Republished with permission from Thom Hartmann
Most people, particularly Democrats, would never speak of Donald Trump and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the same breath or context. But the very strategy that King used to help end legal discrimination in America is what Trump is today using to try to win back the White House in 2024: movement politics.
And if Democrats don’t figure out a way to match the passion and fervor (and organization) of Trump’s MAGA movement—yes, it’s as real a movement as was the Civil Rights movement—with their own passionate, broad-based, slogan- and action-driven movement, things could get very ugly for next year’s elections.
As of this moment, the biggest mistake the Democratic Party and most Democratic politicians are making is not realizing that political movements and political parties are very different things.
Barack Obama understood movement politics: he created a movement and it carried him into the White House. For the Democratic Party today, though, not so much…
Political parties deal with policy and practicality:
“How do we get healthcare for the most people in the most efficient way possible?
“What kind of legislation will best deal with poverty and make our streets safer?”
“How do we raise money to spread our message and get people out to the polls?”
Movements, on the other hand, deal with identity and passion. They spawn activists and evangelists:
“I’m in the street because I’m mad as hell that those idiots in the state capitol outlawed my right to healthcare.”
“Hey, buddy in the next booth over here in the diner, I just heard you mention Trump and I want you to know he’s a liar, con man, and rapist!”
“Officer, I believe that a new and better America is possible with the ideas of our movement, and I’m willing to let you arrest me for it.”
The Democratic Party of today is no longer involved in movement building.
It was building a movement during the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, when millions showed up for FDR’s rallies or listened to his fireside chats on the radio, volunteered or joined the three-letter agencies to rebuild America, and helped the war effort to save the world from fascism.
It was engaged in movement-building during the Johnson administration, when the Party embraced MLK’s Civil Rights movement and passed a whole series of Great Society legislation, beginning with the Civil and Voting Rights Acts and then leading to Medicare, Medicaid, Food Stamps and others that lifted millions out of poverty and laid the foundation for our first serious step in generations toward a genuinely inclusive, pluralistic society.
As mentioned, Barack Obama created a movement and without it never could’ve gotten elected or passed Obamacare.
Part of the Democratic Party was definitely recruiting people into a movement during the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 when tens of thousands of people showed up for rallies and Bernie himself repeatedly said:
“This campaign is not just about me. It is about building a movement of human solidarity…”
But since the Bernie movement was crushed by the Clinton machine and the remnants of Clinton’s and Obama’s neoliberal “New Democrats” in the 2016 primary, the Democratic Party has devolved into a safe and predictable fundraising and electoral-strategy institution. It’s left the movement building to us.
While many people, particularly women, supported Hillary, she didn’t run her campaign like a movement, probably because both she and her husband had been politicians their entire lives, rather than activists. The closest she came to it was the millions of women wearing “pussy” hats nationwide right after Trump’s inauguration, but by then it was far too late and that wasn’t even led by her.
“The difference between a moment and a movement is sacrifice.”
Politics, and political parties, deal with moments. They raise money, push legislation, get people elected, popularize issues, and react to the challenges of the day and to other parties’ rhetoric.
People, not institutions, generally create and populate movements. And, as Joe Madison says, doing so requires effort, persistence, passion, evangelism, and, yes, sacrifice.
While Democrats decry “the cult of Trump” and the media often ridicules Trump’s “personality cult,” the reality is that there’s never been a successful movement in history that didn’t have a charismatic leader. The movement may have preceded the leader, but the leader and his or her charisma is what makes it so potent.
Trump is a rapist, grifter, criminal, and all-around-horrible human being. But, like many high functioning psychopaths, he has extraordinary charisma and can be very charming. He knows how to lead a movement, and that movement will be his main weapon next November.
I remember Bernie telling me in an off-line conversation years ago that most politicians—and some of the best and most effective politicians—are followers, not leaders. They look for a “parade” (the start of a movement, in this example) and, when the parade is big enough, they’ll run out to the front of it, lift its flag, and proclaim, “This is my movement!”
It sounds cynical, but it’s almost always true. And because the self-organization of the movement preceded the political leadership, it’s actually a rather organic process.
Certainly, that’s what FDR and LBJ did, as did Teddy Roosevelt back in the day. Each responded to movements that were already growing on the ground, ultimately leading those movements in ways that literally changed America for the better.
