A Devil We Know

A Southern Tenant Farmers Union picket, 1935 (Library of Congress)

Donald Trump’s victory has become an occasion for soul-searching and fierce debate among liberals, leftists, and their allies. But lost in the mix of all the recriminations and arguments is a clear-eyed attempt to imagine what life for Americans will actually look like under Trump—and then, what we want it to be after he is out of office. If we are to look beyond the next four years, we must create a movement that is not simply anti-Trump, but that presents left politics as a compelling alternative. In preparing to fight the anti-labor, anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynist policies of a Trump administration, history can help us understand how activists and radicals in previous eras of social turmoil fought for a better future.

The left responded to similar national challenges in the 1920s and ’30s. In the wake of the Red Summer of 1919, this country reeled under growing racism across the nation and a crackdown on dissent. As racially motivated attacks against African Americans occurred in Chicago and elsewhere, an anti-black pogrom was underway in Elaine, Arkansas. The Ku Klux Klan became a truly national organization with significant political power in several states. Americans who simply exercised their right to speak out were threatened with deportation to the newly formed Soviet Union—and for radicals such as Emma Goldman, this happened. The destruction of the left-wing press during the First World War and the reversal of otherwise good socialist fortune at the voting booths saw a depleted left movement in the United States by the middle of the 1920s. Labor struggled to stay relevant during an age of greed and unbridled wealth. Despite rapid gains during the Great Depression by the labor movement, and the growing political power of African Americans following the New Deal, the 1930s were no walk in the park either. The collapse of the general textile strike of 1934 and the failure to pass an anti-lynching bill, stand out as two notable examples of defeat during this era.

But during the 1920s and ’30s leftists, liberals, and progressives continued to organize and agitate for the interests of all Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) formed in 1920 as a result of the dispiriting clampdown on free speech during the First World War. At the same time, the NAACP launched legal challenges that would eventually bring an end to Southern “white primaries” that allowed only whites to vote in Democratic primaries in the region (Smith v. Allwright in 1944), and subsequently opened the door for school desegregation (the batch of cases that would be known as Brown v. Board of Education in 1954). The Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU), which formed in Arkansas in 1934, exemplifies a tradition of radical, cross-racial organizing in the South that we must never forget. The STFU had to deal with both hostile police forces and right-wing organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, and they joined forces with entities as different as the African-American church and the Congress of Industrial Organizations to fight them. Their planning, spirited debate, and effective organizing can serve as inspiration to us under the Trump regime. But unlike STFU and other labor organizations in the 1930s and ’40s, we must also make room for more radical leaders within our movements, and include them in both short-term and long-term organizing.

The other historical lesson came in 1980. The rise of Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter’s embattled presidency, a weak economy, and the rise of white nationalism all gave American leftists pause. The murder of five leftist protestors in Greensboro, North Carolina, on November 3, 1979, at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis was only the most visible incident in a rise of white supremacist activity toward the end of the 1970s. Leftists feared that the nation was falling down a fascist, right-wing hole from which it could not recover.

Reaganism presented the left with a challenge no generation had seen before. Rollbacks in civil rights, indifference toward early HIV/AIDS victims, and the Cold War arms race all posed serious challenges for left-wing activists. Massive electoral defeats for the Democratic Party in 1980 and 1984 showed that conservatism was in the driver’s seat in national politics. Meanwhile, the continued decline of organized labor, the need for civil rights organizations to fight a rearguard action to protect affirmative action, and the damage to second-wave feminism wrought by the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment meant that the major pillars of left organizing in America were all under siege.

As before, radicals banded together to win significant victories against a strong, conservative opposition. Gay rights activists refused to shut up, and instead ACTed UP to fight for AIDS victims. The Rainbow Coalition gave Jesse Jackson political legitimacy and at the same time energized African Americans across the country. And many Americans backed the movement against apartheid in South Africa. All these movements defended against the excesses of the Reagan years, but simultaneously advanced an alternative vision of the future: to build on the best of both New Deal liberalism and New Left activism. This included increasing federal support for social programs and spending less on the Cold War arms buildup, and ultimately, creating an America that was a safe, prosperous place for everyone—regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or class.

Today, as terrifying as it is to confront, the left needs to consider that white nationalism, misogyny, and xenophobia always lurks underneath the veneer of modern politics. Donald Trump has simply revealed to us the nation that, in more pessimistic moments, many of us knew existed. But rather than succumb to the despair of “this is not the America I know,” we must instead say, “I will fight for the America I want.”

I do not present these historical moments as feel-good stories or guarantees that everything will work out in the end. These examples should, however, make us realize that resisting the current right-wing impulse that threatens to undo generations of progressive activism, policy, and legislation means going all out. It means we as a nation need to talk about Flint and Standing Rock. It means repeating that black lives, regardless of who is in the White House, matter. It means defending the inviolable equality of women and the LGBTQ community, and fighting for tolerance for all, regardless of religious belief. Such efforts will require both keeping up pressure on elected Democrats to stand up for the majority of American people, and developing alliances that cross racial, ethnic, religious, and gender lines. For example, we need to continue to build the relationships between the grassroots constituencies of the Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter. But coalition-building also needs to go beyond this. Calls for a “new Rainbow Coalition” make sense, but unlike the 1980s version, must be built from the ground up and be bigger than one charismatic figure. Good leaders—such as Reverend William Barber of North Carolina—are crucial, but left-wing activists must avoid the trap of falling for charisma alone. Democrats backed Barack Obama partially because of his wonderful speeches and charisma, but it was not enough to keep the party from falling apart.

We must also learn from history the importance of being able to tell a simple, clear story to American voters and potential allies about what matters to us and why. Nuance is important, but balancing that with a clear political agenda is equally crucial. Effectively fighting Trumpism and the broader right-wing surge will require going beyond traditional left-liberal divides and finding common ground in resistance. Current debates about “identity politics” present a golden opportunity to fuse the best of class-based politics with an understanding of why different groups find it important to organize around racial, sexual, or other identities. Crafting a political language that appeals both to the unemployed, middle-aged white man in Ohio and to the young, queer Hispanic woman in Alabama means developing a political language and program that achieves what the left has, at its best, always done: fight against oppression, in whatever form it appears.

History, as President Obama has remarked, does not always move in a straight line. Being on the left means that you not only understand this, but that you accept that the fight for a better tomorrow is one that may not—indeed, probably will not—be won in your lifetime. And it is inevitable that as we make progress in one arena, we will fall short in others. Everyone reading this—curious readers, intellectuals, organizers, and others—must know that our commitment to equality and the principles we believe in can only be for the long haul. It is the fight that will outlast Donald Trump’s presidency.


Robert Greene is a PhD student at the University of South Carolina and the book review editor for the Society of U.S. Intellectual Historians. His research focuses on the post-1965 history of African Americans and the American South.

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