I have been thinking a lot about the song Pete Seeger wrote in 1969 called “Quite Early Morning” where he sings, “You know it’s darkest before the dawn and it’s this thought that keeps me moving on...”
1969 was a pretty rough year for American progressives. 1968 had seen the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, and the election of arguably the most appalling man ever elected president of these United States, Richard Nixon — up until the 2016 election anyway. The Vietnam War was at its worst moment. Riots raged in the streets of America, frequently instigated by FBI and CIA domestic spies trying to discredit the peace and civil rights movements.
Seeger, who a generation before had seen his and many of his friends’ careers almost destroyed by McCarthyism, knew a thing or two about darkness. He wrote this song at that awful moment, and over the next five years, his hope was proven true: Nixon destroyed himself in an orgy of corruption unseen before in American history; the peace movement finally forced an end to the Vietnam War; the environmental movement blossomed and made the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the EPA a reality; and the feminist movement blossomed as well, bringing about profound changes in the lives of women.
This darkest-before-the-dawn pattern is a recurrent theme in American history, as some of our worst periods in history have directly preceded some of our biggest progressive change moments. The decade before the abolition of slavery and three of the most profoundly progressive amendments to the U.S. Constitution saw the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision, three of the most dreadful, slavery-promoting actions our government had ever taken.
The Robber Baron era and the height of Social Darwinism in the 1880s and 1890s came immediately before the Progressive Era in American history which ended child labor; created the National Park System; advanced food and consumer safety; and resulted in the right to vote for women. The 1920s, which brought the crushing of unions and rampant corruption and speculation in an unchecked stock market, were followed immediately by FDR’s New Deal and economic reforms that created 40 years of economic stability and prosperity for the largest middle class in the history of the world. In the decade before the civil rights breakthroughs and the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in the mid-1960s, we had McCarthyism and rising anti-civil rights violence in the South.
Just a decade ago, we got another example. After the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush and Republican control of both houses of Congress, Karl Rove was bragging confidently about the permanent Republican majority they were creating. In great part due to GOP overreach on Social Security and the Iraq war, Democrats came back in 2006 to take over both houses of Congress, and in 2008 gained more seats in both and the presidency of Barack Obama as well.
Today, we are at another profoundly dark and frightening moment in American history. Trump’s administration full of bigots, right-wing generals, and big business barons is confirming all of progressives’ worst fears about what we face in the next four years. An enormous amount of damage will be done in the years ahead. The biggest question being discussed among Democrats and progressive movement leaders today is whether this nation’s democratic institutions of checks and balances will be strong enough to withstand the authoritarianism that is at the heart of Trumpism. This is a truly scary time.
Trump’s presidency will be the ultimate test of progressives and progressivism: do we have the courage, the vision, the creativity, the solidarity, and the passion to stick together and keep our worst fears from happening? But I also believe that if we can work together and forge a strategy that meets the moment, we could easily come out of the Trump years stronger than ever before and ready for another moment of great progress in American history. Think about the following:
1. Trump is going to make a lot of mistakes. Trump is a clever communicator, but he is too narcissistic, too petty, and too shortsighted to not mess up a whole lot. It’s not like he ran a flawless campaign — he veered off the track at many different moments and had the biggest negatives of any presidential candidate in history.
2. The economy is going to run into some trouble. This economic expansion has been the longest expansion by far in modern history, and just the business cycle alone will likely slow this economy down. Add to that Trump’s erratic Twitter habits and off-the-cuff statements that will almost certainly spook investors on a semi-regular basis and will make long-term investment less likely. His general economic and budget policies will be a contradictory mess of mostly bad things; rampant corruption and cronyism that we are already seeing will corrode markets; and the likely deregulation of the financial industry will result in more risk than we have seen since the financial panic of 2008-9. The bottom line is that we are likely to see a very troubled economy in Trump’s first term in office.
3. Populism on both the right and the left is growing in political strength. On the right, sadly, it has produced Donald Trump, but the better version of populism opens the door for strong progressive populists to run and win for offices at every level. With Trump creating an administration full of billionaire CEO types, that kind of progressive-style populism will be on the rise in the next four years.
4. Underneath the current wave of people kissing the victor’s ring, the Republican Party remains as deeply divided today as it ever has been, with Trump-style populists, corporate establishment types, neo-conservatives, and Tea Party radicals all still jockeying for power and openly opposing each other on all kinds of issues. If Trump is indeed making lots of mistakes and politically weakening himself, other Republicans won’t mind sticking the knife in and twisting.
Look, let’s be clear about something: Trump’s presidency will be the most unpredictable of any in American history. With this guy, we just don’t know what will happen next, and we’ve all been imagining some pretty bleak scenarios. I take nothing off the table in terms of what’s possible in the next four years, including Trump turning out to be a very successful president or calling a state of emergency. Maybe he will call off all future elections, and jail dissidents like me in a gulag. But it is also quite possible this country reacts to Trump the way it has reacted to other terrible turns to the right in our history: that we foment a rebellion on the other side and successfully turn the tide.
Here’s a scenario I think is entirely possible: Trump and the Republicans overreach on their far right and unpopular agenda, which includes cutting and restructuring programs the older, blue collar base of their party counts on like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security; Trump is involved in a series of running controversies that weaken him over time; the economy starts to weaken; Trump gets more and more defensive and irritable. In this rapidly souring environment, Democrats have a very big wave election in 2018.
With this as the backdrop, Democrats enter the 2020 cycle with arguably the most wide open presidential nominating fight since 1992 and some strong progressive populists as viable potential candidates. In fact, I think 2020 is the best chance progressive populists have had in modern political history. In the past, we have had populist protest candidates with little chance of winning the nomination like Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinch; or candidates like John Edwards who ran as a DLC moderate the first time he ran and took on faux populism because he thought it might work.
In 2016, Bernie Sanders shocked the political world when he switched political parties and came out of nowhere to come close to winning the nomination against an overwhelming frontrunner with all the endorsements, name ID, money, branding, and experience in the world. In 2020, with Trump having almost certainly spent his entire term in service to the big business, trickle-down agenda, voters in both the Democratic primary and the general election are going to be in a feisty populist mood. We could certainly see a candidate such as Elizabeth Warren fire up the Democratic base; appeal to working class swing voters; and sweep to a big victory.
And don’t forget that 2020 is the election before redistricting. If a candidate with a powerful populist message and brand is leading the Democratic Party to a big win that year (and we do well in 2018 as well), Democrats could end up dominating the re-districting process. That would build the Democratic Party with progressive candidates in both Congress and state legislatures all over the country.
So here’s my message: assume nothing; work your ass off for the greater good; but always, always keep hope alive. Our beloved nation has schizophrenia built into its DNA — I guess that’s what happens when the man who wrote our country’s founding document declaring that we are all created equal and endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was also a slaveholder.
The same government that handed down Dred Scott emancipated the slaves six years later. The most pro-corporate trust president ever elected (McKinley) had his VP (Teddy Roosevelt) follow him in office and launch a trust-busting campaign. The president who signed into law the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty took us deep into Vietnam. And now our first black president, the one with the Muslim immigrant’s name, will be succeeded by Donald J Trump.
Maybe it takes acting on our worst instincts to make our best instincts flower into progress. The next four years are going to be as ugly as hell, but keep hope alive, my friends. You can’t organize other people to do good when you are depressed. We may well come out of the Trump years and have a new birth of freedom.