Historian and author Jeff Biggers: "Resistance is the quintessential American story"

Author and Salon contributor on Trump's "working-class" allure, Appalachia and the American tradition of resistance

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 17, 2018 7:00AM (EDT)


Donald Trump continues his assault on American democracy and the rule of law. By any reasonable standard, he is an illegitimate president.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, almost 13,000 immigrant, migrant or refugee children are being held in detention centers -- another name for concentration camps -- across the United States. The Republican Party continues to force widely unpopular policies on the American people. On a national level the country's elected officials are unresponsive to the demands of the average person and instead choose to follow the will of the 1 percent. Faith in America's political institutions has been steadily declining for decades.

Where are the mass protests? What has become of civil disobedience? Have the American people been fully cowed into a state of surrender to the plutocrats, right-wing zealots and other forces working against the common good? Has the much vaunted and discussed "Resistance" movement against Trump's presidency already fizzled out, overwhelmed by his unshakable base of support among his followers and the relative indifference of too many other Americans? Or will Trump and the Republicans' embrace of authoritarianism finally result in a peoples' backlash that can birth a new and more radically inclusive and democratic society?

In an effort to answer these admittedly enormous questions I recently spoke with historian and journalist Jeff Biggers. He is the author of numerous books, including the new "Resistance: Reclaiming an American Tradition," and is an occasional Salon contributor. He has also appeared as an expert commentator and guest on CNN, MSNBC, NPR, Democracy Now! and other media outlets.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Given Donald Trump and the Republican Party's undermining of American democracy, assault on the commons and efforts to destroy the social safety net, one would think there would be huge daily protests, civil disobedience and other types of mass opposition. Unfortunately, the American people seem to largely be asleep to the dangers posed by Trump and his right-wing movement. Have we already surrendered? 

There is a community out there which is in the streets and is doing work, not just in terms of electoral politics but in shaping the narrative. They are working to make sure that everybody has a voice beyond electoral politics. We are seeing both electoral politics as well as protest and civil disobedience.

I think the national media needs to focus on the protests and activists more. This is where there is a burden placed on independent journalists to show how there is another America which is organizing and getting ready for the future, and who are resisting Trump and what he represents right now.

This is a constitutional crisis and has been for some time. What does American history teach us about this moment and its antecedents?

What is happening right now with Trump and the right wing almost feels like going back to post-Reconstruction, where in the late 19th century there were robber barons. Now there are corporate entities who have taken control of the White House and are also plundering our natural resources and ultimately our civil rights.

Trump is calling the free press the "enemy of the people." This has led to violence and killings -- see what happened in [Annapolis] Maryland. That reminded me not of what Mussolini did but rather our own American experience in 1798, with President John Adams.

In 1798 the Sedition Act was passed, which went straight after the very journalists who were criticizing him. Adams couldn't tolerate dissent. To print, write or publish anything against the president or Congress was against the law. Adams started to put people in jail all over the country.

The good news is, journalists just didn't report the story or step aside. They led the resistance. Ultimately, we throw out Adams in the election of 1800, and the journalists win. It was Jefferson who said [a paraphrase], “If it hadn't been for the journalists taking this lead, we would have had a rapid march to monarchy."

Looking at Trump and all that he represents in the present, we cannot overlook or forget how we've gone through similar dark periods in history. My role as a cultural historian is to explain how we can learn from the past and resist today. I’m optimistic. But at the same time I feel like we have to reclaim this kind of tradition of resistance if we are going to survive today with Trump.

What is new and what is old about Trumpism?

I think what is new is the almost irreversible destruction Trump is doing to the environment. His daily tweets and all the other "Circus Maximus" aspects of Trump's presidency distract us from how 76 major environmental regulations have been reversed. As someone who followed the coal industry for decades, I can see that impact directly both in terms of a major rollback of the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. We have a major spike right now in terms of black lung disease among miners. There is also global warming, climate change and record temperatures.

I call it the Circus Maximus, but at the same time the stakes are so much higher because he's leading us to the abyss with the future of the planet.