Obama, a uniquely brilliant politician who came up as an activist and community organizer, created his own movement from scratch and it carried him into the White House.
And movement building and leading are what Donald Trump has been doing—although not to better America—ever since he came down his escalator in 2015.
His pitch was about emotion, not detail; about tribe, not facts; about identity and values, not politics. It was the language of movement, not momentary politics.
Even today, Trump is engaging in movement-building—this time a new and more forceful movement than in 2016, that is well-armed and enthusiastic about using violence—as he repeatedly proclaims his intention to use it to become a dictator if re-elected.
It cuts both ways. In their early days, most successful modern dictators were first leaders of movements.
Mussolini had his Fasci Italiani di Combattimento, the violent street mobs that became the enforcers of his Fascist movement when it made the transition to becoming a political party. Hitler brought people into the beer halls and the streets from the very beginning. Franco called his Spanish fascist Falange party “The Movement” to his dying day.
Most Democrats are passionate about defeating Trump and defending democracy, and some issues like abortion, pot, and voting rights will get people into polling places, but where is today’s progressive movement?
Outside of the protests against the murder of George Floyd in 2020 (which were then demonized by the right, as they have every leftist movement in history), most on the left have been content to consign all that “sacrifice” to the Democratic Party.
Instead of talking about values—the “right” of people to vote, healthcare, quality free education, a stable environment, or abortion, for example—the Democratic Party’s most powerful and visible leaders, President Biden, Vice President Harris, and Senator Schumer, talk about legislation and Republican obstructionism.
That’s all well and good, and people need to know those things, but details and information rarely motivate people the way a movement and its implicit invitation to membership, participation, and evangelism does.
When my old friend the late Tom Hayden helped organize Students for a Democratic Society, he and its founders envisioned it as a movement, not a party. I started showing up for the MSU chapter of SDS in 1967, hanging out repeatedly at the Student Union, for meetings off-campus, and in the streets, and ended up in jail for a week, shaved bald and beaten, for my efforts. Politicians don’t go to jail: movement participants (some of them politicians) do.
This comes out of something deep within our basic human nature.
As any psychologist or competent novelist can tell you, we human beings are story machines: we carry deep within us stories about our nation, about our lives, about ourselves and our place in family and society.
Those stories drive our behavior more than any amount of data or information. They transcend party. And they drive movements.
Deeply embedded into each of those stories are layers of emotion, identity, and a sense of self. It’s the stories that motivate us, which is why it’s always stories that drive movements.
Nobody ever got up off their couch and ran into the streets, particularly into a line of police or jeering militia thugs, because they were excited by a policy proposal offered in a boring floor speech read in a droning voice by the Senate Majority Leader.
Movement leaders know how to tell these stories to rouse people’s emotions and motivate them to action. It’s one of the keys to creating and sustaining movements.
From JFK calling a “new generation” to action, to MLK proclaiming a “promised land,” to Donald Trump saying “I am your vengeance,” movement leaders reach deep into the stories that underpin our sense of who we are and our understanding of how we got into the messes we confront.
They are usually driven by a deep longing for change, and often animated by wounds, unfairness, and grievance as much as idealism, hope, and a desire to embrace others. Witness the Act Up movement demanding action about AIDS during the Reagan administration when that homophobic monster refused to say the word “AIDS” out loud for eight long years, much less do anything about it as so many people (including three very close friends of mine) died an agonizing death.
Read the history of the labor rights movement, from the slaughters of the late 19th century to the Flint Sit-Down Strike to Shawn Fain’s brilliant leadership of the UAW today. It has waxed and waned for almost two centuries; it’s reviving itself as a movement again right now (and Fain has the talent to become a major force).
Movements can come out of pain, but they can also come out of hope. The belief that a pluralistic, multiracial society free of poverty was possible in America was, for example, the initial motivation and mission of SDS: that was the essence of Hayden’s Port Huron Statement. Its anti-war activity came later.
This movement requirement for narrative, for deep story that transcends mere details and summarizes entire complex issues into a single crystalized legend, is why movements so often have not just leaders but also martyrs. They are the yin to the yang of leadership and heroes, and for a movement to be successful both are often useful or even necessary.
Sometimes the leader and the martyr are the same; the persecution of Malcolm X, for example, or the repeated jailing of Martin Luther King. Hitler played that role when he went to prison in the 1920s for trying to overthrow the government of Bavaria; Trump plays it today with his candidacy for president overlaid by his victim routine about his 91 indictments and the daily drama of his legal travails.
