The rules for building a successful movement are simple: mobilize your supporters, and neutralize your opposition. The challenge lies in making that happen.
Fortunately, Donald Trump has helped tremendously with the first step. His “Muslim ban,” his targeting of Latinos for deportation, his attacks on women and the environment, to pick a few, have brought millions out into the streets. Those predisposed to dislike Trump are digging trenches for the long battles to come.
But it is not enough to mobilize one’s base. A successful movement must also divide and demobilize the opposition. While Trump’s actions in his first weeks of office may look shambolic, be assured that Steve Bannon has a strategy: While Trump has riled up his opposition, he has also energized his base.
Democrats might comfort themselves with Trump’s low approval ratings, but Trump and the Republicans know that they don’t need a majority to win: The system is rigged in their favor. Through gerrymandering and voting rules that undercount urban votes, Republicans not only control the White House and safe districts in Congress, but half of all state governments are now subject to one-party rule.
So how can this right-wing onslaught be stopped? Trump succeeded by dividing the traditional Democratic base — working-class whites from urban progressives. At least since Nixon, the Republican Party has used cultural conservatism and thinly veiled racism to convince angry working class whites to unite with country club Republicans. The only difference with Trump is that he added populist rhetoric, and dropped the veil.
Hillary Clinton tried the reverse strategy: using the fear of a Trump presidency to attract country club Republicans, but that didn’t work. They understood that however scary hispopulism, racism and 3am tweets might be, in essence, he is running interference, keeping the angry white working class at bay so that Republicans can cut taxes and regulations on corporations and the wealthy.
How to convince those angry folks that Trump is not their friend? One would think that simple math would do the trick. The latest inequality data show that for close to 40 years, the pre-tax income for the bottom half of all Americans hasn’t risen at all, while for the top 1% it grew by a whopping 200 percent. This fact alone should have people reaching for their pitchforks. But in a world of “alternative facts,” the political battle will not be won by data. It will be won by redirecting anger.
By way of example, let me point to a couple of my own experiences with those dreaded Thanksgiving dinner conversations that turn political. Some years ago, when a family member was actively supporting the Tea Party movement, she began railing against government deficits and Obamacare, declaring with indignation: “I think this country is going to socialism!” My response was, “Joyce, I’m afraid I just can’t be as optimistic as you are.” After some stammering, the conversation shifted to Wall Street, and how unregulated bankers had brought about the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. Joyce, angry as ever, but now focused on the 1%, shouted, “I think this country is ready for revolution!”
Another family conversation happened when my brother-in-law — a great guy who has been stuck in a series of dead-end jobs — lashed out against Mexican immigrants, complaining that they were stealing jobs. I told him a story I had heard from a federal prosecutor recently appointed to a Midwestern farm state, who was invited to address a dinner of the region’s top business leaders. He told them he was going to go after organized crime, and was met with loud approval, and then he promised to go after drug traffickers, and got more applause. And then he said he was going to prosecute employers who were deliberately hiring “illegal” immigrants so they could pay low wages. This line was met with silence, except for the sound of a fork dropping on a plate. At hearing this story, my brother-in-law, a little chagrined, chuckled and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I just get so angry sometimes.”
Don’t get me wrong. The battle against Trump won’t be won at the Thanksgiving table. It will only be won when progressives and the anti-Trump coalition divide the angry Trumpvoters at the bottom of the economic pyramid from the country club Republicans at the top, and give them a plausible answer as to who’s to blame. Otherwise, Trump, Bannon and co. will continue to channel that anger towards immigrants, Muslims, people of color and LGBTQ folks.
While some progressive-minded Democrats — notably Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — have worked to expose Trump’s economic populism as a fraud led by Goldman Sachs, the Democratic Party machine is stuck spinning its wheels in the mud. A recent retreat of Party leaders failed to find agreement on a compelling alternative message to Trump. When some pointed to the energy behind the Sanders campaign, Rep. Marcia Fudge, a progressive Democrat from Cleveland replied, “He didn’t win.” Needless to say, neither did Hillary Clinton.
Populist leaders from Russia to Venezuela have survived massive protests by middle class liberals by dividing them from their own working class. The protesters themselves failed to realize that slogans for democracy and human rights alone did not resonate with a large portion of their populations whose needs were immediate and economic. Let us not make the same mistake, and allow Trump to divide the pink hats from the hard hats. If we do, our nightmare could be a long one.