Left/right labels don’t help – we must build a fusion coalition to defeat Trumpism

Candidates should be clear about how Trump targets immigrants and people of color, but those policies hurt poor white people as well

The sad reality for far too long has been that no one is asking about the plight of poor and low-wealth people in America.

The sad reality for far too long has been that no one is asking about the plight of poor and low-wealth people in America.
Photograph: Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Over two nights of debates in Detroit, Michigan, last week, Democratic presidential candidates had a chance both to present their campaign’s vision for America and to differentiate themselves from a broad field of 20 contenders. On healthcare, immigration, criminal justice reform and more, candidates responded to CNN’s questions by positioning themselves on the left/right spectrum that is often used to report political issues in public life.

But we make a serious mistake if we allow the extremism of Donald Trump’s administration to define a “right” against which Democrats position themselves as more or less “left”. This framing actually offers Trump an advantage because it normalizes his extremism and lawlessness.

Yes, there are real policy differences between Democratic candidates. But those differences pale in comparison to the moral and constitutional crisis America faces under Trump’s leadership. Now is not the time to poke holes in other candidates’ plans to guarantee healthcare and a living wage to all Americans. Now is the time for Americans to unite around leadership that can clearly name the corruption that led us to Trump’s presidency and build a broad coalition ready to move forward together in the south and the midwest.

Back in June, before the first televised debates, we hosted 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates for a Poor People’s Campaign forum in Washington DC. (We also invited President Trump, who chose not to attend.) Before a diverse audience of people from across the US who are directly affected by poverty, racism, ecological devastation and the war economy, each of the frontrunners in the Democratic field made a public commitment to talk about how these four issues intersect to make 43% of Americans poor and low wealth. They promised to talk about the half of the country that has been overlooked for decades, since the federal government gave up its War on Poverty. They committed to talking about the plight of poor and low-wealth Americans as a moral issue.

Unfortunately, pollsters and campaign advisers consistently present candidates with data to suggest that the left/right framework the media uses to talk about public issues makes sense to most people. While that data may be a true representation of responses to surveys, people can only respond to the questions they are asked. The sad reality for far too long has been that no one is asking about the plight of poor and low-wealth people in America. It is no accident that the people who never hear their names or issues taken seriously in public life do not turn out for elections.

To accept the left/right framework is to refuse the moral framing that has galvanized people of all races throughout US history in the struggles for abolition, labor rights, women’s rights and civil rights. If candidates want to make a moral case for their policy proposals, they should disaggregate the impact of those policies by race, class and region and show how the vast majority of Americans would benefit from them. They should be clear about how Trump targets his rhetoric and policies at immigrants and people of color, but those policies hurt poor white people as well.

Trump has made clear that his 2020 campaign strategy is to dispense the political opioid of racial resentment to white voters in the south and the midwest and win the swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin while maintaining the “solid south” of the old Southern Strategy. Whether his fellow Republicans are comfortable with it or not, Trump is determined to out-Wallace George Wallace as a cover for the fact that he has failed to deliver any real economic benefits for working poor people.

This strategy presents Democrats with an opportunity: if they are willing to look beyond conventional campaign wisdom, they can mobilize to bring their base together with inactive voters who are young, poor, black, white and brown, all disaffected with a political system that consistently overlooks them. If they will lift up a bold moral and constitutional vision of an America that works for everyone, they can win, even in the so-called “red counties” where Republicans feel safe because the electorate is so small.

On 17 July, the Trump 2020 campaign held a rally in Greenville, North Carolina, where President Trump tested his strategy by using racist tropes to demonize Representative Ilhan Omar before pausing to let the crowd chant, “Send her back!” Since then, he has doubled down on personal attacks against people of color in Congress while also pushing more extreme racist policies at the border, the justice department, and the federal Snap program.

If Democratic candidates are serious about building a fusion coalition that can defeat Trumpism and move us forward together toward a more perfect union, they should unite before the next debate to reject Trump’s divide-and-conquer strategy. In partnership with MoveOn.org, the Rev Dr Liz Theoharis, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and I launched a petition last week to challenge all of the candidates to return to the scene of Trump’s crime in Greenville, North Carolina, and kick off a voter registration campaign among the poor and rejected of rural America. While such a dramatic joint action may not be conventional for primary campaigns, we are not living in conventional times. It’s time to shift the terms of our public debates because the very heart and soul of democracy is at stake.

  • The Rev Dr William J Barber is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and a Guardian US columnist