The Civil Rights movement had Emmett Till and Rosa Parks, with other famous names in its deeper history. The women’s movement had Susan B. Anthony, who was arrested for voting-while-female in 1872 and thus became both the movement’s martyr and leader.
Hitler’s movement held up Horst Wessel, who was killed in his violent street-gang Sturmabteilung volunteer militia that was often, initially, met with violence by police and anti-Nazi mobs.
FDR had a generation of martyrs destroyed by the Republican Great Depression and brought to popular consciousness by John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie.
LBJ used the memory of the death of JFK to push through the Civil and Voting Rights Acts, and then he and RFK pointed to martyrs in the poverty-wracked South and a retiring WWII generation who couldn’t get health insurance in old age to build a movement for his Great Society programs of Medicare and Medicaid.
Tim McVeigh, who aspired to kick off a “new [white nationalist] America” movement blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building on the anniversary of the death of white supremacist David Koresh and in the memory of white nationalist Randy Weaver, leading Trump, today having seized the mantle of leadership of Koresh’s and McVeigh’s movement, to give his first speech as a 2024 presidential candidate in Waco.
Trump regularly honors Ashli Babbit (and trots out her mother), killed by a Black Capitol Police officer during January 6th, along with the imprisoned January 6th insurrectionists (and their chorus) the way Hitler did with Wessel and his early Munich brawlers who’d been arrested or killed. He mentions Babbit and sings along with a recording of the imprisoned traitors at nearly every rally.
Trump’s movement also has multiple spin-off but aligned astroturf movements, many funded to the tune of millions by oil, tobacco, pharma, banking, tech, and other industry billionaires.
For example, the Tea Party—funded by those billionaires—was successful in driving a nationwide movement to stop a national healthcare program and guarantee that Obamacare ran exclusively through the highly profitable insurance industry.
Moms for Liberty has chapters all across America and delights in harassing teachers and school boards while promoting the banning of books (except about threesomes?).
Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA has over 300 chapters on campuses across America and sponsors conferences around the country; their stated purpose includes “to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote the principles of freedom…” Not a word in there about policy or even politics, although they’re having a huge impact on both.
There’s an entire infrastructure—capitalized to the tune of billions of dollars a year—that supports the white nationalist, low-tax, small-government, anti-union, anti-woman, pro-fossil-fuel, anti-public-school movements and all their branches and offshoots that Trump successfully captured and now leads.
It has over 1500 radio stations blaring hate and fear 24/7; three national television networks daily promoting propaganda friendly to their billionaire owners; newspapers, websites, and appears to even be embraced by the billionaire owners of America’s largest social media companies who refuse to make public their algorithms that drive public opinion and, often, public outrage.
It pays for the political campaigns of politicians who support it, funds outsiders like Manchin and Sinema who will betray and disrupt its enemies, and ensures total loyalty to the movement and its leader Trump with the promise of funding primary challengers against anybody who deviates even the slightest from its orthodoxy.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has none of this.
Its three most visible movement leaders of my lifetime, JFK, RFK, and MLK, were all murdered in the 1960s. SDS died in the 1970s when its violent offshoot, the Weather Underground, was finally brought down. The Civil Rights movement endures but never recaptured its vitality after the brutal murder of King.
When Bernie took up the progressive movement’s mantle in 2012 and 2016, he was opposed by the institutional Democratic Party in ways that leave his supporters bitter to this day and led former DNC Chair Donna Brazile to pen an apology to him in her autobiography and on multiple TV appearances.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the “Squad” had their moment in the sun, but haven’t caught on as national movement leaders; similarly, the short-lived Black Lives Matter movement caught fire after the murder of George Floyd but has now devolved into internecine warfare.
Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi did yeoman’s work overhauling the American economy and getting America back on track after the disastrous Trump years, but neither has the charisma (or youth or drivenness) to lead a new progressive movement.
Gavin Newsom is a fresh new face for much of America, and certainly mopped the floor with Ron DeSantis in a recent Fox “News” debate, but he’s yet to take the steps—and the chances/sacrifices—that could catapult him from politician to movement leader.
And it’s that risk-taking that almost always characterizes the difference between mere politicians and leaders of movements.
