Can a Group of Scrappy Young Activists Build Real Progressive Power in Trump Country?

Can a Group of Scrappy Young Activists Build Real Progressive Power in Trump Country?

Can a Group of Scrappy Young Activists Build Real Progressive Power in Trump Country?

Through a mix of “inclusive populism” and nonstop organizing, Lancaster Stands Up is betting it can reclaim its corner of Pennsylvania.


In January 2016, after nearly a decade of living in liberal cities on both coasts, Becca Rast returned home. Intuition told the 28-year-old organizer that it was time to kick-start a political renaissance in the small Pennsylvania city where she grew up.

“I felt increasingly annoyed at the sentiment that the place that I was from would always be conservative,” Rast says of Lancaster, her hometown. “I wanted to help redefine what politics looked like there.”

So along with her husband, Jonathan Smucker, the progressive organizer and author, Rast packed her bags, traveled for days, and finally rejoined her family and friends in so-called fly-over country.

Lancaster is the name of both the county in which Rast and Smucker grew up and the city at its heart. The former is a collection of suburbs and agricultural settlements—most of them conservative and majority-white. The latter is a municipality of 60,000 people, a diverse Democratic hub whose population is nearly 40 percent Latino and 17 percent black. In the minds of pundits and pollsters, these two worlds are skew lines veering off in radically incompatible directions. But Rast and Smucker see kinship and commonality in these divergent spaces. Both have been ill-served by the status quo. And while the city, with its blue majority, makes for the more logical organizing ground, it is just a starting point for Rast and Smucker, a gateway to the rural America that liberals and leftists have largely abandoned.

“I am from a working-class, rural, conservative background, and people like me who get out of these communities tend to not go back,” says Smucker, a 40-year-old Mennonite who grew up outside Lancaster and is a veteran of Occupy Wall Street and other social movements. “But if you don’t show up to organize, somebody else will.”

In 2016, that somebody else was named Donald Trump. As Rast and Smucker were settling into their new life, Trump’s right-wing movement swept through the Pennsylvania heartland. He won Lancaster County in both the primary and general election, helping him clinch the Republican nomination and, later, the presidency.

For Rast and Smucker, the swift rise of Trump’s reactionary politics in their corner of the world was a frightening but urgent opportunity. They sensed that they were living in a “populist moment,” one in which a critical number of Americans no longer trusted key institutions, including the federal government, the financial system, and the mainstream media. Not unlike Trump, they understood that the political establishment was suffering a crisis of legitimacy, fueled by the lingering political effects of the 2008 recession, the Iraq War, the opioid epidemic, and other elite-engineered catastrophes. But unlike Trump, they wanted to use that crisis to organize their community in the pursuit of egalitarian and progressive ends.

In the days following the election, Rast and Smucker set to work. With a cohort of childhood friends and neighbors, the pair called an emergency mass meeting in Lancaster to prevent fear and hatred from taking root in the community. More than 300 people showed up, eager to shatter their shared sense of political impotence.

Eliza Booth, a longtime Lancastrian and passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, was among them. Heartbroken by Sanders’s loss—and worried for the well-being of her young son, who was frightened by Trump’s victory—she was itching to do something to push back against the president-elect. “I saw a flyer about that first meeting and was so thankful that there were other people in Lancaster who felt the same way I did,” Booth says. She helped the nascent group plan another meeting, and then many more after that, and quickly became one of its leaders.

Soon enough, Rast, Smucker, Booth, and other friends formalized their efforts by founding an independent political organization called Lancaster Stands Up, whose mission is to spread the gospel of civic engagement and take back politics from entrenched politicians. Led by a 12-person multiracial team of volunteers, LSU started holding monthly mass gatherings in early 2017. It organized rallies against the latest Trump outrages, including a 2,000-person demonstration against the president’s Muslim ban, the largest protest in Lancaster in decades. It trained its membership in the democratic arts of door-knocking, bird-dogging, and story-based persuasion. It spread a message of anti-elite populism, heavy on immigrants’ rights, racial justice, anti-monopolism, and universal health care. And its numbers multiplied.

Since then, Lancaster Stands Up has spawned a slew of spin-off groups and related political projects—some of its co-founders have left the LSU leadership team to run an insurgent congressional campaign that hopes to topple local Republican Representative Lloyd Smucker and replace him with a Sanders-style Democrat named Jess King. LSU members have also backed a slate of progressive statehouse and school-board candidates and helped infuse a new anti-establishment energy into their local Democratic Party. Along the way, they have catalyzed the beginnings of a progressive resurgence in a region long dominated by conservatives.

Their work comes at a time when scores of grassroots movements—from the Democratic Socialists of America and the American Civil Liberties Union’s People Power to smaller, sui generis efforts—are attempting to figure out the alchemy that can turn millions of disaffected, depoliticized Americans into organizing gold. What sets Lancaster Stands Up apart, in some respects, is its leaders’ deep-rootedness in their local community as well as its rigorous populist political analysis, which dispenses with the insularity of many left-leaning organizations in order to overcome the mythical divisions—urban and rural, right and left—that define our political landscape. Its organizers want to build real power, and they aren’t afraid to say it—but they know they can’t achieve that goal by preaching to the choir.

