Talking socialism in “Trump country”

March 16, 2018

Pranav Jani, an associate professor at Ohio State University, who comes from a family of teachers, tells what he learned in the hallways of the West Virginia Capitol building.


The striking West Virginia high school librarian mouthed the word soundlessly when I told her about my political views, as we stood in a corridor of the State Capitol building in Charleston.

I smiled and expected some pushback, despite the friendly conversation we'd had up to that point.

I was in "Trump country" after all. Not a stretch to expect that this white, working-class woman in her 50s or 60s might have some doubts about talking to a socialist. And a socialist of color, at that.

Instead, she said: "See? I said the word, and I didn't explode."

It was the reaction of someone who was curious about socialism, despite being exposed to the right wing's propaganda against anything on the left--of someone who nevertheless wanted to know what the fuss about that particular forbidden fruit was really about.

I had met the librarian, who asked that we not use her name, some 10 or 15 minutes before. An all-out celebration was going on in the halls of the Capitol building after it was confirmed that West Virginia's teachers, librarians, cooks, bus drivers and other education workers had won an incredible victory--by standing united and defiant until the state government relented and passed the wage increase they wanted.

Striking teachers celebrate after the announcement of a victory in West Virginia
Striking teachers celebrate after the announcement of a victory in West Virginia

The librarian and a group of four or five co-workers had taken a break to catch their breath, and we struck up a conversation. We talked about how exhilarated they were to win. How exhausted, too, and how eager to see their students again.

They marveled that I had come in from Columbus, Ohio, to support them, and that the strike was so important to people outside the state--while I tried to explain why it was a privilege to witness workers in motion, using their collective strength to stare down a state governor and legislature.

We all took photos together, and laughed, and savored the moment of victory.

When I said I was part of a socialist organization, and pointed to my other comrades who had come from states even further away than Ohio, the others were just as surprised, but still talkative and friendly. Clearly, though, the librarian was interested on a whole different level.

The introduction of socialism--as part of an organic dialogue among individuals, not parachuted in from above--allowed our discussion to expand from the strike itself to the political implications of the walkout, as well as the context in which it took place.

THE LIBRARIAN told me she had "an epiphany" about four years ago, after decades of being a Republican, watching Fox News all the time, and believing its right-wing ideology.

She called Fox News "one of the most damaging thing that's happened to us. I quit watching the news, quit watching television totally...When I emerged out of that and got out from under the brainwashing from Fox News, it was like a light bulb went off. And I started paying attention."

Wasn't it too much to say "brainwashing," I asked? People never completely swallow and accept what the media says, do they?

But the librarian had thought about this a lot and wanted me to understand the complete saturation of the region with Fox News, inside and outside the home. "Around here," she explained, "it's on every television in every hospital and doctors' office and Wal-Mart. Everywhere."

I think the importance she gave to the power of ideas and the need for alternative ways of viewing the world was behind her interest in getting a copy of Socialist Worker.

But as soon as she took the paper, the librarian told me she would have to put it away, so her husband didn't see it. A Trump supporter who was moving further to the right, she thought he would be livid at seeing a socialist newspaper.

The librarian wasn't the only woman striker to talk to me, get a copy of Socialist Worker, but not want to be interviewed because of concern about husbands and neighbors.

In some cases, these family and community members held onto their right-wing ideas, but supported the strike at the same time. In others, the strike caused strains at home. One person told me her decades-long marriage was on the rocks because of the strike: She was moving further and further left, while her husband was zooming to the right.

It's been widely reported that the West Virginia school strike was 75 percent women. For good reason, we have celebrated the militancy of women workers, coming just a few days before International Women's Day, as a key part of the militancy in "Trump country."

But some of those conversations with women workers gave me a further glimpse into the difficulties they had to face in becoming rank-and-file militants and the heavy personal costs they were willing to bear for the sake of the struggle.

I ASKED the librarian about her political epiphany, and how it came about since she was presumably surrounded by people continued to believe Fox News and conservative ideas. She went right ahead and shattered some more stereotypes about West Virginia:

What really solidified it for me was that my neighbor is gay. And when I watched the Republicans nationwide and on a local level try to take rights from him, I said that I can't follow a party anymore that says he doesn't deserve the same rights that I have. That changed me.

From then on, it was just like a snowball. You start looking around you and seeing that there's so many people who need the protection of the Constitution--and I just don't feel like the Republican Party was for that.

That was the spark. Defending someone from her community led the librarian to rethink her worldview.

Given our friendly rapport, I probed a little bit more to ask about her views on race. I wondered whether, four years ago, before her epiphany, she would have been able to have such a conversation with a Brown socialist like me.

She wanted to say very clearly that she had never been racist in terms of discriminating against individuals. But when she described her changed opinions from four years ago, it revealed how turning away from the ideas of Fox News and the Republicans had been a rejection of racism at a deeper level.

I bought the whole spiel of the Republicans throughout--you know, "You cut taxes and it trickles down" or "Immigrants are what's doing all the damage." But immigrants don't have the power to do the damage they say they're doing. The people who have the power are right here in these two houses of the legislature, and in Washington."

What an indictment of both the racist, divide-and-conquer tactics of anti-immigrant rhetoric--and the powerful political leaders who are the real culprits in damaging workers' lives.

I DON'T doubt, as she repeatedly told me, that the librarian is further to the left than many of the strikers. But there were plenty of others who broke the stereotypes that so many people, even on the left, have had about West Virginia.

Christian, a big white guy who I might instinctively avoid anywhere these days except on a picket line, told me he was on strike because he wanted to be part of West Virginia's rich history of workers' struggle. "West Virginia is once again the cradle of the modern labor movement," he told me.

"I only make about $34,000 a year," he said. "The promises have been piling up, and they haven't been delivered. And people are just tired of it."

Christian's understanding of his work as a public school teacher in the midst of a social crisis is typical around the country. "Some of these kids where I live don't have father figures," he said. "Not only are we teachers, we're role models, we're big brothers, we're father figures, we're counselors. We're so much more than just teachers."

Among the teachers and librarians and school workers who went on strike are some, like Christian, who know they are drawing on a long history of workers struggle. And there are others, like the librarian, who have been rapidly rethinking their ideas about sexuality, immigration, gender, religion, media, politicians and what it would mean to have an alternative vision of the world.

Socialists, with our experience as organizers in many arenas of struggle and our knowledge of past struggles in the U.S. and around the world, can link arms with these different expressions of radicalization and, if possible, help to spread them.

We have to be confident in projecting socialism--not as an identity to simply declare, but as a set of ideas and practices that furthers struggle on the ground, in real life.

At the end of the day, we're not "creating" radicalism, but joining people who are forging their own path. In the process, we meet people and develop our own understanding of what it means to take a stand. As the librarian told me, laughing: "Heck, I'm a librarian, so we're already kind of radical anyway."

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