Meeting Populism Head On, Means Bringing Back the Base with Organizing

Community Organizing

New Orleans   So resistance and protests might be working to pushback some of the assault on basic American principles, rights, and obligations to people, and we’re getting a little help from the courts, although who knows how long that might last, but I have to beat my usual drum a bit and remind that much of the appeal of Trump’s populist call is to people who rightfully should be our base. If we want to convert them, we have to engage them first, and that means real commitment and work in organizing.

It’s not just me. I find support for this position on all sides of the argument.

Aaron Bartley, who runs a housing development and community organizing operation called, PUSH Buffalo, circulated a piece carried in the Huffington Post called “How Our Cities Will Save Us From Trump.” He makes the interesting observation as an organizer, that despite the fact that he has emerged as White House puppeteer-in-charge, Breitbart’s Stephen Bannon has at best only a tenuous hold on their putative base. Making a point about street-heat, Aaron argues,

Bannon has done none of this painstaking work. While his hardline base of rural and Tea Party suburbanites is substantial, it is dispersed and spends far more time in chat rooms than town squares. The power of online networks and propaganda outlets is not to be discounted—after all it has propelled Bannon to his status as a diabolical global overlord—but the fascists’ lack of street mobilization capacity and their distance from capital’s key assets will neuter them in the next phase of urban-centric mass mobilization.

Although Aaron’s main theme is that diverse coalitions for change formed in the cities, including those with capital and innovation, are hedges against the worst of it, implicit in his Bannon point is an argument that if we were willing to challenge the ideology and practice at the heart of his base – as organizers – it’s core weaknesses might turn into our strengths.

Another former ACORN organizer, Jeff Elmer, reconnected with a piece he thought instructive called “How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four East Steps” by Andres Miguel Rondon a native-Venezuelan in the Rondon was comparing the lengthy standoff between Hugo Chavez and his brand of Latin American populism with the elites he attacked and who opposed him for years with much the same arguments as those being thrown at Trump now. Having visited some years ago briefly, it’s less than a perfect fit, but one piece of Rondon’s advice from the right side of the street is exactly correct when he advises:

actually go to the slums and to the countryside. And not for a speech, or a rally, but for game of dominoes or to dance salsa – to show they were Venezuelans too, that they had tumbao and could hit a baseball, could tell a joke that landed. That they could break the tribal divide, come down off the billboards and show they were real. And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing your standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber. To press pause on the siren song of polarization.

Of course Rondon is a sad liar, as Trump would say, because there’s nothing easy about that 4th step he recommends, because he is also implicitly calling for us to engage and organize, and there’s nothing easy about organizing, even though that is what just might save America right now, even more than cities and dominoes.