To defeat Trump, we must recruit the Great Men (and Women) of History
We live in revolutionary times. Or, rather, counter-revolutionary times.
Donald Trump seeks to Make America Great Again, standing ahead of a resolutely right-wing Republican Party dominating every level of American government. Theresa May continues to steer the rejection of the European Project that came with 2016’s Brexit referendum. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) just became the first extreme-right party to enter the German parliament since WWII. The far-right have had more luck next door in Austria, where the youthful foreign minister Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party has just declared victory, with help from one of Europe’s oldest enduring extreme-parties, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration Freedom Party. The Freedom Party’s candidate Norbert Hofer presented a clean-cut figure similar to “alt-right” front man Richard Spencer. In France this, Marine Le Pen’s extreme-right National Front (FN) came only second to Macron’s neoliberal En Marche! Party in the April and May elections this year. And, the French election also showed Traditionalist Catholics were a potent demographic and political force challenging laïcité with a new Génération Identitaire.
So, what do all these festerings of right-wing energy have in common, and — shudder — what can the modern American Left learn from them?
The have repurposed an idea of the past to suit the present. Theirs is an idea of a prelapsarian Golden Age of pure (white) European culture unsullied by the Mongol hordes of migrants from Africa and the Middle East. Or, an America of vigorous Anglo-Saxon frontiersman. They latch onto symbols of a pre-globalized, nationalist Europe, bound by volkish symbols of the hearth and home. Some embrace Christian Identitarianism (contra Islamization). Interestingly, many of the extreme-right go back further to pagan symbolology: the neopaganist Ásatrú movement in Scandinavia and the Neo-Druidist Celtic movements have influenced the Identitarian extreme-right in Europe, North America, Australia, and even within white South Africa.
The historicism of the alt-right is a selective as many other historicisms prior (including the Marxist varieties). That it’s effective at uniting and motivating political movements should be obvious by now. Indeed, Benedict Anderson argued in “Imagined Communities” that a historical myth is at the center of all group identity, specifically nationalist ones. Indigenous tribes have their pantheistic creation myths, the Hebrews had Genesis, and Rome had Romulus and Remus. The United States has the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, George Washington at Valley Forge, and the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia. These tales (whether or not rooted in objective fact), bind us together in a “civil religion” toward a national project.
So, why is it then that the global Left has lost its origin story? Wherefore are the laudatory myths of America’s Enlightenment Era Founding Fathers and its father of modern American social democracy, FDR?
And not just in America, either: What do we know of the intellectual father of the British welfare state, Liberal economist William Beveridge? What happened to an Israel where the Socialist kibbutz was the most potent symbol of nationalism? Can we recall when the African National Congress (ANC) was Nelson Mandela’s emancipatory social-democratic party advocating for an inclusive “rainbow nation,” before the rot of Jacob Zuma’s corrupt kleptocracy? Where can we gather around to celebrate the incredible economic and social successes of Scandinavia’s Nordic Model and Germany’s Rhine Capitalism? Shouldn’t the countries with the happiest, healthiest, and wealthiest populations ever to walk the earth have some space to celebrate themselves and their legacy to the rest of us? And, shouldn’t the men whom we can thank for their rise be canonized: Weimar Republic President Friedrich Ebert, economist John Maynard Keynes, and German Prime Minister Kurt Schumacher.
We settle instead for scholastic minutiae about Marxist dialectic and apologetics for the excesses of (supposedly) Leftist regimes in Soviet Russia, Maoist China, Castro’s Cuba, and Chavista Venezuela from the leftovers of the 1960s and 70s New Left. Who chose them as the inspiring myth-makers of the Left? At best, theirs is a turgid intellectual and ideological frivolity. At worst, it’s the worship of false prophets at the expense of our true redeemers.
Why in America do we ignore the principled Abolitionists who created Lincoln’s Republican Party (before it underwent the black irony of conversion into Trump’s white nationalist Party), the American Utopians who sought a frontier of the mind at comunes like Oneida, the suffering and bravery of the 19th Century Labor Movement, the charitable humanism of the American Progressive Movement, the steadfastness of the Suffragettes, the muscular left-populism of Theodore Roosevelt, the skin-in-the-game idealism of young American novelists who fought the Fascists in Spain, the wholesome radicalism of FDR’s New Deal. Has Kennedy’s glamour so outshone his Fair Deal and must Johnson’s shame over Vietnam consign his Great Society, Civil Rights & Voting Rights Bills to forgottenness? Where is the homey, patriotic Left of Walt Whitman and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Where is a Left that is as intrinsically American, humanistic, and democratic as our Mayflower Compact and the U.S. Constitution?
Such are the heroes we must turn to to remember our own version of an America that can be Made Great (for everyone) Again! In their times, many were admired far more widely than Trump is today. The others saw history catch up with their ideas to vindicate their places in our national mythos. If the contemporary advocates for Leftist social market economy — Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, Joseph Stiglitz, Lane Kenworthy, Thomas Piketty, Robert Reich , et al—want to inspire us to the future, they should start with the past, and the men (and women) who did something real already.