“Our orientation is toward the people who are in the room for the first time,” Jonathan Smucker says. “Once you have the experience of bringing everyday working people into the political process and seeing them realize their own agency, it becomes the only thing that matters.”

Now the challenge is whether this homespun group—born out of the dreams and frustrations of a committed core of organizers, and stitched together with little beyond the bonds of local community—can become an enduring political force.

In the spring of 2017, when The Nation first reported on the rise of Lancaster Stands Up, the group had just launched its inaugural canvass, that mainstay campaign practice of going door-to-door to talk with people. It was a warm Sunday in April, a morning of rest for many in this region known above all for its Amish farms and Anabaptist churches. LSU volunteers, however, weren’t taking the day off. They were out on the streets and knocking on doors to better understand the concerns of their community and hone their recruitment tactics. It was an initial experiment in listening to one’s neighbors in order to incite political change.

Michelle Hines, an early LSU member and now a staffer at the organization, was there that morning. As she went door-to-door in downtown Lancaster, she didn’t ask residents whether they were liberal or conservative, left or right. Instead, she asked simply: “What do you think of the political establishment?”

Almost invariably, the people that Hines approached were disdainful of the governing elite. “It sucks!” said a woman named Judy, who had voted Republican in the past but sat out the 2016 election. “The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer.”

This exchange offers a concise glimpse into LSU’s approach to political change. The group doesn’t focus solely on liberal voters—although they form the bulk of its base—and it doesn’t frame debates along a left/right spectrum, because it doesn’t see “centrism” as some middle ground where reasonable people meet.

Instead, LSU views politics through a populist lens. Its organizers say they see the current political crisis as a grand realignment in which ordinary Americans are wrestling for control of their democracy with a 0.1 percent, whose names—Koch, DeVos, Bezos, Blankfein, Trump—you almost certainly know. It believes that both national parties, Republicans and Democrats alike, have betrayed working people in order to better serve Wall Street. It wants to draw Lancastrians into this political struggle by meeting them where they are.

Much of this vision can be found in Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Jonathan Smucker’s 2017 primer on how the American left can break free from its clubby insularity and appeal to a broad popular base. “Our struggle ahead,” he writes, “is a contest over popular morality and it is also a contest of political power. For the first part, we have to tell a compelling story; to articulate a broad and inclusive we with which many different kinds of people feel a sense of belonging. For the second part we need leadership and organization, and the intentional cultivation of both.”

Smucker insists that his book is not a “field guide” for LSU, but I couldn’t help hearing echoes of these ideas when I returned to Lancaster for a follow-up visit this September. During a weekend packed with door-knocking drives, Smucker and his organizing colleague Marisol Ocampo gathered roughly 20 new LSU recruits into a colorful Lancaster art space for a two-hour training session they called “Canvassing in the Populist Moment.”

“What is populism?” Smucker asked the group, which included elderly white women, young millennial men, and a small troupe of organizers who had traveled from Philadelphia.

“Fascism,” said one attendee.

“Opportunists,” said another.

“It’s about the people,” said yet another.

That last answer earned Smucker’s praise. “In its most basic form, [populism] is the people versus elites, the corrupt establishment,” he said. “Bernie did a version of this, Trump did a version of this, Occupy Wall Street did a version of this, and the Tea Party did a version of this.”

Smucker argued to his audience that Trump’s type of populism is “reactionary”: It harvests anti-establishment discontent by pretending to punch up at a corrupt elite—“the fake news media,” “Hollywood liberals”—while actually punching down at people of color, immigrants, Muslims, queer communities, and other scapegoats. Meanwhile, he continued, Trump fails to take on the true power in American society: the ultra-wealthy, with their yachts, lobbyists, and many millions in dark-money donations.

LSU, on the other hand, seeks to create an “inclusionary populism,” Smucker explained, one that “punches up at the economic power at the very top and names the culprits,” including both the Democratic and Republican parties, while also calling out divide-and-conquer strategies that use racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny as tools to weaken solidarity among ordinary people. For LSU, Smucker concluded, “‘we the people’ includes all of us, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or country of origin.”

An hour later, after the recruits had practiced a script promoting Medicare for All, Smucker and his colleagues sent them back into the community as newly minted populist campaigners, armed with a compelling story that pits an expansive “we” against a corrupt and tiny elite.

And yet a good story only gets you so far. Winning real political power, Smucker writes in his book, requires building new organizations and recruiting new leaders to fill the void created by “a decades-long decline in bottom-up civic, labor and progressive political infrastructure.”

