As Trump Leaves Office, Social Movements of the Right and Left Battle over the Future of America

These two movements are in no way morally or politically equivalent, but each has inspired thousands to set personal interests aside and engage in the struggle in the streets to advance their side in the fight.

Linda Martín Alcoff Jan 19, 2021

When Donald Trump leaves office tomorrow, the political crisis in this country will not subside. It will get worse before it gets better, and the Democratic Party will not save us. 

January 6 was quite the event for leftists to watch from the safety of warm living rooms. Tens of thousands of protesters strategically organized enough to crack the halls of power. Chanting “whose house? OUR house!” Whaaat?

Pundits continue to fuss over the proper terminology to describe the events of the day, but none I’ve seen want to call it what it truly was: a social movement. 

2020 made more apparent than ever that the United States is riven by two major social movements engaged in a war with each other. Each movement represents a large and diversified coalition that strenuously rejects status quo politics and wants significant structural, systemic, and lasting change. And each movement has inspired thousands to set personal interests aside and engage in the struggle in the streets to advance their side in the fight. 

The Democratic Party mainstream would like to equate these movements even while they endeavor to co-opt the analysis and recruit from the left. 

These movements are in no way morally or politically equivalent, though there are complexities in each side’s position. We can give them the shorthand of ‘left’ and ‘right’. The left movement is about the expansion of social justice, including most importantly in the economic life of the nation, about ending both racial oppression at home and imperialism abroad. The right movement is about protecting exclusionary privileges, maintaining socially conservative gender conventions, and keeping out by any means necessary non-white immigrants and refugees from poor countries.   

Each coalition is fragile. The left coalition includes reformists and revolutionaries, nationalists and integrationists, liberals and anarchists. In electoral politics, it is most commonly identified with Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and the other members of The Squad. The right coalition is dominated by white nationalists hell-bent on a restoration of a fully articulated white privilege, but also includes (slightly) multi-racial groups motivated by a broader vision of aggressive and exclusionary nationalism, usually Christian, always conservative. Each side has a massive apparatus that has been growing over the years to recruit, consolidate, plan, and theoretically develop its social analysis and rhetoric. There are youth organizations, research institutes, funding foundations, summer retreats, and a whole symbology of recognizable images for those in the know. The right has definitely adopted and adapted methods from the other side; in truth, we have learned some things from them as well.

The Democratic Party mainstream would like to equate these movements even while they endeavor to co-opt the analysis and recruit from the left. In public, they focus on the right wing’s movement tactics as a way to generate wide support for what must be done: militarized control of public space, carceral threats, replace protests with an electoral focus. 

The left needs to maneuver around this by returning the focus onto the competing agendas of these warring movements. The question of violence can never be approached as a stand-alone issue: violence against the Nazis in Germany was entirely justifiable. The question of violence is moral, yes, but it is also always strategic: will it advance our aims, or hurt them? This is the question now being debated on the right given the way that their January 6 events weakened their coalition. 

Trump has been a galvanizing force, useful tool, a mouthpiece, and a visible example of the angry, assertive, racist, and unapologetically selfish emotions that have been generated in reaction to social movements especially from people of color. But his leadership has been strategically weak: the coalition is in trouble because Trump’s strategic direction is too self-interested. His position as figurehead may well be replaced with someone more dangerous.

But the left needs to be clear: we have a two-front war to fight, against both the right wing movement that has been allowed to flourish and grow over the last several decades into a force of 74 million voters, but also against the weak-kneed and ineffective policies and rhetoric of the right’s only serious, viable opposition, the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party does not want fundamental, structural change in the economy, and because of this, it cannot address racial injustice either in the wage structure for low wage workers or in the carceral system that manages injustice. 

Our first task must be to develop an updated understanding of what we are fighting against. The storm troopers of the right are not all patsies: they used the ‘Stop the Steal’ slogan for their own purposes: to stop the demographic takeover, and protect their political and economic resources from further erosion. And they are not all white or white nationalists. What united many Trump voters was that they do not want to live in the third world country they see on the horizon. They want to live in an imperial nation with global power it can exert to protect and enrich its citizens. And this includes some people of color. 

Our second task must be developing the sort of fusion politics of the Poor People’s Campaign, with race and class united in every proposal. Without attending to class, we risk a neoliberal multi-racialism, but without attending to race, we may continue the white left’s tendency to downplay the white nationalist danger. 

There is reason for hope, as long as we continue to center our own social movements.

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