A Future to Fight For: A Conversation with Frederick Douglass in the Shadow of Trump

                                                                                FD with BLM copy

The electoral earthquake of 2016 continues to reverberate through the political bedrock of the US and the world. As with any geophysical earthquake, it announces the release of tectonic pressures long building up on the fault lines of our social world. Those who study earthquakes pay attention to these forces. We can never predict exactly when or how they will break loose but we can know with certainty that they will. The emergence of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as political lightning rods was not pre-ordained. The confluence of social disappointment, economic desperation and imperial decline, however, were destined to erupt in one form or another.

When faced with a new – or a suddenly intensified – threat, two inescapable questions jump to mind: in what ways is this similar to past experiences? and, how is it different? Our answer to these questions will give rise to our tactical, strategic and emotional responses.

I have invited an old mentor to help sort it out. Frederick Douglass – the most influential blogger of the nineteenth century – impacted the course of history by illuminating the opportunities and dangers of an earlier time of seismic change. His unflinching observations about the forces in play can serve us by example. “Self-deception,” he noted wryly, “is a chronic disease of the American mind and character.” i 1 The rise of Trump can be said to be the product of this disease on multiple levels. Douglas also helps us by shedding light on the roots of the cultural/political tree in whose shadow we still live.

For the elites of the time, the Civil War was a conflict within a consensus. It pitted the southern plantation aristocracy against northern commercial interests over which model of plunder would prevail in the western lands which both factions agreed must be stolen from Indigenous nations. The criminality of the slave economy was of secondary concern for the North. Liberal Republicans like Lincoln argued that slavery, confined to its southern heartland, would sputter out after a few generations, and that was good enough for them as long as it preserved the union. As Douglass put it, “The South was fighting to take slavery out of the Union, and the North fighting to keep it in the Union.” 2

In Douglass’ view, the unending deference of northern liberals set the stage for southern ascendancy. Their insatiable eagerness to “reach across the isle” (as we say today) produced a vortex of appeasement, given that the North was always ready to make concessions and the South unwilling to make any. “Under this so called practical wisdom and statesmanship, we have had sixty years of compromising servility on the part of the North to the slave power of the South.” This encouraged the southern aristocrats to become “more and more exacting, unreasonable, arrogant and domineering.” 3

This is a familiar script. The right sets the framing for public discourse on any issue and the liberals scramble to adjust their language and policy positions accordingly. Democratic politics ends up, to a large extent, echoing Republican positions of ten years prior. To Democrats “bipartisanship” is a badge of maturity while Republicans view it with contempt.

The conflict between Union and Confederacy was echoed in northern politics. The Democratic Party of that time favored accommodating the slave aristocracy at every turn while the Republicans were its tepid opponents. Douglass’ assessment is unsparing:

“We have spoken of the existence of powerful reactionary forces arrayed against us, and of the objects to which they tend.What are these mighty forces? and through what agencies do they operate and reach us? They are many; but we shall detain by no tedious enumeration. The first and most powerful is slavery; and the second, which may be said to be the shadow of slavery, is prejudice against men on account of their color. The one controls the South, and the other controls the North.

The agents of these two evil influences are various; but the chief are, first, the Democratic party and the second, the Republican party. The Democratic party belongs to slavery; and the Republican party is largely under the power of prejudice against color. While gratefully recognizing a vast difference in our favor in the character and composition of the Republican party, and regarding the accession to power of the Democratic party as the heaviest calamity that could befall us in the present conjuncture of affairs, it cannot be disguised, that, while that party is our bitterest enemy, and is positively and actively reactionary, the Republican party is negatively and passively so in its tendency.” 4

A hundred years later the parties would switch their roles while leaving the roles themselves intact. The Republicans became the sanctuary for segregationists – “positively and actively reactionary” – while the Democrats sought to absorb the growing black rebellion with greater access to resources and opportunities. For the next decade the two parties offered competing strategies to the corporate class based on which mix of concession and repression would most effectively keep poor, dark and working people under control and provide the most stable platform for global expansion.

Its withdrawal from Southeast Asia marked the beginning of US decline as the dominant world power. Stagnating profits, eroding global authority and the collapse of its Soviet rival led the elite to embrace neo-liberalism: full-scale war against all obstacles to profit – imposing austerity, rolling back the social wage, upending the tax code, overturning regulations and privatizing everything with a name. Wasting resources on the poor no longer fit the plan. In order to retain their corporate sponsorship the Democrats had to out-compete their rivals on policies impacting the profits of the one percent while offering symbolic gestures, minor concessions and pretty language to dark and poor people.

The economic and emotional devastation wreaked on poor, working class and formerly middle class populations led to disaffection on a scale the oligarchy was too out of touch to comprehend. Sanders and Trump provided channels for this frustration, both of them identifying the elite as the source of people’s suffering. Trump – the only rebel left standing once Sanders was sidelined – tapped deep reservoirs of white racism, denouncing the elite for colluding with marginalized populations to rig the system against hardworking whites.

