Militias and the “New Normal”

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign brought the menace of the “Patriot” movement from the margins to the center of national politics, and there is no reason to think the militiarization of our politics will now fade into the background.

Will we all have to learn the Rural Organizing Project’s tips for those facing off with the Patriot movement in Oregon? Will we need to take security more seriously when holding meetings and somehow find the courage to be visible even when our political opponents carry guns?

As readers of Democratic Left know all too well, Trump’s bullying of Mexican Americans, other immigrants of color, and Muslims translated immediately into his supporters’ harassing people from those communities on the streets and in schools. On a New York City bus ride, a middle-aged white couple shouted at a young Bangladeshi American woman to take off her hijab before the white woman tried to pull it off her head, saying it wasn’t allowed anymore. Fellow bus riders yelled at her to stop but the Muslim woman was left in tears.

Along with the prospect of the permanent mainstreaming into our lives of such street harassment and armed, white, fatigue-wearing right-wingers, I fear the astounding appeal of the bullying, male supremacist, racist authoritarianism of Trump. We saw it in the thrill of his famous call for “Second Amendment people” to take care of Hillary Clinton, presumably by shooting her; in the joy of the crowds when he said he would jail her were he to be elected president; in his having his security guards muscle out a black supporter from a North Carolina rally because he mistook the man’s enthusiasm for a challenge. It was there when he rejected the prospect of being judged by a U.S.-born Mexican American in court. We heard it in his ultimate con, that only he could bring jobs back to the United States.

With Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as his “Karl Rove” figure, no one can pretend that the white supremacists who presented themselves as “white nationalists” won’t maintain their place at the center of news feeds, as they did riding the Trump phenomenon.

During the 2007 election campaign, right-wing talk radio, Fox News and websites gave a platform to “birthers” who claimed Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was a secret Muslim aiming to take over the United States. Instead of subsiding after the election, the conspiracism grew.

This time around, the conspiracism built on the years when the mainstream Republican Party and its media allies insinuated that blacks engage in “voter fraud.” The constant investigations by congressional committees fed the McCarthyite feel that there is something sinister to investigate.

I agree with my former colleague Chip Berlet that we are witnessing right-wing populism—Trump and many of his followers scorn “elites,” including Wall Street and the Beltway regulars of the GOP, while scapegoating immigrants, Muslims, and the less powerful. The Trump supporter chanting “Jew-S-A” to the corralled press corps at an Arizona rally reflected corrosive anti-Semitic attacks on the news media, suggesting they can’t be trusted because they are controlled by a Jewish cabal. Among populists left and right there is a widespread loathing of smug insiders of both major parties who craft trade deals that destroy living-wage jobs and ignore the growing fear of those in the middle that they too will tumble into the economic abyss. “The Great Risk Shift” described by political scientist Jacob Hacker, with corporations and government cutting safety nets and shifting the risks of the economy on to individuals, has only gotten worse with the gig economy.

Fascism is a type of right-wing populism that seeks a one-party state and a subversion of democracy itself. Whether Trump tipped into a fascist style during the last weeks of the campaign is up for debate. I’d say his vow to throw “crooked Hillary” in jail and his disdain for the courts and legislature—the other parts of government besides the executive—are at least fascist in style. This echoes Nazi theorist Carl Schmitt’s notion of “decisionism,” that the person who is able to use extra-legal means to assert a new normal is the sovereign power.

There can be no debate that Trump’s attacks on our weak democracy feed into the implied threat of an armed political culture. His appeal as the strong man who can fix everything builds on a weakened party system hollowed out by big money in politics. “The people” have been ignored in Washington.

In this, at least, he is not wrong. Lawrence Bartels tracked the disparity between the corporate politics that congressional representatives voted to support and what opinion polls revealed their constituents actually wanted. This was true for both Democrats and Republicans. Bernie Sanders’s amazing run revealed that more was possible within the party system than many leftists ever imagined. It will be interesting to see whether the Berniecrats committed to running for local office can turn “Our Revolution” into something new within the Democratic Party’s shell.

Trumpism now leads the GOP alliance of the fossil fuel industry, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Christian right, and white “middle” Americans. Conservative soul-searching during the campaign ended with the election, as did the need for racist dog whistles as they submitted to Bannon, normalizing a white supremacist in the White House.

