Trump is a unifier for the left – but what matters is who leads

Protests against Trump's presidency brought the left together around the world. But who gets to decide where this movement goes next?

Gabriel Bristow Constance Laisné
23 January 2017

There is no silver lining when it comes to the election of Donald Trump. The violence of his speech — targeted at muslims, migrants, women, and disabled people, to name but a few — marks a fascist turn that must not be accepted as the new normal.

And yet, as the global counter-mobilisations surrounding Trump’s inauguration make clear, he could act as a powerful unifier for the left, both within countries and internationally. But the potency of such a renewed left will depend on two key factors.

First, it matters who is in the alliance and who is out. Many people are shocked and disturbed by the rise of Trump, stretching from the radical left all the way to the liberal centre and seeping into parts of neoliberal right. And that’s not to speak of the many people who wouldn’t fit neatly anywhere on this ideological spectrum but feel uneasy about Trump and his presidential campaign. Bringing together this broad opposition movement is necessary, inevitable, and to some extent desirable. But for this opposition to be effective and just, the line will have to be drawn somewhere: not everyone can be invited to the party.

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This tweet, in which the organisers of the Women’s March on London invite UKIP and the Conservatives to join the demonstration is a clear example of the line having been crossed. It is not simply ludicrous to invite parties that support or cooperate with Trump, it is an insult to those that are scapegoated by such increasingly far right parties. The UK opposition to Trump needs to work quickly to translate this opposition into a politics that confronts the British far right. This includes naming enemies this side of the pond — with May and Farage topping the list — and forming the broadest possible coalition against them.

This brings us to the second and more important factor that will largely determine the power of this new coalition: leadership. Again, the opposition to Trump and the British far right will be necessarily and desirably broad. What matters is which sections of this broad church take on leading roles — tactically and ideologically. We’re not talking here about electing a single leader, but rather about a diffuse leadership distributed between the groups, tendencies, or approaches which manage set the tone and direction of the movement.

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The Bridges Not Walls banner drops that rippled across the world on the morning of Trump’s inauguration are a case in point. This action was led and organised by an almost unprecedented array of groups, largely from the radical left. The giant banners that these groups made and dropped from London’s eight iconic bridges were bold in their politics: ‘NO SILENCE ON UK VIOLENCE #BLACKLIVESMATTER’, ‘QUEER SOLIDARITY SMASHES BORDERS’, ‘MIGRANTS WELCOME HERE’, ‘THERE IS NO PLANET B’, ‘STILL WE RISE’, amongst others. At the same time, the umbrella message of #bridgesnotwalls was open enough to attract hundreds of groups and individuals across the UK (from Coventry Cathedral to Penarth Under-5s Parent and Child Group), and indeed the world, to drop their own banners, often carrying more liberal, humanist messages: ‘LOVE TRUMPS HATE’, ‘HOPE! HOPE! HOPE!’, ‘IMAGINE’, etc. This is not to say that London took the lead, but rather that the radical left adopted a leading role in the opposition to Trump and brought the liberal and non-aligned left along with them. If most direct actions are like watching fireworks from a distance, Bridges Not Walls took the form of a succession of smoke signals sparked by a bonfire. It was radical direct action with popular appeal. And it is this kind of role — one of bold, inclusive leadership — that the radical left needs to aspire to if we are to defeat the far right.


Going back to the Women’s March on London, what was striking was the sheer plurality of the day. The messaging — emblazoned on an extraordinary number of inventive homemade placards — was diverse, bordering on diluted, yet cohered around a broad, but definite feminist politics. Despite the errors of the organisers (discussed above), the march itself felt characterised by distinct lack of leadership or ‘organised’ feminism. The usual Socialist Worker placards were reassuringly thin on the ground, the energy and faces were fresh, and the space felt wide open, echoing of the autonomy and horizontalism characteristic of the late twentieth century feminist movement. Again, to be sustained and built upon, this energy will have to be grounded in a feminist politics that confronts patriarchy and patriarchs this side of the pond. And again, it must be the radical feminists — socialist, intersectional, anti-neoliberal — that take on the role of bold, inclusive and charismatic leadership.

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This was a weekend full of hope. ‘What happens next is up to us’

(Photos, Bridges not Walls)

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