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After four nightmarish years, there was much relief and some joy in November when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. Biden’s 81 million votes were the most for any presidential candidate in US history. A crucial number of those votes were the result of the extraordinary efforts of grassroots organizers who rallied people to the importance of getting Trump out.
Many of these activists had been in the forefront of the thousands of rallies in hundreds of cities and towns that erupted last Spring and Summer in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The tireless work of black activists, especially black women, brought millions of new voters to the polls. Those efforts may very well have proved decisive in key swing states like Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Protest Organizing and the Election Victory
With organizations in place and dedicated activists laying the groundwork, millions of people including many who had never attended a rally or demonstration before turned out to express their outrage at continuing violence against Black people. Others who may not have participated in any of the actions nonetheless recognized the importance of voting, in many cases for the first time.
There is much to lament about the disastrous policies and inaction of the last four years. Of the many problems associated with environmental degradation, the Trump administration made an already perilous situation worse. Perhaps the biggest danger of Trump’s legacy in the short term, though, is the increasing strength of white supremacist, quasi-fascist and even explicitly fascist forces throughout the country. The violent coup attempt on January 6th was the most open display of a phenomenon that has been growing at an alarming rate for years. Among the organizations wholeheartedly committed to white supremacy as well as to something that certainly looks like fascism is the Republican Party.
The destruction wrought by neoliberalism-embracing Democrats has led many whites including workers to heed the call of the white supremacists and Republicans. White supremacist forces are not an exclusively red state phenomenon by any means, regardless of what liberals in the Boston-Washington, D.C. corridor may think. Those whites fond of congratulating themselves for their superiority to Trump cultists in red states prefer not to acknowledge the ravages of neoliberalism all around them. In New York, a state where I lived for almost 40 years, the majority of white people who voted in November voted for Trump. The same is true for my home state of Connecticut.
Multiracial Working Class Unity
The best antidote to combatting white supremacist organizations is multiracial working class unity. Liberal media outrage is all well and good but the only things that will check the influence and activities of the Far Right are organizing and the kind of street heat of last Spring and Summer. We must respond to the activities of white supremacists with organizing and actions of our own. Pandemic notwithstanding, it was disheartening that there was virtually no public response to the January 6th fascist coup attempt in the form of rallies and demonstrations.
There are examples from history we can draw on in our difficult but essential efforts to build unity. The effort to build a new South during Reconstruction is one. The organizing work of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the early 20th century is another. Peter Cole’s recent scholarship on Ben Fletcher, for example, shows Black and white workers fighting bosses and capitalism in a militant union led by an African-American revolutionary. The Communist Party helped build large unions of Black and white workers in the 1930s while the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) and the other RUMs a generation later did likewise. Fred Hampton has been much in the spotlight lately and one last example is the Rainbow Coalition of the late 1960s in Chicago that he was instrumental in creating.
There are other current examples. As this is written, the ballots in the union election at the Amazon facility in Alabama are still being counted. The Amazon organizing drive was one where Black workers were very much in the lead and it remains to be seen whether enough white workers see their fates as ineluctably connected to their Black co-workers by organizing other facilities in the vast Amazon empire. The protests of last year, meanwhile, included large numbers of mostly young white workers outraged at the never-ending police violence against Black people.
The Ravages of Neoliberalism
As radicals and revolutionaries strategize over the current period, we must recognize the degree to which both the ravages of neoliberalism and the weakness of our forces have led poor and working class whites to join these forces of reaction. It has been well documented that the primary base of the Far Right is white professionals, business owners and upper strata workers such as those in the building trades, and that their organizations are well-funded by some of the country’s wealthiest people. Still, many poor and working class whites are part of these organizations and we must recognize the monumental impact of capital flight and the loss of any semblance of meaningful or even sustaining work.
The grievances of white workers, while often horribly misdirected, are real.
The opioid epidemic sweeping the nation is directly related to the collapse of good-paying union jobs in wide swaths of the country. “Deaths of despair” is a new phrase used to describe the degree to which mostly downwardly mobile whites are destroying themselves with drugs and alcohol and by suicide. While calling out the racism in the attention paid to this phenomenon compared to far less attention to drugs decimating black communities, we should nonetheless deal with the situation as a serious problem.
Stopping the Growth of White Supremacists
With living standards in decline, the appeal of those who blame Blacks, women, gays and immigrants of color will continue unless a concerted effort is made to organize among white workers. Right wing media is pervasive while ours is marginalized so, while we must utilize media as best we can, the only effective way to counteract the influence of reactionaries is with organizers and organizations dedicated to multiracial working class solidarity. That has to happen in workplaces and in communities, towns and cities that are far from the usual radical comfort zones. If we don’t do it, the white supremacists certainly will.
White supremacists in the corridors of power have already unleashed a wide array of voter suppression initiatives. That the Republican Party retains any power at all at the national level is overwhelmingly due to concerted, successful voter suppression activities of recent decades. Aimed at black voters and potential voters in Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Texas, Georgia and other states, these moves have disenfranchised hundreds of thousands if not millions of blacks. In a telling moment of candor, Trump admitted on Sean Hannity’s television show that Republicans cannot win presidential elections if all eligible people are able to vote.
These are perilous times. The United States has many of the signs of a society rapidly approaching some kind of dramatic conflagration. Civil war, fascism and the possibility of further right wing coup efforts are now regular topics of discussion in the mainstream. On the progressive side, socialism and other ways by which we might re-structure and democratize our country are more popular than they’ve been in 75 years. How we deal today with the challenges before us will determine what kind of society we will have both in the short term and for generations to come.