With Surging Membership, DSA Braces for President Trump

This piece originally appeared on dsausa.org.

By Ben Dalton

After immigrating from China, Lynn Wang’s parents lived in the United States for three decades without encountering discrimination or racial abuse, until the final months of the 2016 presidential campaign.

“My mom was leaving yoga, and a woman from our hometown just pulled up next to her, leaned out of her car and started calling her racial slurs,” said Wang, a student at the University of Southern California. “We’ve been in Manhattan Beach for decades and never had that kind of thing happen before.”

A desire to fight what she describes as the “toxic atmosphere” surrounding Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and victory is partly what drove Wang to join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the country’s largest democratic-socialist organization. A veteran of the Bernie Sanders campaign, Wang learned of DSA from a fellow volunteer. As a member, she plans to organize on behalf of those “who feel particularly threatened by Trump’s rhetoric.”

“I’m afraid that bigotry won at the polls, and people think that bigotry has a place in the streets,” Wang said. “I hope that we will be able to take a part in the resistance against the Trump administration.”

Wang is among thousands of new recruits to have joined DSA in recent months, a “Trump bump” that has boosted progressive organizations across the United States. In the first six days after Trump’s victory, DSA signed up over 1,600 dues-paying, online members, an 18 percent increase in membership, according to David Duhalde, the organization’s deputy director. Even before Trump’s election, Duhalde says that DSA had grown in prominence thanks to Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist whose presidential campaign DSA supported. Facing a Trump administration, DSA and other socialist groups offer members a channel for organized resistance that goes beyond electoral politics.

“As a national organization with chapters in red states and blue states, in rural, suburban and urban communities we feel that we’re uniquely positioned to really build a national network and community of people that can confront this kind of rhetoric,” said Maria Svart, DSA national director. “We’re going to resist every bad thing they try to do.”

On election night, Chris Maisano caught a cab to Brooklyn with several other DSA members as the first results began to trickle in. Their plan for the night was to watch what they assumed would be a Hillary Clinton victory at a live broadcast of the leftist Chapo Trap House podcast. By the time he reached the event, Maisano realized that Trump had a real shot at winning.

“The mood quickly switched from slightly optimistic nervousness to just increasing demoralization and dread,” Maisano said.

U.S. socialists dislike Clinton, whom they consider to represent the neoliberal, anti-labor wing of the Democratic Party, but most nonetheless strongly preferred her to Trump. Now that Trump will be president, their list of worries is long. Foremost for many is the possibility that the Trump administration will follow through on the president-elect’s campaign rhetoric and target vulnerable communities such as immigrants, Muslims and LGBT Americans.

“The first immediate threat is that he has the Obama deportation machine,” Duhalde said. “I understand when radicals are like, ‘well, Obama’s already deporting people,’ but I think Trump will use it much more cruelly.” Duhalde pointed out that Trump will inherit lists of undocumented immigrants who are temporarily protected from deportation by Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. The Trump administration could target those on the DACA registry, Duhalde said.

Another concern is that the Trump administration, together with the Republican-controlled Congress, will continue long-standing GOP efforts to undermine organized labor.

“The Republican Party has an opportunity to really go after the labor movement, what remains of it,” said Maisano. “They’re going to go after the [National Labor Relations Board]. They’re going to try to repeal many of the regulations about overtime and wages that the Obama administration put in place. It seems pretty clear that at some point they’re going to push to pass a national right to work law.”

Svart said that defending unions will be a priority for DSA under a Trump administration.

“For all of the flaws of the leaders of most of the labor movement, we have to protect unions,” she said. “They are uniquely positioned, and over history have done more than anyone else, to build a multiracial movement of working class people.”

The official topic at the first Brooklyn Jacobin reading group held after the election was socialist politics in Brazil, but the conversation kept returning to Trump.

“I think you should be in the first line against Trump,” said Pedro Fuentes, a visiting speaker and official in Brazil’s Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL). Around the room heads nodded. “Anti-Trump. This is the first task you have.”

Since Trump’s election, left-wing groups have strategized how best to respond to his coming administration and Republican control of both the executive and legislative branches of government. One immediate reaction has been to organize and join protests against Trump’s victory, as well as offer solidarity and support to groups that have been targeted since the election.

Svart said that DSA held an emergency conference call urging local chapters to join hands with community organizations – religious institutions, other activists, clinics – that support vulnerable populations. Together with these groups, DSA seeks to create sanctuaries from the rash of hate crimes and harassment that has followed Trump’s win, Svart said. She believes that coordination with other groups will be necessary under a Trump administration.

“We’re also working with our DSA groups to have emergency meetings to talk about the new political terrain and publicly protest in several ways, one of which is actually in the streets, registering discontent with the election results,” said Svart. “We’re also having folks write letters to the editor, write opinion editorials, call into radio shows, and things like that, so we’re providing talking points.”

One question is whether socialists should attempt to pull the Democratic Party to the left by supporting its progressive wing, represented by figures such as Keith Ellison, the Minnesota representative seeking to become chair of the Democratic National Committee. Svart said she is open to serving as a kind of “Tea Party of the left” that backs progressive Democrats against centrists in primaries, as well as running independent candidates where they stand a chance of winning.

“We believe in both working with what we have and at the same time being independent and building an alternative,” Svart said.

Yet, many activists are skeptical that the Democrats can be transformed into a genuine, national party of the left, in large part because the party’s centrist wing remains so influential. Socialist critics contend that the party’s national leadership is isolated from its base and slow to respond to grassroots concerns. Longtime party leaders are not likely to cede control to reenergized progressives without a fight, activists said.

“These faction fights are fascinating because I don’t feel that one side can truly dominate the other,” Duhalde said. “The important thing is for the progressives just to keep challenging and not give up.”

Since the election, DSA members have organized and joined protests against Trump, a form of direct action that Duhalde said will be important given how little leverage the left will wield in a Republican-dominated government. The organization plans to protest Trump’s inauguration this January in Washington, DC.

Despite opposing Trump’s rhetoric and policies, DSA members cautioned against demonizing his voters.

“I think the wrong narrative to take away [from this election] would be that half of our population is stupid, racist, bigoted and ignorant,” Wang said. “I think that the greatest failure of the liberal left so far has been that they’ve failed to come up with a counter-narrative to Trump’s rhetoric.”

For Maisano, only the left can provide an effective alternative to Trumpism, one that speaks to the millions who sat out the election or even voted for Trump because they felt that conventional politicians had forgotten them. Activists will need to find the right balance between defending against a hostile Trump administration and building a viable alternative, Maisano said.

“Liberalism is not going to protect us against this,” he said. “They’re not going to offer an alternative.”

And even with the damage he believes the Trump administration will do, Maisano said that the future of U.S. politics belongs to the social democratic constituency that emerged during the 2015-16 campaign.

“It is still far too early to tell how all of this will play out, but despite my fears about what a Trump administration will bring in the short term, I am optimistic that the most dynamic and emergent forces in U.S. politics today are on our side,” he said.