The Gilded Age of the 1880s and the 1890s was an incredible period of expansion and plunder. Who ultimately paid the price? Laborers. The working class. Poor people. We saw this in the factories and in the fields. At present there are incredible shock waves bombarding the working class. Wages and living standards are going down. Safety regulations are being rolled back. There is a regression back to an earlier period. We have to understand and grapple with what is really happening to this country.

Trump has ripped the bandage off many of the wounds afflicting American society, and by doing so made the wounds much deeper.

What are some other parallels we can draw between the Gilded Age and Trump, the Republican Party and the broader right-wing assault on the environment right now?

What followed the Gilded Age? It was the birth of the progressive ra. It was the birth of John Dewey taking on the education system. It was Ida B. Wells, the wonderful African-American journalist, taking on lynching and the lack of civil rights and the role of women. Of course there was the rise of women in the suffrage movement. It was the birth of a major revamping of the union movement. Most importantly, it was the birth of muckrakers and truth-tellers and storytellers who came to the fore.

People like Upton Sinclair, for example, began to take on corporations and the harm they were doing to society. The incredible tradition we had that came out of the Gilded Age gives me a sense of optimism. When we as a country and a people go into these dark times we also have had this kind of incredible response.

I think your question about the commons is very important. In fact, what I define as part of resistance is not simply a protest or electoral politics, but really seeing how resistance is oriented towards reclaiming the public commons and giving a voice to the people -- especially those who are otherwise marginalized.

The resistance to Trump will not spring out of the ether. There are activists and other organizers who have been resisting and fighting for a more humane and just society for decades. How do we locate resistance in this moment relative to an older American tradition?

I call it the "long arc" or "the great continuum of cultural resistance." We tend to forget that the first Declaration of Independence was not in Philadelphia but in fact it was the district of Washington in 1772, on the border of North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. In fact, the shock troops of the anti-slavery movement came out of Appalachia.

Appalachia had more anti-slavery societies than Philadelphia or Boston. The labor movement was not just coal miners, but young women in the 1920s organizing the cotton mills. In fact, the shock troops of the civil rights movement came out of eastern Tennessee and a place called the Highlander Folk School. Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were trained there.

Today, I look at Appalachia not as Trump country, but as a place that is once again in flux and that's trying to reclaim its own traditions. You see that in West Virginia, a place that ultimately feels betrayed by every side. You have the coal industry, which has left the area absolutely in ruins. You have little movements of people who are trying to reclaim their area, not only on a political level but also in terms of a local economy.

You see cities of resistance in Appalachia. You also see it in the Rust Belt. A few weeks ago I was in Gary, Indiana, a place often written off as some type of abandoned wasteland. But in Gary there is a vibrant food movement. These people are taking over an abandoned loft and powering it with solar energy. There are chickens running around. People are really looking at the role of zero waste. This is also part of our resistance movement. It's beyond the bounds of electoral politics and protests. It's really working towards how people can reclaim their cities from the mayhem of the capitalist system.

There is this easy and lazy story for journalists and others about "red-state rural America.” But those parts of the country are not homogeneous socially, culturally, racially, ethnically or politically. There are black and brown folks in Appalachia for example. There are liberals and progressives and others fighting for a more humane society in Appalachia and other parts of America, parts of the country which  are usually caricatured as backwards and conservative. There is so much diversity there, but that's not the story in most of the news media or in the larger American imagination.

I completely agree. I live in Iowa, where in the suburbs they are 90 percent for Trump. How come we're not talking to the Trump people in the suburbs of Iowa, as opposed to once again going down to southern Illinois to find one "hillbilly" we can profile? Yes, it is such bad journalism, I call it "parachuting journalism," where people who don't understand the social, cultural and historical context of a region show up and try to report on it. It's actually hilarious in a dark way.