The corporate class did not wish Trump into being. It was happily united around its blueprint for a weaponized global trade regime (epitomized by the Trans Pacific Partnership) capable of overriding national governments and rolling back popular gains. It remains stunned by Trump’s reckless disregard for the protocols of trade and diplomacy but mesmerized by his promise of total elimination of regulations and worker rights. A powerful sector of the elite seems intent on weakening Trump enough to either get rid of him (while keeping his corporate-dominated administration in place) or at least forcing him to heel. It is telling that the CIA – which is leading the charge – has been careful to utilize the elite-friendly issue of Russian meddling, not his racism, misogyny, environmental threat or class plunder. Their sights are set on establishing a modified version of the recent past as a platform for reasserting global dominance.

This calls a question which the opposition as a whole has yet to name but which will determine its historical significance: are we fighting to go forward or to go back? Douglass insisted on forcing the issue. “Men talk about saving the Union, and restoring the Union as it was.” He fumed. “They delude themselves with the miserable idea that the old Union can be brought to life again.” 5

The political debate has largely been over which version of the past to resuscitate. Trump invokes the Jim Crow ideal of white nationhood. Clinton upheld a downsized model of the “American Dream.” Even Our Revolution, the post-election vehicle for the Sanders rebellion, declares as its mission to “reclaim democracy for the working people of our country.” and “make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.” (italics mine) A clearer appeal to white nostalgia would be difficult to devise.

Douglass did not share the nostalgia of either the Confederate or Union flavors. His loyalty lay with people who could recall no golden age on US soil. He demanded instead “immediate, unconditional, and universal equality for black people. If this was not secured as the fruit of the conflict its promise would be snatched away by the the twin menace of southern reaction and northern prejudice. He described four scenarios by which US whites might betray black aspirations. The third of these was chillingly prescient: “…as another mode of escaping the claims of absolute justice, the white people may Emancipate the slaves in form yet retain them as slaves in fact… or then may free them from individual masters, only to make them slaves to the community. They can make of them a degraded caste. But this would be about the worst thing that could be done.” 6

This was, in fact, what was done. As Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, permitted the establishment of Confederate-dominated state governments throughout the south, a tidal wave of white-on-black violence enveloped the region. By the fall of 1865 the murder of blacks for not responding fast enough when spoken to, objecting to the beating of loved ones, daring “to tell that a thing wasn’t so when I said it was so,” 7 or simply for walking-while-emancipated, had become a routine occurrence. One Republican observer wrote that it was “a striking embodiment of the idea that although the former owner has lost his individual right of property in the former slave, the blacks at large belong to the whites at large.” 8 This would be the founding principle of the modern police system that was spreading across the country: to regulate whites as individual citizens and manage blacks as a subjugated mass.

Obama’s election sent a shock wave through the white supremacist bedrock. If a black man proved to be a competent administrator of the empire (which was all he aspired to) it would threaten the justifying narrative of white superiority, already battered by demographic changes and cultural drift. The Republican establishment decided to ensure his failure, in the process replanting the Confederate flag at center of the nation’s political life.

Thus we see echoes of the past in the turbulence of the present. True perspective requires us to see from both eyes, however, so we must also address the historical ruptures. Today’s crisis is like none that have come before in that it is actually three interlocked crises unfolding at three historical scales of organization. Most immediately we’re immersed in a national political crisis in the US – paralleled in other nations – expressed in the loss of legitimacy of the political elites and the desperation of the people for solutions. That crisis is nested within a geopolitical crisis of succession, as declining US dominance has set the stage for competing power centers to emerge. This drama, in turn, unfolds on the set of a global eco-systemic crisis, as capitalism’s imperative of endless growth is colliding decisively with the limits of ecological resilience. Powerful feedback pathways link these three levels of crisis and none can be resolved in isolation.

The global ecological crisis requires some explanation. Even the left, which acknowledges its severity in theory, has been unable to integrate this knowledge into a practical program to address it. The focus has been on stopping fossil fuel use in order to stem climate change without acknowledging the multiple pathways by which the engine of capitalist growth is driving ecological collapse.

The accumulating crises of public health and ecosystem collapse are predictable outcomes of a system that denies the reality of limits – economic or natural – in a universe that imposes them. One strain of environmentalism seeks to convince corporations that their long-term interests would be better served by stewardship of the Earth than by reckless extraction. This echoes the Garrisonian abolitionist strategy of “moral suasion” which sought to convince slaveholders that it would be in their spiritual interest to promote a freedom. Douglass’ abandonment of this fruitless approach provoked a bitter split in the abolitionist ranks.

Capitalist growth, from its inception, has come at the cost of ecological resilience. Each stage of expansion has triggered the decline of natural systems, including human bodies, bodies of water, soil and the atmosphere, as each in turn have been assigned new functions as profit centers, waste depositories or collateral damage. It would come to destabilize and degrade local ecosystems and regional ecological communities and threaten or wipe out thousands of individual species. It is now approaching its final threshold, imperiling the vital support systems – such as the ocean, deltas, forests, wetlands, mangroves, glaciers and soil – that regulate the planetary biosphere. As the locus of damage has shifted to a planetary scale,the managerial methods of the past no are longer effective: you can’t restore a depleted fishery if the ocean itself is sick.