What will we do? Along with political battles, not least around climate change, we are creating solidarity circles, signing up to “accompany our neighbor” who fears being harassed, and figuring out ways to widen the circles of compassion. This is the first order of work. We must challenge the distrust Trumpism generates among us. As my friend Robina Niaz, an activist and social worker, told me, “There are more people reaching out to us, friends and allies, than are trying to harm us, and we have to remember that.”

Conspiracism—and the racism it builds on—seems to me the greatest long-term threat that we need to tackle from the far right, as much as any authoritarianism coming from Trump’s government. During the election, fear of those tendencies led some to support “popular front”-style politics allying leftists and liberals in multi-ethnic organizing. Moving forward, we must support news media we can trust and enlarge their reach into local communities. We need to build local voices and local visibility. And we need to do it without the party bashing (or navel gazing) that is a turnoff to the growing number of people who don’t identify with parties or even politics as we know it.

We’ve been working on that for years, but the fragmentation of social media platforms now seems more of a setback than an opportunity. Face to face, community by community, we need to nurture a living, growing consensus among the new power bases emerging—in #BlackLivesMatter, Hispanic advocacy, and labor both inside unions and beyond—and build media that go with it. We need to keep digging new trenches of consciousness from the ground up. We have no choice.

Abby Scher is a sociologist and journalist who writes frequently about the U.S. right and economic justice.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.


Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.


What Is DSA? Training Call

May 30, 2017
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If you're a new DSAer, have been on a new member call, but still have questions about DSA's core values/strategy/core work and how to express these ideas in an accessible way to the media, as well as to friends, family and others who might be interested in joining DSA, this call is for you. 

We will talk through the basics of DSA's political orientation and strategy for moving toward democratic socialism, and also have call participants practice discussing these issues with each other. By the end of the call you should feel much more comfortable thinking about and expressing what DSA does and what makes our organization/strategy unique. 8 pm ET; 7 pm CT; 6 pm MT; 5 pm PT. 70 minutes.

Film Discussion: Rosa [Luxemburg]

May 31, 2017
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Join DSA member Jason Schulman to discuss the film Rosa, directed by feminist filmmaker Margarethe von Trotta. View it here at no cost before the discussion. Marxist theorist and economist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919) played a key role in German socialist politics. Jason edited Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy and has a chapter in Rosa Remix. 9 ET/8 CT/7 MT/6 PT.

Film Discussion: The Free State of Jones

June 11, 2017
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Join Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History, Texas State University, San Marcos, to discuss The Free State of Jones. STX Entertainment bought the film rights to Bynum's book of the same title. She also served as a consultant and appears in a cameo scene. What was the Free State of Jones? During the Civil War, an armed band of deserters led by Newt Knight, a non-slaveholding white farmer, took to the swamps of southeastern Mississippi and battled against the Confederacy in an uprising popularly known as “The Free State of Jones.” Joining Newt in this rebellion was Rachel, a slave. From their relationship, there developed a controversial mixed-race community that endured long after the Civil War had ended. View the film here for $6 before the discussion. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Introduction to Democratic Socialism

June 13, 2017
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Join Bill Barclay, Chicago DSA co-chair, and Peg Strobel, National Political Committee and Feminist Working Group co-chair, on this webinar for an overview of what we in Democratic Socialists of America mean when we talk about "socialism," "capitalism" and the goals of the socialist movement. 9:30 PM ET; 8:30 PM CT; 7:30 PM MT; 6:30 PM PT.

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Film Discussion: Pride

September 10, 2017
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Join DSA members Eric Brasure and Brendan Hamill to discuss the British film Pride (2014). It’s 1984, British coal miners are on strike, and a group of gays and lesbians in London bring the queer community together to support the miners in their fight. Based on the true story of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners. The film is available for rent on YouTube, Amazon, and iTunes. 8 ET/7 CT/6 MT/5 PT.

Film Discussion: Union Maids

September 24, 2017
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Join DSA member and labor historian Susan Hirsch in discussing Union Maids (1976). Nominated for an Academy Award, this documentary follows three Chicago labor organizers (Kate Hyndman, Stella Nowicki, and Sylvia Woods) active beginning in the 1930s. The filmmakers were members of the New American Movement (a precursor of DSA), and the late Vicki Starr (aka Stella Nowicki) was a longtime member of Chicago DSA and the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. It’s available free on YouTube, though sound quality is poor. 8ET/7CT/6MT/5PT.