Across Trump’s Amer­ica, the grass­roots are grow­ing rad­i­cal

The Guardian - Journal - - Opinion - DD Gut­ten­plan

De­pend­ing on which me­dia you con­sume, Don­ald Trump will ei­ther leave of­fice in hand­cuffs – or coast to a sec­ond term. Mak­ing sense of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has never been easy, but the ex­treme po­lar­i­sa­tion of the press and the pub­lic has made it much more dif­fi­cult. Last month’s midterm re­sults were no ex­cep­tion. Were they a vin­di­ca­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump and the Re­pub­li­can party, who strength­ened their grip on the Se­nate, or a tri­umph for the Democrats, who re­gained con­trol of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives? While there is ev­i­dence on both sides of the ar­gu­ment, the ques­tion it­self misses the point.

The real ques­tion is what is hap­pen­ing at the grass­roots. What ex­plains Trump’s pop­u­lar­ity, not just among hard­core racists, but among blue-col­lar work­ers who voted twice for Barack Obama? I’ve been trav­el­ling through the US since Au­gust 2015, when I re­ported on the first Re­pub­li­can pres­i­den­tial de­bate. At the time I wrote that “no one on that stage is ca­pa­ble of stop­ping” Don­ald Trump, whose “un­pre­dictabil­ity – his man­i­fest in­abil­ity to re­spect the norms of party, ci­vil­ity, or any in­sti­tu­tion or struc­ture not bear­ing the Trump name, prefer­ably in gilded let­ters – makes him the cam­paign equiv­a­lent of crack co­caine”.

That re­mains true to­day, and Democrats who un­der­es­ti­mate Trump, or sim­ply dis­miss his sup­port­ers as “a bas­ket of de­plorables”, do so at their peril. Yet the midterms also showed that Trump can be beaten – even in red states such as Iowa, where Abby Finke­nauer, the daugh­ter of a union welder, be­came one of the youngest women ever elected to Congress.

The para­dox of US pol­i­tics is that when­ever Amer­i­cans are asked whether they sup­port uni­ver­sal health­care, guar­an­teed paid leave for car­ers, free ed­u­ca­tion at pub­lic col­leges, higher taxes on the rich, or any num­ber of items from the Bernie San­ders cam­paign plat­form, a ma­jor­ity are al­ways strongly in favour. The pas­sage of bal­lot mea­sures rais­ing the min­i­mum wage in Arkansas and Mis­souri, ex­pand­ing Med­i­caid cov­er­age in Ne­braska and Idaho, and le­gal­is­ing med­i­cal mar­i­juana in Utah sug­gests that even where vot­ers don’t vote for Demo­cratic can­di­dates, they still favour pro­gres­sive poli­cies.

Even ideas long deemed too rad­i­cal to be taken se­ri­ously by main­stream me­dia – hav­ing the gov­ern­ment pro­duce in­ex­pen­sive generic drugs or guar­an­tee em­ploy­ment for any­one gen­uinely un­able to find work, or treat­ing the in­ter­net as a pub­lic util­ity, with pub­licly owned providers re­plac­ing pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions – turn out to be favoured by a ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­cans. Yet here we are with Trump in the White House, Brett Ka­vanaugh and Neil Gor­such on the supreme court, and Mitch McCon­nell in com­mand of the Se­nate.

Over the past two years I have in­ter­viewed dozens of ac­tivists in dif­fer­ent parts of the US and pro­filed seven of them. These are peo­ple you have prob­a­bly never heard of but whose ef­forts are lay­ing the ground­work not just to take back the White House and the Se­nate in 2020 (when the elec­toral map will be far more favourable to Democrats) but also to take back the coun­try, by as­sem­bling a new rad­i­cal ma­jor­ity com­mit­ted to fight­ing for the things Amer­i­cans have long wanted but which a bro­ken po­lit­i­cal sys­tem has kept off the agenda.

Labour is an es­sen­tial part of any rad­i­cal ma­jor­ity. Un­til re­cently most of the left, and all of the Demo­cratic party, concentrated al­most all of their re­sources on mo­bil­is­ing, or “turnout”. Beto O’Rourke’s sur­pris­ingly strong chal­lenge in Texas, and a host of un­her­alded vic­to­ries across Texas, Ne­braska, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michi­gan are the fruits of a new ef­fort by a gen­er­a­tion of young or­gan­is­ers com­mit­ted to build­ing po­lit­i­cal power from the grass­roots: or­gan­is­ers such as Waleed Shahid and Corbin Trent of Jus­tice Democrats, a group call­ing for “a Demo­cratic party that fights for its vot­ers, not just its cor­po­rate donors”.

I met Shahid, the son of Pak­istani mi­grants, when he opened the San­ders of­fice in Philadel­phia; I first crossed paths with Trent in Nashville, not far from the small east Ten­nessee town where he was born and raised. At the time the group had only man­aged to re­cruit a sin­gle can­di­date: Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, a for­mer bar­tender from the Bronx who went on to de­feat Joe Crow­ley, a 10-term Demo­cratic in­cum­bent, and is now the youngest woman elected to Congress.

Or Jane Kleeb, the ru­ral or­gan­iser who put to­gether an un­likely coali­tion of ranch own­ers and Na­tive Amer­i­cans – the “Cow­boy In­dian Al­liance” – to stop the Key­stone XL pipe­line, and is now head of the Ne­braska Demo­cratic party. Or Car­los Ramirez-Rosa, the for­mer mi­grant rights ac­tivist who is Chicago’s youngest al­der­man, and whose work rep­re­sents a new model for big-city pol­i­tics. Or the mayor of Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, Chokwe An­tar Lu­mumba, the son of black na­tion­al­ists who wants to make Jack­son “the most rad­i­cal city in the coun­try”. Or Ze­phyr Tea­chout, whose pow­er­ful cri­tique of cor­po­rate cor­rup­tion maps a way out of the new gilded age.

When Ben­jamin Franklin walked out of the con­sti­tu­tional con­ven­tion in 1787, he was stopped by a woman who asked whether the new coun­try would be a monar­chy or a repub­lic. Franklin replied, “A repub­lic, madam – if you can keep it.”

Can the US keep it? Elec­tions alone won’t answer that ques­tion. But Amer­i­cans have come to­gether in the past, to de­feat not just Bri­tish rule, but the slave power of the Con­fed­er­acy, and the “eco­nomic roy­al­ists” of the Great De­pres­sion. It has hap­pened be­fore. It can hap­pen again.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: JULIE DERMANSKY

Chokwe An­tar Lu­mumba, mayor of Jack­son, Mis­sis­sippi, with a pic­ture of his fa­ther

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