The key to capitalism’s remarkable dynamism and inventiveness is also the key to its destructiveness: the separation of cleverness from wisdom. Freed from the constraints of wisdom – which stresses interconnectedness, cycles, complexity and limits – cleverness can race after short-term benefits, immediate gratification, and endless consumption with no worries about collateral damage or long-term consequences. According to capitalist theory any damage that results from this will be solved by new clever innovations. In fact, wisdom (thinking things through, taking interconnection into account) is seen – quite rightly – as the enemy of growth. The impossibility of solving problems in isolation, however, has even compelled institutional science – once the reliable servant of corporate interests – to turn to wisdom for answers. The legitimacy of science has therefore come under withering attack from the corporations political servants.

It is one of the strangest and most humiliating triumphs of human selfishness and prejudice over human reason,” says Douglass, “that it leads men to look upon emancipation as an experiment, instead of being, as it is, the natural order of human relations. Slavery, and not Freedom, is the experiment; and to witness its horrible failure we have to open our eyes not merely on the blasted soil of Virginia and other Slave States, but on a whole land brought to the verge of ruin.” 9

The “humiliating triumph of human selfishness” confronting us today is the fantastic belief that greed, intentional waste and endless growth will lead to a natural and healthy outcome. This is the “horrible failure” of our era that has brought an entire world “to the verge of ruin.” The idea of a world organized on such principles as generosity, solidarity and sustainability, meanwhile, is treated as too naive and immature to take seriously.

At the start of the war, Douglass was one of a few voices in the public arena calling not just for the end of slavery but for absolute equality. So deeply was slavery embedded in the body politic that abolition anytime soon was viewed by many as a pipe dream. It is instructive that to disseminate his radical vision Douglass thought it necessary establish his own media. His newspaper, the North Star, founded in 1847 (later renamed Frederick Douglass’ Monthly) kept up the drumbeat of radical emancipation until it indeed became a north star of the movement.

We are paying a heavy price for the abandonment of a north star vision by what became the non-profit left. In exchange for funding and safety this sector agreed to abandon the language of genuine alternative visioning and to fight instead for small gains and harm reduction. It should not surprise anybody that the cultural void this created would be filled by less timid forces.

As uncompromising as Douglass was in his analysis he was pragmatic as a tactician. He understood the necessity of making alliances across political difference, but not at the cost of diluting his vision. This should define our practice – once we have recovered our capacity to name and claim a vision. In the turbulent waters ahead we must fight to forestall a fascist consolidation, defend targeted communities and defend or restore many of the norms and protections – themselves the harvests of past struggles – that are under attack. But all these campaigns should be animated with the drumbeat of the new historical era crying out to be born – not a return to the abusive familiarity of neoliberal rule. A return to “the Union as it was” will only momentarily stave off the crisis and will inevitably raise its cost.

Any strategy to confront the immediate political and human rights challenges must address them in light of the three levels of crisis they represent – including the global crisis of nature. Taking a “we’ll-deal-with-that-later” approach has already brought us “to the verge of ruin” and must no longer be acceptable. Once we have settled Douglass’s challenge – are we fighting to go forward or back – the strategies and tactics that correspond to that historical choice will begin to suggest themselves. Frederick Douglass (as Trump has unwittingly acknowledged) has much to offer to that discussion as well. For now I would like to thank the brother for sharing his wisdom with us in this difficult moment. It is fitting he should have the final word:

We are not fighting for the dead past, but for the living present and the glorious future. We are not fighting for the old Union nor for anything like it, but for that which is ten thousand times more important…” 10





iAll quotes by Frederick Douglass are from The Life and Writtings of Frederick Douglass, Phillip S. Phoner, editor.

1 War and Slavery, Douglass’ Monthly. August, 1861 in The Life and Writtings of Frederick Douglass, Vol III, The Civil War. p126

2 What the Black Man Wants: speech at the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society at Boston

3 The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America. Speech delivered to the church of the Puritans, New York. May, 1863. Vol III, p349

4 Douglass’ Monthly. October, 1864

5 Our Work is Not Done. Speech delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society . Philadelphia, December, 1863. Vol III, p385

6 The Presnt and Future of the Colored Race in America. Speech delivered to the church of the Puritans, New York. May, 1863. Vol III, p350

7 Impeached: The Trial Of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. David O. Stewart p30

8 Impeached: The Trial Of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy. David O. Stewart p24

9 The Future of the Negro People of the Slave States. Speech delivered before the Emancipation League in Trmont Temple, Boston. February 1862, Vol III p 223

10 The Mission of the War. Address sponsored by the Women’s Loyal League, delivered in Cooper Institute, NYC, February, 1864

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