How learning from the Trump phenomenon can make movements great again

Since it’s difficult for some of us to tear our attention away from the Donald Trump drama, we might as well learn what we can from it. I’m finding useful information in it for advancing the living revolution in the United States.

I’ll start with my brother Bob, a white working-class retiree in rural Pennsylvania. He finds only two of the presidential candidates appealing: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. In this view he has a lot of company, judging from journalistic reports from Iowa and elsewhere.

“Each of them,” Bob explains, “is independent of their parties. The Republican leaders don’t control Trump and the Democratic leaders don’t control Sanders. That’s good, because both parties got us into this mess, and there’s no reason to think they will get us out of it. The only president who can act for ordinary Americans would be one who has his own mandate instead of doing what the party leadership says.”

For people like my brother who believe that U.S. politics needs a big shake-up, the recent attacks on Trump by Mitt Romney and John McCain strengthen their belief in Trump’s independence from an oppressive and insecurity-making status quo.

I don’t know anyone on the left who would disagree with Bob about the major parties. Those who remember the Bill Clinton presidential era remember the success the Clintons had in reducing the influence on policy of the working class and pushing the Democratic Party to the right, in tandem with a Republican Party that was itself moving to the right.

Judging from polls, we Americans are not as a people moving rightward; in fact, in some ways we have been moving leftward. One result of these opposing trends has been the decline in legitimacy of the political class itself. Even the parties’ chief influencers took a hit: A 2015 Gallup poll on Americans’ confidence in U.S. institutions put “big business” second to last — above only Congress.

Major party membership followed these trends. Both parties have lost members. More people registered “independent” even though that meant in many states they couldn’t vote in primaries. Even more striking are the increasing numbers who vote with their feet by not bothering to go to the polls on general election day.

Their logic is strong. For 30 years Gallup pollsters have found a steady majority of Americans saying that the government should redistribute wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich. Why should that majority — after decades of suffering the decline of jobs, schools, infrastructure and pensions while the rich pay lowered taxes — expect the major parties to reverse course?

Bottom line: It’s too superficial just to shake our heads in embarrassment about the latest Trump one-liner and moan about the “craziness” of American politics. When we look beneath the surface, we see my brother and millions of other people making sane and accurate judgments about a U.S. political system stacked against them.

What’s with the working class?

The mass media sometimes voice a familiar trope among middle-class progressives: “Why do working-class people vote against their own interests?” Sadly, the question itself betrays class bias: In reality, middle-class people vote against their own interests on a regular basis. The educational demographic that was first to see through the scam of the Vietnam war was the group that did not complete high school. This is not unusual. The AFL-CIO was issuing national protests against the Iraq war and the United States’ continued military intervention in Afghanistan, while mass middle-class associations were quiet or still clinging to the empire.

Even as I write this our public schools are bleeding, our tax money subsidizes fossil fuels, we’re falling farther behind on infrastructure, and college debt grows. The politicians who decided the policies that created these results were supported by a majority of the middle class. Why do most middle-class people routinely vote against their own interests?

The misperception about class is understandable. The professionals I know with this bias live in a middle-class bubble, don’t know progressive working-class people or many middle-class conservatives, and imagine the progressives they know represent their whole class.

The good news in the “shake-up” that my brother yearns for would be the opportunity for professionals to break out of their bubbles and find the experience of solidarity.

Putting the fear of Trump in perspective

A year ago my mixed-class and race neighborhood lost its fight to save a neighborhood school from closing. My great grandson was affected. We family members gathered last month in a church basement for a reunion. With food and chatter we remembered the old school and affirmed our youngsters who are adjusting to new schools.

While talking with another grandpa, I brought up the presidential race. “I’m not afraid of Trump,” he said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“He can say whatever craziness he wants to now while he’s running. If he gets into office, he won’t be allowed to do the extreme things. The people who have been in charge all along will still be in charge.”

The grandpa helped me get the point of Trump’s avoidance of policy commitments. In his own campaign book “Crippled America,” Trump explains why he dodges specifics: “…there are a lot of different voices — and interests — that have to be considered when working toward solutions.” He intentionally leaves himself a lot of wiggle room. Making deals is what he does best.

If I were still teaching, I’d want my students to experience our neighborhood school reunion and the working-class black grandpa’s system analysis. With Donald Trump the United States is not considering a headlong fall into dictatorship. The oligarchy is firmly in place, and it’s not going anywhere. The Donald will deal. It’s not that our country is safe from the threat of dictatorship down the road, but for now, we can see who’s in charge. The school grandpa’s perspective grounds us as we consider our own next steps.

What to do with institutional blockage

Over a thousand cases in the Global Nonviolent Action Database show a natural path taken historically when institutional paths to positive change, like elections, are blocked. When people accept that reality, they often apply people power to deal with those who are blocking them. Often, they win, even against actual dictatorships.

I explained in a recent column on the movement supporting Bernie Sanders that there are significant numbers of young adults and working-class people who can find each other as the hegemony of the major parties breaks down. The time is coming in the United States to create a broad movement outside the electoral system, one that channels righteous anger into a positive vision using effective nonviolent direct action.

Already a growing number of people are building toward that day by gaining skills and concrete victories through targeted direct action campaigns. Campaigns, after all, birthed the insurgent labor movement in the 1930s, the civil rights movement in the 1960s, and the LGBTQ movement after that.

Sporadic protest can’t do the job, and little is accomplished in one-off protests at city halls and party conventions. The targeted, goal-achieving direct action campaign — an art form in itself — can be organized nationally, and it can be tried at home. I don’t know of a better way to get practical, accelerate our learning curve, and build the sustainable, powerful movements we need.

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