Politicians play within the system; movement leaders aren’t afraid to offend or even injure the system if it will advance the movement. Politicians follow the rules; movement leaders often intentionally break them, if for no other reason than to demonstrate the need for their reform.
Movement leaders—like true movements themselves—are disruptive. They lay down in the street, stand before lines of police, let themselves get beaten and arrested for a greater cause. They sacrifice.
The successful ones are almost always talented in the arts of mass communication, in public speaking, in organizing political and guerrilla theater.
For better or worse, from Gandhi to Trump, John Lewis to David Duke and Alex Jones, Gloria Steinem to Nick Fuentes, movement leaders defy the status quo and gain an almost mythic stature and power from the audaciousness of their insurgencies.
Heading into the 2024 election, Democrats are facing a massive, multi-faceted movement driving Trump’s faction, held together by white supremacy, authoritarianism, hate, and fear of the “other.” In response, Democrats are holding up their considerable accomplishments, but have yet to activate or find their own grass-roots movement in response.
The craving for movement and movement leadership on the left is palpable: look at how the country rallied around the Tennessee Three, for example. But their local activism hasn’t succeeded in going national and has only occasionally—and then with minimal national press—been replicated in state houses across the nation.
Similarly, the Occupy Movement had a powerful moment, until it was co-opted by a New York Maoist cult leader and collapsed.
There’s still a dramatic imbalance between the massive, organized, and well-funded “anti-woke” movement driving the politics of the right, and the scattershot state-by-state efforts at reform and to salvage democracy on the left.
The closest to movement politics we have at the moment are the millions of American women (and their male allies) who want control of their bodies and are outraged at GOP attempts to return them to the status of men’s servants and playthings, from the boardroom to the bedroom.
That movement is beginning to find its voice and even has a current martyr in Texas’ Kate Cox, the woman who the men running Texas threatened to force a doomed pregnancy to term at the risk of her own life.
Will it become organized and national? Will a charismatic leader emerge or step forward to carry the women’s rights banner?
The other issue that President Biden keeps trying to evoke movement politics around—so far with only lip service from the press—is the attempt to rescue American freedom and democracy from both the corruption of six billionaire-owned Republicans on the Supreme Court and a fascist demagogue who promises to become a dictator from “day one.”
A movement for democracy
(Anand Giridharadas, one of America’s most thoughtful commentators, recently had a discussion about this very topic with Joe Scarborough that’s well worth viewing.)
The power of the freedom meme is so great that fossil fuel billionaires have hijacked it for decades, smearing the words “freedom” and “liberty” all over everything they do. It resonates deeply in the American psyche.
Will a progressive democracy movement leader emerge to take on the growing forces of fascism represented by the Trump and Qanon cults—and the handful of third-party wannabee movement leaders—in America?
Are there people with talent and charisma willing to risk the fate of JFK and MLK to take head-on the armed militias and algorithm-fueled haters who’ve sworn their lives and allegiance to Trump and his ideal of a Christian-only white supremacist nation?
And, if one or more does, will the institutional Democratic Party treat them as a threat, the way they did Bernie and Howard Dean before him? Or will they recognize that the only way to defeat a movement like Trump now commands is with another movement of equal passion and fervor—and to get behind it, collaborate, and use its force and energy to change policy and politics, the way LBJ did when he saw that MLK would never give up?
As Jen Psaki said on Morning Joe this morning about the great recent economic news:
“Data doesn’t move people, emotions do.”
She noted that its “never about the data” and the Democratic Party needs storytellers to convert Biden’s great economic data into narratives about “how this impacts you and your family.”
Similarly, should a movement and movement leadership emerge in the next few months that could inspire Bernie-like enthusiasm to drive millions to the polls, will the handful of billionaires associated with the Democratic Party, and the consultants who make their living on fees from conventional advertising, dismiss it the way they did Bernie, BLM, the Sunrise Movement, and the Occupy Movement?
Or have they finally learned their lesson and will thus embrace movement politics the way their rightwing peers did with the Tea Party, Trump in 2016, and continue to do today with all the spinoff “anti-woke” movements they fund?
The answer to that question may well determine the future of democracy in both our republic and around the world.
Thom Hartmann, one of America’s leading public intellectuals and the country’s #1 progressive talk show host, writes fresh content six days a week. The Monday-Friday “Daily Take” articles are free to all, while paid subscribers receive a Saturday summary of the week’s news and, on Sunday, a chapter excerpt from one of his books.