Who are the Republican Party’s organizers?

Graphic by Jake Slaughter
Graphic by Jake Slaughter

Sometime in 2020, I became an organizer. The word “organizer” is not a term I generally use to describe myself—I spend most of my productive life on my laptop, after all. Nevertheless, it is a word that I’ve increasingly come to hear around me, and even hear used to describe me. I’ve always wondered exactly what the word means, and at what point my friends and I can genuinely call ourselves organizers. But even as I am learning to better understand organizing as a practice, the discursive use of the term “organizer” continues to puzzle me. What does being an “organizer” mean? Who can be one? 

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In the wee hours of Election Night, as my friends and family in India awoke to see Trump and Biden neck-and-neck, I found myself peppered with questions from halfway across the world. “How could so many Americans be so foolish?” a colleague at an Indian news outlet asked me, his incredulity clear even over WhatsApp.

I had no answers, other than to acknowledge that the enormity of the figure was on my mind too. Amidst the fear, chaos and—eventually—relief that came with last week’s election, one number stood out: 70 million, the approximate number of votes that Donald Trump received in his bid for re-election. 

Among progressive organizers, that figure of 70 million has caused a great deal of consternation.  It has reminded us of the persistence of American racism, the violence our most vulnerable communities will continue to face, and the work that remains. It is in the context of that work that our frustration over the election results is particularly palpable: despite the vibrancy and energy (and desperation) with which progressives organized, the vote tally has made clear the extent to which racism, disinformation, and conservatism carry a pervasive resilience in this country. We framed the election as one between organizers, moderates and the far-right. In this contest, organizers fought the hardest, but we did not win.

Those statements are difficult to disagree with. In the face of existential challenges to America’s democracy, progressive organizers mobilized a record number of voters to deliver the election for Joe Biden, and to provide energy for a campaign that had seemed to lack it. Those are achievements we can celebrate, and that we must mobilize in our own internal conversations within the Democratic Party. But we have also framed these debates as conflicts between leftist organizers and the establishment, and between “organizing” and “politics.” Organizers, we tell ourselves, work internally, within our own communities, and retain an ethical commitment to the community’s needs. Establishment politicians, on the other hand, in the act of politics, too often betray the demands of these organizers. But these framings are not extended to the Republican Party—which, for all we know, might be facing similar tensions of its own.

To turn our focus inwards—towards our own successes, our own internal conflicts, or the ethical compromises we are willing or unwilling to make—is important and necessary. But turning inwards also runs the risk of blinding us to wider realities we must contend with. In framing the election as a contest between organizers, moderates and the far-right, we continue to fashion the term “organizer” as a category that we hold a monopoly over. We’ve all wondered how our vibrant and energetic mobilization against Trump could find its match in a party apparatus that claims no “organizers” of its own—and indeed, is keen to demonize them.

Seen from afar, the Republican Party appears to lack both organizers and organization, something visible in the questions my Indian friends and family asked me. For Indian observers, Trump’s continued popularity is puzzling—not merely because he’s racist and divisive, but because he appears incompetent. It is this incompetence that puzzles Indian onlookers, who see in Trump’s gaffes, bluster, and regular golfing trips a fascist, perhaps—but a clumsy one. These are errors that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the BJP, have been careful to avoid. The BJP’s media management machine possesses a degree of sophistication that would make Fortune 500 companies proud, working non-stop to build popular support for our own authoritarian, majoritarian leader. 

My own view of American politics has often been refracted by my positionality as an Indian, and our own experience of the far-right. It has often been tempting to find solace in the state of American affairs by looking home, and to comfort those around me by pointing out that things could be far worse. 

In India, far-right activists are diligent and visible, and not merely as violent mobs in their bastions. The BJP has proven able to wield a quite diverse coalition, fine-tuning their messaging to reach various corners of India’s electorate. This has even included a percentage of India’s Muslim and Dalit communities—the nation’s most explicit “others,” whose demonization undergirds Hindu nationalism. This messaging is often formulated and disseminated by the BJP’s infamous “IT cells,” which have allowed it to take control of the digital world in a country where almost every family now has a cellphone. 

Less immediately visible—but equally important—is the party’s legion of workers, often drawn from its parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS—which counts Modi and almost two-thirds of his cabinet among its members—is the largest volunteer organization in the world. Composed of an elaborate network organized into “shakhas” or branches, the RSS has worked with the explicit purpose of converting India into a Hindu “rashtra,” or nation. 

For almost a century, the RSS has been working behind the scenes of Indian politics, informed by the belief that the most lasting change in a society comes not from winning its elections but capturing its culture. But despite its hold over large parts of Indian society, Indian progressives continue to look at the RSS from the outside in. We see only its ideology, and miss the sophistication of its organization.

We face similar challenges in the United States. In looking at the Republican Party from afar, we are predisposed to see it purely in terms of its ideology, but never its organization. To do so is a comforting option—as I often have over these past four years in choosing to compare the Republican Party to its Indian far-right counterpart.

But progressives were never alone in organizing. Like the left, the far-right increased their turnout among their existing base, backed by the Trump campaign’s efforts to register voters among the white, blue-collar voters that they have increasingly made their own. But the far-right was also innovative, and flexible in their messaging, something that the President’s veneer of chaos has often concealed. The Republican Party succeeded in reaching a variety of non-white communities, including Hispanic voters; a variety of Asian voters, including Vietnamese-Americans and Indian-Americans; and even queer voters, over 28% of whom voted for Trump

Among Indian-Americans, the Republican Party went well beyond its now-mainstream strategies of racist dog-whistles, backed by the spread of misinformation on Facebook and Twitter. It also made deep inroads into ethnic media, including networks that stretched abroad. For example, my friends and I have noticed a flood of propaganda among Indian WhatsApp groups, who worked in sync with far-right Hindu Nationalist groups to convince sympathetic Indian-Americans that a vote for Trump was also a vote of loyalty to Modi. A similar degree of penetration was observed among Latino voters, particularly Cuban-Americans, whose votes in Miami-Dade county were critical in delivering Florida to Trump.

As we try to digest the presence of these 70 million votes for Trump, we must be wary of reducing them to the mere products of an ideology without everyday proponents, or to an unvariegated, homogenous mass of racist white voters. To do so is easy: in leaving out the nuances of Republican organizing—and, indeed, in refusing to recognize that the far-right does organize—we are able to tell more digestible stories about our own communities, and to ignore our own heterogeneity.

But as we write and share stories of the past few weeks, we must be wary of the desire to fashion our narratives into simple, bearable binaries. And in doing so, we must realize that fighting for the progressive values we believe in cannot merely be a battle of ideology, but also of organization. This begins when we acknowledge that the other side—if we choose to define it as such—has organizers, too.

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