Who is the best teacher about how to resist Trump and challenge the failures of global capitalism? Ironically, Trump himself. All the mind-spinning news about the Russian investigation, Trump’s lies, and his legislative failures should not distract us from how he won the Presidency and the crucial lessons for progressives.
Trump built a right-wing populist movement claiming to represent ordinary workers against corrupt global elites. His movement for the “forgotten” people reflected a primal truth: that the US is a militarized capitalism stacked in favor of global US-led corporations. His “disruptive” solution was shaking the system to its core by “universalizing resistance” among vast numbers of left-behinds.
Universalizing resistance unites diverse grassroots groups fed up with the system, mobilizing millions into electoral politics and on the streets, It unites class politics with identity politics and builds “united fronts” of activist movements with political parties.
Right-wing universalizers such as Trump bring people together under the banner of nationalism. His economic nationalism promises to create new and better American jobs, offering a right-wing class politics uniting US workers and businesses against liberal global elites who shift jobs to foreign workers and illegal immigrants. Trump links his class politics to a hyper-nationalist right-wing identity politics that brings within the GOP tent the “forgottens” with the military and corporations fighting for “America first.” Making America great gives “deplorables” cultural pride and self-worth, tying their identity to a politically incorrect celebrity billionaire posing as one of them.
Like Trump, progressives must universalize against the ruling global system that he lambasts but helps perpetuate. The bottom line: build and unify their own class and identity politics inside and outside of the Democratic Party.
Earlier progressive movements including the 1890s populists, the 1930s New Dealers and 1960s student activists all developed universalizing anti-system agendas. But after the sixties, the Left fragmented and “de-universalized,” breaking into silos organized into cultural identity movements of race and gender, and separate peace, labor and environmental movements.
Mostly white males, especially on college campuses, led universalizing 1960s movements, but they marginalized women, people of color and other oppressed groups, leading them to form their own identity movements.
The new identity politics achieved major gains for women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and others. But as silo movements, they lost the universalizing spirit and the focus on the capitalist glue linking capitalism with racism, sexism and other social crises.
One result was that identity movements benefited the privileged in their communities, breaking “glass ceilings” while leaving behind their own poor and working class majorities. Moreover, workers learned to focus mainly on identity issues rather than capitalism, eroding the universalizing struggles seen in the Gilded Age and the New Deal.
In the 1980s, the devastating assault of Reaganism on unions and on the New Deal social welfare systems was another huge factor undermining universalizing progressive class politics. The Democratic Party shift away from the New Deal toward the business-friendly, “third way” of the Clintons and Obama was also profoundly damaging, perpetuating corporate globalism and turning more and more workers Republican.
While the Tea Party helped right wing universalizers colonize the GOP, universalizing progressive politics fell by the wayside, opening a void that the New Right and Trump filled. Democrats who trucked with the corporate global elites thus bear their own responsibility for Trump and the brutal GOP-led system now threatening democracy and even human survival.
Fortunately, in the 2016 election, a new phase of universalizing resistance began. Bernie Sanders ignited a new class politics on the Left and in the Democratic Party that attracted millions of millennials and workers to his “democratic socialism.” Progressive identity movements—while under dire threat from Trump—are now talking more about class. Leaders of Black Lives Matter and many feminist and LGBTQ groups are joining with Leftist unions representing nurses and hotel workers fighting for public investment in jobs, better education and job-training, and even a Sanders-style socialist transformation.
Universalzing progressives jamming town halls and rallying at mass protests are now colonizing the Democratic Party and helping prevent disasters like Trumpcare.
Labor groups, identity movements with class awareness, and new efforts to transform the Democratic Party can peel many workers away from Trump and the GOP. And Trump himself may be the ultimate catalyzer of progressive universalizing, since nothing unites progressives quite like the threat of Big Brother Trump.
Charles Derber is a life-long activist, author of 20 books, and professor of sociology at Boston College. His most recent book is Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times.