Echoes of Debs in Trump and Sanders campaigns

June 1, 2016 – Philadelphia Inquirer

In 1917, Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, spoke to a group of workers in Canton, Ohio. When we studied this speech, the students in my American history class were surprised by the parallels to the current presidential primaries.

Debs had no patience for Republicans or Democrats, whom he saw as “the political twins of the master class.” Presidential contenders Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seem to be tapping into a similar strain of antiestablishment anger.

When President Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat, asked Congress to declare war against Germany to “make the world safe for democracy,” Debs wondered why America’s industrial laborers should spill their blood on the battlefields of France when they enjoyed none of benefits of democracy at home.

He also had harsh words for Teddy Roosevelt, the Republican former president. Debs reminded his listeners that only a few years earlier, Roosevelt had visited Germany and been “wined and dined” by the kaiser, the same person the press now dubbed the “Beast of Berlin.” “According to accounts published in the American newspapers,” Roosevelt and the kaiser were “on the most familiar terms,” Debs said. “They were hilariously intimate with each other and slapped each other on the back.” And now, he continued, “they brand us as disloyalists and traitors.”

Like Debs, Trump and Sanders both rail about the failures of Republican and Democratic political leadership. Trump knows his appeal has little to do with his Republican Party affiliation, and Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist.

Trump has also battled with the media throughout his campaign. Sounding the same notes, Debs described “what a capacity [the press] had for lying.” We “were not born yesterday,” he said, and the workers knew enough “to believe exactly the opposite of what they read” in the newspapers.

Sanders has described “the business model of Wall Street” as “fraud” and said, “these guys drove us into the worst economic downturn in the modern history of America.” Debs blasted the “Wall Street gentry” who “have wrung their countless millions from your sweat, your agony, and your life’s blood.”

But the differences are important too. Most of those to whom Debs was speaking were poor, immigrant laborers. Debs strongly encouraged them to make common cause with their counterparts in Europe and around the world. Trump’s backers are often nativists, imagining that their problems can be solved by keeping Mexicans, Muslims, and others out of the country. Sanders, like Trump, is a vocal critic of free trade. The younger, college-educated voters who back him may not support building a wall along our southern border, but they also don’t particularly identify with the people it would be designed to keep out, or with the millions of them already living in the United States.

Fractures of the sort we are witnessing today within the Democratic and Republican Parties do not pose a major problem for the leadership. The “political twins of the master class,” as Debs described them, will survive the current election cycle, as long as “the people” remain divided. That is the lesson Debs has to offer.

Through the tumultuous century since his speech to workers at Canton, the two major parties have retained control of the political system. Far from being on the verge of collapse, they may well share power for the next hundred years.

5 thoughts on “Echoes of Debs in Trump and Sanders campaigns

  1. Your column in today’s Inquirer appeared to be an exercise in absurdity. Comparing Eugene Debs to either Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders is like mixing fire with water. For your information, Donald Trump is a capitalist and Debs was a socialist who embraced the Russian Revolution. While Bernie Sanders argues that he will tax the rich, he has made a career of supporting capitalist politics.
    What you clearly do not understand about Debs is that he dedicated his life to put in place a workers government that favored human needs over profits. He understood clearly that capitalism can not be reformed.
    You argued that this system will last for another 100 years. What are you talking about? This means that the 40% of the world’s population that lives on $2 per day or less will experience a dramatic deterioration in their living standards. This will also mean that when the capitalist system collapses, as it almost did in 2008, we will find a way to exist after the banks close their doors.
    If you do a bit more reading of Gene Debs, you might learn something.

    • I couldn’t agree with you more about Debs’ dedication to the cause. He was the real thing. And you’re right about mixing fire and water. Debs would probably have been horrified to be compared to either Trump or Sanders.
      On the other hand, my students were surprised to see how many things said by both Trump and Sanders today also appeared in Debs 1917 speech.
      I think it helped them see that popular anger and frustration with the leadership of both the major parties and with the main stream press and with Wall Street is not a new phenomenon.
      I am not arguing that it would be a good thing for the “political twins of the master class” to survive another 100 years. I was just noticing that they have survived the challenges of the last hundred and that they seem willing to fight to maintain their hold. Debs certainly knew about that. They jailed him for giving the 1917 speech in Canton Ohio.
      Thanks again. If you don’t mind, I’d like to use your note on my students’ upcoming final exam. I will give each of them a chance to reflect on your observations and write a response.

      • No problem using my note. I’ll send you a poem I wrote about the life of Debs.

  2. We met some time back (I think when Dan Biddle spoke on his book at FCS). I’m an alum of FCS, class of ’72 and I’m a supporter of the Socialist Workers Party campaign, living here in Philly and active in the United Steelworkers (I work at the PES refinery).
    It occurred to me after reading your “Debs” article in the Inquirer you might be interested in tonight’s meeting [of Socialist party candidates], and I apologize for delaying in getting this to you.

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