Socialist groups see huge spike in membership as they join protests against US President Donald Trump.
The election of far-right President Donald Trump has led to a surge in membership of socialist organisations across the United States.
During his first few weeks in office, Trump has already issued a flurry of executive orders targeting Muslims and immigrants, while moving to lift regulations on Wall Street.
In response, protests have taken place in cities across the country. Last week, demonstrations against Trump’s now frozen ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries were held at airports.
The day after his inauguration, millions joined marches for women’s rights in the US and in several cities in Europe and elsewhere.
City councillor Kshama Sawant of the Socialist Alternative, a Trotskyist party, became the first socialist in 97 years to win a citywide election in Seattle and entered office in January 2014. The party is calling for a nationwide labour strike on May 1.
The Socialist Alternative has seen a 30 percent membership increase since the November 8 presidential election. Sawant spoke to Al Jazeera about protests, immigrants’ rights and what to expect from Trump’s policies.
Al Jazeera: There has been a remarkable spike in membership of socialist organisations across the country. What is behind this uptick?
Kshama Sawant: It’s absolutely correct that socialist organisations have experienced a historic surge in the last several months. That trend applies to leftist organisations in general. Most organisations on the left have experienced a surge. It’s particularly remarkable that socialist organisations in the United States have experienced a heightened interest because the US, as we all know, has had this whole atmosphere of vilification of socialist ideas and anything associated with the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union.
Part of what happened is that the millennial generation did not grow up in the Cold War propaganda era, so that’s not an issue at all for them. But I think it’s deeper than that. The new generation of Americans – if nothing changes – is going to be the first generation as a whole in America’s history that will be worse off in terms of economic living standards than their parents’ generation. That has a lot to do with the political shift we’re observing. Young people have been raised on this idea that if you put your head down, work hard and go to college you’ll get your little piece of the American Dream. But that’s not happening. Fundamental to why that’s not happening is the fact that global capitalism is in a prolonged crisis … A majority of those [between 18 and 29 years old] are disenchanted with capitalism.
We demand no walls, no bans, no deportations and full legalisation for all immigrants.
Al Jazeera: Has Trump’s flurry of executive orders deregulating Wall Street and targeting immigrants created a feeling of urgency?
Sawant: I think there is no question that this is a historic opportunity that we would ignore at our own peril on the US left. It’s paramount that we put forward the urgent need to build maximum unity and action, unity across the 99 percent around concrete demands … fighting together against the attacks on immigrants, for women’s rights, for the LGBTQ community. We need to have maximum solidarity around defending the specific groups who are under direct threat from Trump and his administration.
But also [we need to be] linking that movement to audacious demands around which there is a lot of unity already: $15 an hour as a minimum wage; fighting for Medicare for all; fighting against all forms of sexual violence.
We demand no walls, no bans, no deportations and full legalisation for all immigrants. We need that kind of an approach to build unity around actions; and to recognise that a large number of people – not just seasoned activists on the left but those who’ve never gone to a protest in their entire lives – were out on the streets at the women’s march on the day after the inauguration. When millions of people come out, that’s the signal to the left that there’s a willingness to fight back.
We know that those sit-in actions and protests shutting down airports [across the US] were the principle drivers in the [freezing] of the [immigration] ban. That shows that even a powerful administration sitting in the White House can be brought down by the defiant actions of masses of people. That experience of winning through civil disobedience is extremely important. If we start experiencing defeat it will be demoralising for the movement. We must build on these victories and use them to go further.
There’s no mood to negotiate. There’s a mood to fight back. That’s why it’s a historic opportunity for the US left and particularly socialists to join in their struggle. The entire labour movement and everything we’ve fought for all these decades is on the chopping block right now. If we are going to save it, we’re going to have to fight.
There's no mood to negotiate. There's a mood to fight back.
Al Jazeera: What form of protest against the Trump administration do you and the Socialist Alternative advocate?
Sawant: Trump’s billionaire agenda is not going to be defeated unless this movement is militant, willing to engage in mass non-violent civil disobedience and willing to call for strike actions and make them a success. Our movement cannot be limited to what’s acceptable to the Democratic Party establishment.
Al Jazeera: Although the Socialist Alternative endorsed Bernie Sanders’ message, you urged him to run as an independent candidate. What do you say to the argument that leftists ought to work with the Democratic Party?
Sawant: The Democratic Party establishment seems to be quite out of touch with reality. How can you fight for working people facing the draconian attacks by Trump if you’re so out of touch with reality? If we are to carry out a left agenda – in terms of living standards, in terms of ending student debt, making life livable for the majority of working people who find it hard to get by – how do you expect that party to put forward bold proposals?
It’s complex. Large numbers of people want a bold, progressive, left agenda to be carried out, but it’s not immediately clear to the vast majority of people whether or not the Democratic Party will carry it out. That’s something young people and working people will continue to grapple with in the coming months.
As socialists, we need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with everybody who wants to fight and issue a challenge to anybody who wants to fight with us. There’s nothing stopping the Democratic Party from fighting. Our priority is to build a movement on the ground while continuing to debate the question of the Democratic Party.
Al Jazeera: Does Trump’s programme pose a threat for workers and the labour movement in general?
Sawant: He does pose a grave threat to working people in general. As a matter of fact, there will be a strategy of first attacking vulnerable communities like immigrants. It’s no surprise to me that some of the first executive orders targeted immigrants. That’s a classic divide-and-rule strategy. One of the most compelling arguments for building solidarity on the ground is precisely that. If you’re not an immigrant and you don’t think Trump is going to come after you, you’re not recognising what a grave danger Trump and his billionaire-dominated cabinet represents to all of us.
Al Jazeera: After Trump’s victory in November, you received thousands of threatening messages and phone calls. How did you handle the threats of violence and respond to Trump supporters?
Sawant: We received an insane number of messages. There was definitely nothing normal about it. The speech I made at the rally after the election went viral on many right-wing websites and Facebook, so my office and City Hall’s desk were flooded with thousands – if not tens of thousands – of phone calls and Facebook messages from Trump supporters. The approach we took with them was instructive because it’s an approach we’ll need going forward.
Even a powerful administration sitting in the White House can be brought down by the defiant actions of masses of people.
We asked those who were amenable to a conversation why they voted for Trump. The vast majority did not vote for Trump because they are sexist and they liked that he’s a misogynist. Obviously, there is a strain of right-wing ideology that informed his campaign. But a lot of ordinary working people voted for Trump because they are so angry at corporate politics and saw [Hillary] Clinton as someone controlled by Wall Street.
While being unbending on the question of oppression, the left needs to also understand that we want [Trump supporters] to move left and fight against a billionaire class. We must keep that door open while being very clear that there is no room for right-wing ideology.
The left cannot afford to make the mistake of being condescending to people who are moving into struggles for the first time in their lives and may not have well-formulated, class-oriented demands. History shows us that people’s thinking isn’t etched in stone; what’s important is that they’re willing to struggle. That process itself will clarify to people that our fight needs to go much further than basic demands.
It would be a historic failure if we didn’t recognise that this is a huge shift. Trump’s approach to the presidency has also accelerated chaos within the ruling class. We should view that as an opportunity.
*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_