Connor Southard had never been involved in political organising and had never been a member of a political organisation – until the election of the far-right US President, Donald Trump.
After that he joined the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
“As it became clear that the organised left was getting stronger and facing more formidable threats to its agenda … it was clearly time to get involved,” the 26-year-old writer from New York explained.
The far-right in the United States – and in Europe – has been energised by Trump’s victory and his Republican Party’s firm grip on both chambers of Congress.
“The only way to oppose this level of the malignant power [of Donald Trump] is to get organised,” Southard said. “This moment is radicalising a lot of people due to the levels of outrage and disgust. People all over the country are asking what to do. The answer in one word is: Organise.”
He learned about the DSA from friends and Chapo Trap House, a popular left-wing satirical podcast.
Since Trump’s electoral victory in November, socialist organisations have reported an explosion in membership and interest.
David Duhalde, the DSA’s deputy director, explains that the organisation’s membership has soared to 16,000, more than doubling since May 2016. In the last two weeks alone, more than 2,000 new members have registered.
“We’re taking advantage of the rising energy around socialism and the popular feeling that capitalism is not working for the majority of people,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that around 50 new chapters have been founded in communities and on campuses in recent months.
DSA members have participated in mass protests against Trump’s inauguration, supported the Women’s March, and called for the release of immigrants detained at airports owing to the new president’s ban on travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“It’s critical in our politics to promote coalition work and now to be part of a popular front against Trump,” Duhalde explained. “Socialists need to be in the masses of protests and doing solidarity work.”
The Socialist Alternative, a Trotskyist party, said its membership has grown by more than 30 percent since Trump’s election.
The Socialist Party USA’s national secretary office said by email that they had also encountered “a solid spike from right after the elections”, although they declined to provide further details.
Although the numbers remain small when compared with Democratic and Republican Party membership, the growth has been significant. While fuelled by anger at Trump, the phenomenon hasn’t come entirely out of the blue.
‘The working class is hyper-exploited’
Connor Kilpatrick, a writer who sits on the editorial board of Jacobin, a New York-based socialist magazine, said the failures of both mainstream US parties have played a significant role in the rise of leftist politics.
In addition to the failures of establishment Democrats and Republicans, Kilpatrick places a portion of the blame on the corporate media. His analysis is supported by the findings of a study by the mediaQuant analytics firm, which concluded that Trump had received an estimated $5bn worth of free media coverage.
Just days after Trump’s electoral victory, nearly every mainstream US media outlet ran segments and feature stories about a conference by the National Policy Institute, in which around 100 people celebrated Trump’s win. During that conference, infamous white supremacist Richard Spencer led chants of “Hail Trump!” as the audience rose to its feet, making Nazi-like salutes.
That same night, around 450 people crowded into a small hall in Brooklyn to attend a talk about labour struggles hosted by Jacobin. “It’s not like there aren’t socialist figures that the media could be shining their light on; they are making a decision not to,” Kilpatrick said.
Two days before the elections, in which Trump won the electoral college by a large margin but lost the popular vote, the Gravis Marketing research firm published a survey that examined how self-described socialist Bernie Sanders would have squared off against Trump. That survey found that Sanders would have beat Trump by a 56 to 44 percent margin.
Sanders, a former independent who ran for the Democratic presidential slot and lost the primary to Clinton, is a US senator from Vermont. “I think the working class is hyper-exploited and has been given nothing,” Kilpatrick said, adding of Sanders: “It says a lot that their favourite politician is a 75-year-old Jewish socialist.”
Not entirely new
The American socialist movement has grown and shrunk in ebbs and flows since its inception. Eugene V Debs, a socialist icon who ran for president five times, pulled in more than 900,000 votes during both the 1912 and 1920 elections. His Socialist Party of America’s membership peaked in 1912 at around 118,000 people.
But American socialism’s tumultuous history is punctuated with examples of state repression; the arrest of anti-war activists during World War I, the witch hunts led by Joseph McCarthy during the 1950s and the repression of students and other radicals during the New Left rebellion of the 1960s, among others.
Although nationally they are weak today, an April 2016 study by Harvard University found that 51 percent of millennials – a loosely defined group of people aged between 18 and 29 – reject capitalism and 33 percent support socialism.
Katie Feyh, a professor at Syracuse University who researches Marxism and rhetorical theory, argued that an already increasing interest in socialism was energised by the Sanders campaign.
Sanders “showed how hungry progressives and leftists have been for an electoral formation to the left of where the Democrats have been” for decades, Feyh told Al Jazeera.
The Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011 and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014 attracted thousands of newcomers to progressive activism.
In the 2012 presidential election, fewer than 18,000 people voted for socialist candidates, according to Latterly magazine.
In November, the Green Party’s Jill Stein clinched nearly 1.5 million votes. Although not a socialist, Stein championed many left-wing causes.
“With record numbers marching against Trump, there are more people entering political activism outside the voting booth,” Feyh explained.
She added that, while socialists are “far from the majority” of those participating in demonstrations against Trump, “there is an openness to [left-wing] politics that I haven’t seen in a long time”.
‘No mood to negotiate’
The American political process, while allowing for third parties, is in its essence a two-party system. From raising adequate funds to getting on ballots and securing sufficient media coverage, third parties face immense barriers.
While the mainstream consensus tends to blame third-party candidates for “spoiling” close elections, in a September 2015 Gallup poll, 60 percent of interviewees supported the establishment of a viable third party because the two main parties “do such a poor job”.
Kshama Sawant, a member of the Socialist Alternative who sits on the Seattle City Council, said her party is organising and focusing on recruitment with the hope of carving out a spot on the national level.
Sawant, who took office in January 2014, was the first openly socialist politician to win a citywide election in Seattle in 97 years when she unseated four-term city councillor Richard Conlin.
Sawant said that the question of working with progressive elements within the Democratic Party is still a point of debate on the left.
While Sawant and the Socialist Alternative supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party primary, they urged him to run as an independent candidate after he lost to Clinton. “We were always completely open and honest that we don’t believe that the Democratic Party can be a political vehicle for putting forward a progressive agenda because its establishment leadership is so closely tied to Wall Street,” she told Al Jazeera.
Sawant said Democrats have further alienated progressives by urging cooperation with Trump. Following the elections, Clinton offered to work with Trump and encouraged her supporters to keep an “open mind”.
A week after the elections, former President Barack Obama also said Americans should give Trump a chance.
Yet Sawant said most of the young people flocking to socialist groups are not willing to negotiate over Trump’s policies.
“There’s no mood to negotiate,” she said. “There’s a mood to fight back.”
Thousands descended on airports in New York City, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco and elsewhere as travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries were detained last week. As the protests spread, a court froze Trump’s ban on people from those countries entering the US until it can rule on its legality.
Sawant joined thousands of demonstrators at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. “There were people who have never been at a protest before … and we know that those sit-in actions and protests shutting down airports [across the US] were the principle drivers in the [freezing] of the ban.”
Last week, Trump signed a pair of executive orders scrapping several regulations placed on Wall Street. He has also vowed to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and to carry out mass deportations of undocumented immigrants, and has publicly stated his support for the use of torture.
Explaining that Trump’s far-right agenda has led many to join protests, Sawant argued that it is also a “historic opportunity” to introduce progressive politics to a broader audience.
“We need to tie the demands for immigrants’ rights to the demands of working people in general. It’s no longer going to be viable to simply play defence,” she concluded.
“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.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_