Matthew Petti, JHU:
2014 has been a year of miracles for American politics. An election that could very well have been Bush-Clinton, a clash of Establishment families, turned out to be much more interesting. An arduous primary season has narrowed the race down to five candidates, with the addition possibility of a third-party campaign by Mitt Romney. Of these five (and a half) candidates, the most divisive has been Donald Trump. Reviled by many, even within his own party, the Republican populist has run on a campaign of trade protectionism, extreme immigration restrictions, and isolationism. Emerging around the Trump campaign, very rare in electoral politics in the recent decades, has been both nonviolent and violent direct action.
While the degree to which their actions constitute violence has been disputed, both supporters and opponents of Trump have been much more active in confronting one another than has been tolerated in previous presidential races. Perhaps the “Rubicon moment” occurred in Chicago on March 11, when Trump cancelled a rally after large numbers of protesters gathered in and around the area. While the Trump campaign cited safety concerns, the Chicago Police Department did not seem as anxious about the protest. Nonetheless, the disruption of a national candidate’s speech was a major escalation, and protesters around the country attempted to emulate the success of Chicago. Interested in finding out more from on the ground, I attended an anti-Trump protest in New York City on March 19.
There was a noticeable “revolutionary left” presence at the rally. It had been organized by Cosmopolitan Antifascists, a coalition of feminist, anti-racist and socialist groups in the New York metropolitan area. Much like Chicago, groups outside of electoral politics were heavily involved. Throughout the rally, groups such as the “International Socialist Organization” distributed literature, while the flags of the Industrial Workers of the World and the International Brigades of the Second Spanish Republic were visible. Alongside general chants such as “the people united will never be defeated,” there were specific calls to abolish borders and unite against the two-party system. For the organizers as well as many attendees, the problem is not specific to Donald Trump. Trump is simply a symbol; his rhetoric is ugly, but it reveals flaws in society much larger than one man.
Regardless of their own views, the organizers tried to build a “big tent” movement. The event’s official Facebook page was significantly toned-down, calling on participants to “say NO to hate, NO to divisiveness, NO to fascist policies, and most importantly, NO to Donald J. Trump.” Not everyone at the rally was a revolutionary; a group called Socialist Alternative distributed Bernie Sanders buttons and campaign literature. In fact, there was quite a large presence of Sanders supporters. Many signs criticized Trump specifically for his “hateful” rhetoric, suggesting that at least some people at the rally saw the problem as specific rather than systemic. “As a first timer at any sort of political march, I would say [the rally] was an excellent place to start,” remarked Joseph Lombardi, a member of the crowd. ”I was able to see the different demographics who have taken offense at Trump’s words and proposals.” One does not have to call for the downfall of capitalism to agree with the 60% of Americans who find Trump “unfavorable.”
The relationship between radical organizers and moderate attendees was symbiotic. People who disagree with Donald Trump may not have a comprehensive understanding of the factors that led to his rise, and political groups used to working “within the system” do not have much experience with direct action. Moderates brought the numbers, while radicals brought a plan. Perhaps the organizers took a lesson from the 1930s; while it may be hyperbolic to compare Trump to Hitler, it is useful to note that many socialists believe the Nazis’ rise was facilitated by infighting between Communists and Social Democrats.
However, not everyone saw the coalition so positively. “I felt that the whole thing was largely a gathering of various groups trying to use the rally to advertise their niche politics,” opined Benjamin Feldsott, a student attending the rally. “If anything, it probably caused onlookers to view the anti-Trump people as radicals who really only care about frivolous fringe issues.” It is possible that revolutionary rhetoric turned off many moderates; conversely, many radicals may be unwilling to act as “useful idiots” for an electoral campaign.
It is important to note that radicalism and direct action do not mean violence. Although some groups involved have revolutionary aspirations, they conducted themselves peacefully during the rally itself. The few clashes that did occur seemed to have resulted from confusion over the protest route combined with attempts at “crowd control” by the NYPD. Because the amount of energy involved in these direct actions is much higher than recent campaigns have seen, it is often portrayed as violence. Nevertheless, I saw little actual violence, and very few arrests were reported.
While the media has been focusing on primary antics within the Republican Party, the changes taking place this election are far wider reaching. The Overton window – the range of ideas considered acceptable in a two-party democracy – is widening on both ends. On the left, many are rejecting consensus liberalism and organizing under the banner of ideologies that have not seem mainstream prominence in the US since the 1960s or even 1930s. On both sides, electoralism is becoming less important, and direct action is taking up more space in national discourse. This year of surprises extends beyond individual candidates. A few hours in New York City were a preview of what may come yet.