When my book came out on Appalachia many years ago I was supposed to come up in February and the folks who invited me called back and said, “Well, it's Black History Month. Maybe you should come up in April." I said, “Why can't I come up for Black History Month?” It made me laugh because Black History Month comes from Appalachia. It was a black historian, Carter Woodson, who was a coal miner in West Virginia, who eventually gets educated and then becomes a famous historian. He started Negro History Week -- which became Black History Month -- in West Virginia.

I think, even growing up in these regions, there is often this rewriting of history. It is revisionism where somehow we're racist rednecks which is not true. Our Baptist church was called Friends of Humanity, and it was an anti-slavery church. There's a much more complicated and complex question here about Trump Country and who his true supporters are, versus those people who may live in those areas but have different politics and want a better future -- and who don't support Trump.

This is especially true with what immigrants mean to Appalachia itself. In a lot of the industries, especially in terms of agriculture, there is an incredible connection to the community, where people are helping each other. There's not that kind of brutal vicious racism that is often assumed to exist by outsiders. Yes, it obviously exists, but in certain communities they're working very hard with immigrant communities as well. Once again it's how we include all the people in these stories.

Based on his comments and his background as a New York real estate tycoon, Donald Trump likely does not have much affinity for poor or working-class white people. He may actually despise them more than black and brown people, albeit in a different way and for different reasons. Why do those legendary "white working-class" folks support him?

I go to visit my cousins in Kentucky, who I love dearly. We share many similar aspirations. We share similar experiences with the coal industry, in terms of what it did to our family and our region and the fact that we all had to leave. At the same time, I'm walking into their house and there's Fox News on 24 hours a day. It's generating a certain narrative there that is incredibly insane and incredibly anti-intellectual. Then they go to an evangelical church that has suddenly become the target for the climate deniers, and so my relatives are returning from the churches with an incredible amount of misinformation and lies.

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These fountains of misinformation have absolutely targeted my people in Kentucky and across the nation. Many years ago, a book came out called "Climate Cover-Up," which showed how the very companies and marketing companies that were hired by Big Tobacco to deny the health impacts of tobacco have now been hired by the coal and oil companies to muddy up the climate debate.

Why did these people vote for Trump, completely against their interests? I think we've had this incredible campaign by the right-wing corporate news media, the Koch brothers, ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council] and other members of the right-wing coalition to manipulate many millions of Americans. The white evangelical churches have been targeted. And Donald Trump was able to use a certain language that was anti-intellectual, a kind of fake working-class language and identity to win the election.

Conservatives are masters of language. They have successfully rebranded the progressive movement, and of course "liberals" and "progressives" more generally, as being "un-American" if not treasonous. How did this happen?

Progressives have been made into villains as somehow being anti-American. And apparently Donald Trump wants to "make America great again." I'm thinking, wait a minute, the fundamental credo of our country is that it is a patriotic duty to resist duplicitous authority when it attacks our civil rights. It's fundamentally patriotic to dissent, to resist. This is what we saw immediately after the American Revolution, when revolutionary soldiers in western Massachusetts began to attack the first government saying, “Hey, why are you giving all these tax cuts to the wealthy on the coast and not the farmers?”

Resistance is a quintessential American story. It is the Resistance which has given a backbone to and built this country, not Donald Trump and his Gilded Age allies.

What practical advice do you have, especially for young Americans, about resistance and hope in troubled times? 

Young people know what to do. We had just had the victory in the Bronx with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Young people were very inspired by that.

You get into the streets. We agitate. Some of us may actually have to use civil disobedience to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery and the chain of events to stop what's happening. I think we have people who are realizing that as European-Americans we have to be engaged with the struggle for black and brown people's equal human rights.

We have to make these alliances and connections, just as my people did with the civil rights movement in the South and with the anti-slavery movement in Appalachia. We have to realize that we're all in it together. There's so much happening in so many different ways, and I think the idea is not to be overwhelmed by the enormity but to joyously go into the fold to realize there's so much we can do on so many different levels.

I see it today as an opportunity for the future. For me, that is the meaning of what resistance truly is. Resistance is an act of renewal. Thomas Paine said, “We have it in our power to reinvent the world,” and I see that as fundamentally what resistance is.

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By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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