What’s different now — and what’s encouraging — is that new people are getting involved, those for whom the status quo before Mr. Trump’s arrival in the White House didn’t necessarily seem so bad.
But the resistance can’t just adopt the symbols and language of revolutionaries. It has to involve the whole package — including radical leadership and ideas. To win meaningful victories, the resistance needs to look beyond the White House or even Congress, and toward solutions that attack inequality and injustice at its roots. That will require not just energy and money but also listening to and working with activists who have been resisting since long before Mr. Trump arrived on the political scene and who might have opinions far to the left of the Democratic Party.
Mr. Trump — like right-wing populists across Europe — rode into power on waves of discontent with unaccountable globalization and growing inequality that have increased even under liberal and social-democratic parties. As the French economist Thomas Piketty demonstrated in “Capital in the 21st Century,” inequality’s staggering growth shows no signs of stopping. And it’s pulling democracy apart at the seams; no one but the rich feels represented.
The failure of the Democratic Party to reverse this over the past 40 years can’t be overstated, which is precisely why the resistance cannot just be about getting Democrats elected. One of the biggest groups to emerge from the new wave of “resisters” is Indivisible, which was founded by a few liberal former congressional staffers and says it wants to borrow tactics from the Tea Party, as it did when it inspired the raucous protests at town hall meetings that helped turn the tide against Obamacare repeal.
This enthusiasm has gotten the traditional Democratic donors and fund-raisers excited: From longstanding groups like Democracy Alliance to liberal tech entrepreneurs, money is pouring into Indivisible and similar organizations. But often these groups have focused on influencing Democrats or getting them elected (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) rather than building a broader movement.
The Indivisible activists should be making common cause with another movement that has surged since the election: the Democratic Socialists of America, an activist group that works on both national and local levels, has grown to about 30,000 members from about 5,000 since the election, largely driven by its association with Bernie Sanders, who, though not a member, also identifies as a democratic socialist. (Disclosure: I’m a member.)
New members of the D.S.A., most of them millennials, have instinctively recognized the need for radical wealth redistribution, forming what the group’s national director, Maria Svart, calls “the left wing of the resistance.”
The D.S.A. — which isn’t a political party — has supported some left-wing candidates across the country, from the Brooklyn City Council to a Virginia House race. But even as it is willing to work with some Democratic candidates or with Democrats on specific issues, its focus is pushing a broader agenda for equality, such as making the case for single-payer health care, while criticizing capitalism itself for driving upward redistribution of wealth. That might make some traditional liberals and Democrats uncomfortable, but in order to resist Mr. Trump, we ought to be thinking about how we ended up with a yawning wealth gap in the first place.
If the resistance is going to turn into a vital, sustainable left-wing social movement, it has to build strong relationships and share its resources with the people who are most affected by oppressive economic policies, sexism, xenophobia and racism.
“I come from a people who’ve been resisting for the past several centuries in this country,” Charlene Carruthers told me recently when we discussed activism since the election. Ms. Carruthers is the national director of Black Youth Project 100, a racial justice organization for black youth founded in Chicago and active in a dozen states. The best first step after a shock like the election isn’t just to throw yourself into a churn of activity, Ms. Carruthers said, but to “listen to the people who aren’t shocked.”
Among the many activists I’ve spoken with in recent weeks, racial justice organizers have been the most nonplused about liberals’ newfound sense of urgency. Many of the people they see taking stands against Mr. Trump are the same who have shown little respect for their issues and communities in the past. Rahm Emanuel, the mayor of Chicago, is a perfect example: He declared his city a “Trump-free zone” after the president’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. It might be good optics, but his mayorship has been anything but progressive on issues like policing, labor unions and schools.
THE ELECTION HAS GALVANIZED activists of all kinds. After Hillary Clinton’s poor performance with working-class white voters, many on the left have realized that this constituency deserves more of its attention. I spoke recently to Kate Hess Pace, who founded Hoosier Action in her home state of Indiana, a membership organization for working-class Indianans who, with the decline of unions, have few ways of influencing politics. The group has brought members to Washington to lobby their senators on health care, among other actions. Ms. Pace says that most of the people she talks to in Indiana don’t hate Democrats or Republicans, but “outsiders,” people in Washington who have caused their state’s decline.
Some new members of the resistance may have people they can turn to easily for guidance: their kids. The radical movements calling attention to inequality and racism well before Mr. Trump’s election — from Occupy to the movement for black lives to a growing interest in socialism to the Dreamers protests — have been driven by millennials. And these movements are eager to grow.
There’s a reason that young people were taking up activism and protest years before “President Donald Trump” was a phrase anyone could imagine: Racism, sexism and inequality are nothing new. Mr. Trump’s election just ripped the polite veneer off American politics. In the process, I hope, he’s woken up a lot more people to the deep problems in our society.
“Many people that become deeply discontent with the status quo have some moment in their lives when all of a sudden they realize that what they’ve been taught are lies,” said Stuart McIntyre, a 27-year-old activist with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, an umbrella group with much of the membership coming from black-led organizations in Ohio’s cities that has also seen an influx of new members since the election. “In my experience, a lot of people of color have that ‘mirror moment’ when they’re children. Among left-wing groups, a lot of people maybe have that moment in college. But for a lot of middle-class people, and for a lot of white Americans, that mirror moment is actually happening right now.” That’s a good thing.
“I’m looking for converts rather than for traitors,” Mr. McIntyre said. “I want our movement to be as big as possible.”
Sarah Leonard (@sarahrlnrd) is the features editor at The Nation and an editor at large at Dissent. She is a co-editor of “The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century.”