Solidarity, Y’All: How Socialists Are Targeting Trump Country

Solidarity, Y’All: How Socialists Are Targeting Trump Country

(Bloomberg) -- America’s socialists reckon they’re on a roll. Next stop: Trump country.

The movement has long been confined to the fringes in U.S. politics, and also on the map. It’s associated nowadays with hipster enclaves of the West Coast, or New York -- where the country’s most famous socialists are teaming up on Saturday, when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will endorse Bernie Sanders for president at a rally.

But now it’s spreading across the Rust Belt, Midwest and South. At least 60 branches of the Democratic Socialists of America, the most prominent among a bunch of reinvigorated leftist groups -- have sprung up in the the past year, mostly in conservative areas where President Donald Trump did well with voters.

How the group fares in such places will be a bellwether for something bigger.

Cold-War Stigma

The DSA is battling a stigma that’s been associated with the S-word in America since at least the Cold War. And Trump is cranking up a red-bashing campaign. He’s trying to pin the socialist label on potential 2020 challengers like Elizabeth Warren as well as Sanders, betting it will prove a liability in the heartland.

The vote could boil down to “a capitalist-socialist question” whose outcome will be crucial for markets and the U.S. economy, billionaire investor Ray Dalio said Thursday.

As Democratic candidates prepared for their debate in Ohio this week, Trump’s campaign had a banner towed by a plane over the venue. “Socialism Destroys Ohio Jobs,’’ it read. “Vote Trump.’’

And during the previous debate, a Republican group ran a TV ad linking Ocasio-Cortez to Pol Pot and the killing fields of communist Cambodia.

Small by national standards with 60,000 members, the DSA is arguably punching above its weight. Members hold more than 10% of city council seats in Chicago, and endorsed some 40 winning candidates in last year’s mid-term elections, including Ocasio-Cortez. The group has endorsed Sanders in the Democratic race.

‘Pinched a Nerve’

Its new recruits are fanning out across states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, with a focus on people who don’t typically vote. They’re making a case for rebalancing the U.S. economy after decades of widening inequality -– also a theme of the Sanders and Warren campaigns.

Those regions have seen manufacturing jobs disappear and incomes stagnate, making them fertile ground for the DSA, according to Fadhel Kaboub, an associate professor of economics at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He says the president himself benefited from the same discontent in 2016.

“When Bernie and Trump spoke in the Rust Belt, they pinched a nerve that I haven’t seen pinched before: ‘I know your pain, and how that pain has been ignored by Republicans and Democrats’,’’ Kaboub says.

Socialists like Kelley Rose say that the pitch has to be tailored to local conditions -- in her case, Fairmont in West Virginia, one of the poorest U.S. states.

“The super-hip millennials in Brooklyn are fantastic,’’ she says. “But they’re not going to change a 65-year-old retired coal-miner’s mind.’’

Rose says the strike by 20,000 West Virginia teachers last year, which shut down schools and won a pay-raise, made the state more promising ground for the DSA.

Most members of her chapter, set up more than a year ago, are new to political stumping. They’ve learned what works and what doesn’t as they go along. It’s a mix of the conventional playbook -- door-knocking, movie nights –- with some innovations thrown in.

Like brake-light clinics, popular with DSA activists across the country. As Rose tells it, they’re simple and effective. A few volunteers set up shop on some unused parking lot, put up signs advertising free checks and repairs, and the cars roll in.

Drivers might hang around for free donuts and coffee, and browse some pamphlets on Medicare for All or the next DSA meeting. Conversations get underway –- not about socialist theory, but concrete problems that affect the community, like opioid addiction. “What we’re trying to do is dispel the red-scare myth,’’ says Rose.

Sanders, Warren... Mao?

Republicans are working hard to keep it alive. “America will never be a socialist country,’’ Trump said in his last state-of-the-union address.

His Council of Economic Advisers published a report on the dangers of socialism, with references ranging from the millions killed by famine in Soviet Russia and communist China, to the economic catastrophe in modern-day Venezuela, to the high cost of running a pickup truck in Scandinavia.

The report also quoted both Warren and Sanders saying that corporations “exploit’’ workers -- and pointed out that Mao Zedong used similar language.

Americans are less hostile to socialism than they used to be. A Gallup poll in April found that about four in ten Americans approve of the idea –- roughly in line with Trump’s own ratings. Still, socialists themselves often operate on the premise that the label is a turn-off.

‘It’s Loaded’

The preferred tactic on the doorstep is to address concrete material needs, like universal health-care and a higher minimum wage, says Dan Fontaine, a first-time candidate who ran for state office as a socialist Democrat in Connecticut last year.

“If you go there and put forward these ideas, ‘We’re socialists and we wanna talk to you about socialism,’ then people scratch their head,’’ says Fontaine, who lost his race but outperformed the previous Democratic challenger. “They see it on TV, and it’s loaded –- no one knows what it means.’’

There’s actually a “very rich and very deep’’ history of socialism in America, according to Jefferson Cowie, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

Cowie says that by standards of the past, when labor groups banded together to fight robber barons, the current crop of leftists are “much more moderate.’’ But he says they’re driven by similar economic conditions: “Rising inequality, tremendous differences in power, the business interests really owning Congress.’’

At an annual socialist conference in Chicago this summer, some speakers wouldn’t have sounded out of place in those earlier days.

‘All These Young People’

“Blue collar, white collar, it doesn’t matter,’’ auto-worker Sean Crawford said in an interview, after a panel on how to spread socialism in the rust belt. “Workers are the ones who create all this wealth. So we should have a share in it.’’

The official slogan of the conference was “No borders. No bosses. No binaries,’’ and roving vendors were selling Karl Marx pins or t-shirts emblazoned with “Solidarity, Y’all.’’ Tattoos and facial hair were everywhere, and became a running joke on one panel when the moderator struggled to pinpoint which audience member he was inviting to speak. “The comrade with a beard’’ wasn’t much help.

It was a strikingly youthful crowd. Polls show socialism is most popular among millennials and Generation Z, who’ll comprise more than one-third of the electorate in 2020, according to Pew Research. It’s a cohort burdened by student debt and galvanized by the threat of climate catastrophe.

It was the age profile that really struck 75-year-old Carl Davidson from Beaver County, Pennsylvania, when he joined the DSA after a lifetime in various fringe outfits on the far left.

“We were this shrinking group of old people,’’ he says. “They had all these young people. And they were so active, and getting things done.’’

--With assistance from Alex Tanzi.

To contact the reporter on this story: Katia Dmitrieva in Washington at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Margaret Collins at, Ben Holland

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