Like millions of other Americans, I was shocked, but perhaps not entirely surprised, by Donald Trump’s victory on election night. His blatant racism and misogyny, cynical exploitation of economic populism, and ties to fascist ideology have generated enormous fears. Yet if we stop at the point of those fears, and let fatalism or blame games drive our response to the Trump regime, then we have already ceded our power to him.
Yes, Trump carries the whiff of fascism, and many of his followers indeed hold racist and misogynist beliefs. But we cannot stop thinking at that point. We should begin to ask ourselves: if we lived in Europe during the rise of fascism in the 1920s or early 1930s, what would we actually do to stop it? In that era many progressives were defending tepid establishment politics, and radicals were making boring speeches, while the fascists were forming chorale groups, hiking societies, and theater troupes to reach and inspire people on an emotional level.
The European left at that time didn’t effectively speak to large numbers of working-class and middle-class citizens, particularly in small towns and cities, and created a vacuum that the far-right was all too eager to fill. In fear of alienating the majority, leftists also failed to defend the rights of Jews, Gypsies, and others who were targeted as the economic scapegoats for the Depression. They failed to have a sense of their own power and their ability to go on the offensive, and went into a reactive mode, defining themselves by what they were against rather than what they were for.
We can see these trends today, as many white progressives propose stepping back from defending so-called “identity politics,” in order to gain more votes from the white, straight majority. Many progressives and radicals likewise seem to be stepping back from class-based ‘unity politics’, by writing off huge areas of the country’s interior as a backward and hopeless ‘Trumpland.’ Both knee-jerk reactions are enormous, strategic movement-killers at this moment in history.
‘Identity politics’ (or particularism) and ‘unity politics’ (or universalism) are not mutually exclusive, and do not have to detract from each other. To clip either wing of our movement is to cripple its ability to fly, and fails to recognize – as Bernie recognized midway through his campaign – that both identity and economic messages can be strengthened at the same time. But in order to do so, we need to recognize our existing strengths, and expand the geographical scope of our social movements into unlikely places.
In contrast to January 2001, we are far more prepared in January 2017. We now have far more young people with movement experience, hooked up with each other through social media. Polls show that demographics are in our favor, with younger people far more critical of capitalism and accepting of a diverse society than previous generations. The future looks bright – it’s just the present that sucks. History may view Trump as the last gasp of the racist and misogynist dinosaurs, but only if we view ourselves as the comet that finally wipes them out.
The greatest potential growth for our movements may not be in either large cities or rural areas. In large cities, residents have generally been exposed to social movements, even if only by seeing headlines or riding past a rally, and have ample opportunities to express their views.
But it is in small- and medium-sized cities where the battle for the heart and soul of America is taking place – in cities such as LaCrosse, Wis., Flint, Mich., or York, Pa. There is room for the movement to grow in these ‘in-between’ places, for people to begin to express their views and find limited safety in numbers. But there is not enough support for groups doing the slow, unglamorous work of education and organizing in these smaller cities, where every small rally or leaflet actually counts.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘In 2017, Fusing
Identity and Class Politics in