“This,” he argues, “is our challenge in the years ahead: to activate the unusual suspects. To do so, we have to develop leaders. They will emerge through concrete political struggles and campaigns that show everyday people that an organized collective force can win consequential battles.”

On the afternoon I arrived in Lancaster, LSU staff and members were busy trying to put this philosophy into practice. The group’s downtown office buzzed with energy as its young leaders prepared for a weekend packed with organizing activity.

Julia Berkman-Hill, LSU’s 23-year-old field director, was there that day, sitting at an overstuffed desk arranging canvassing scripts. On that weekend alone, she coordinated a voter-registration drive and nine canvassing shifts that hit more than 1,200 doors. “I have learned more in a year working here than I ever did in school,” she said. “Don’t tell my parents.”

Zak Gregg, a former cabinetmaker from nearby New Holland, was also in the office. A new LSU recruit from a conservative family, Gregg stood in the middle of the room getting coached by his colleagues on how to bird-dog, the tactic whereby people confront their political opponents publicly to ask tough questions or disrupt business as usual. As his co-workers played the role of potentially hostile onlookers, Gregg practiced infiltrating a GOP gathering and pressing Congressman Smucker about his right-wing stance on tax reform and poverty. The next day, along with two other LSU members, Gregg would put his new skills into action: He approached Smucker at a Republican barbecue and interrogated him about his economic policies.

“I told him that the people in my town are struggling, and their wages have stagnated, and the tax bill that you passed has given massive tax breaks to your donors—the Koch brothers—and they are trying to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Gregg says of their encounter. “And that’s when he cut me off and said, ‘Ninety percent of people got a tax break from this bill.’ And I said, ‘Well, nobody in New Holland is seeing it.’”

For LSU staffer Hines, meanwhile, one of her proudest moments over the last year of nonstop organizing was the rapid-response campaign that she helped lead last summer, which successfully blocked a bid by the private-prison company GEO Group to take over a reentry-services program for former prison inmates in Lancaster County. “We were able to get the entire community of Lancaster Stands Up, faith communities, and so many other people to pay attention,” she says. “The [county commission] ended up rejecting GEO’s bid. It worked.”

Hines, Gregg, and Berkman-Hill, along with others like them, have been the driving force behind LSU’s rapid growth. Since its founding in 2016, the group’s membership has ballooned to at least 800 people. It has nine full-time staffers, including Hines and founding member Booth, and 11 paid canvassers. It runs multiple door-knocking drives on a weekly basis to register voters and persuade people to support progressive candidates in this election cycle. Some of its members and allies, including Booth and Rast, have recently been elected to the Lancaster City Democratic Committee. And it has extended its reach far beyond city limits: LSU now has spin-off groups in eight small towns and suburbs around the region, including the Trump-voting communities of Ephrata, New Holland, and Lititz.

And then there’s the big-ticket item, Jess King’s congressional campaign, which LSU is backing through its canvassing and voter-registration drives. A longtime Lancastrian and early LSU member, King is challenging Lloyd Smucker for his seat in the US House of Representatives, running on an explicitly progressive and populist platform against a man who is a favorite of the National Rifle Association and has received support from Koch Industries. (Lloyd Smucker, as it happens, is also a distant cousin of Jonathan Smucker.)

On a rainy September Sunday in the suburb of Lititz, I met King in the home of one of her campaign volunteers. Over coffee and homemade cookies, she told me about the origins of her run for office. Like Smucker, Rast, and Booth, she got involved in Lancaster Stands Up during the uncertain days after Trump clinched the presidency.

“After the election, I was really in this process of figuring out how to get louder in my leadership,” says King, who has had a long career as an executive in nonprofit economic development. “I was looking for ways to challenge the kind of policies getting passed by both Republican and Democratic politicians—these trickle-down economic policies that are about giving passes to the very wealthy at the expense of workers and working families.” She was tired, she says, of putting “Band-Aids on a broken system”—a phrase she often deploys in her stump speeches.

So King sat down with Rast as well as Nick Martin, another co-founder of LSU. She knew Rast and Martin from their high-school days, when the two were organizing local students against the Iraq War and attending a Mennonite church where King’s husband was a pastor. The three decided to team up and take the fight to Lloyd Smucker. It was a gutsy move; none of them had ever been involved in a congressional campaign before.

“It was like, ‘If not us, who? And if not now, when?’” King recalls. “I had these conversations with Nick and Becca, and it just became clear that, if I decided to jump in and do this, then they would have my back—and if they decided to get my back, I would jump in and do this.”

So in June 2017, the Jess King for Congress campaign was born. To comply with the law, the campaign severed its ties with LSU. Martin and Rast left their leadership roles, and staffers with both organizations say they are strict about not coordinating or communicating with members of the other group.

Still, the two groups clearly share a populist philosophy, as well as a commitment to canvassing, leadership development, and other grassroots strategies. And so, much like LSU, King’s congressional bid has the feel of a bona fide movement. It belongs alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprising insurgency in New York City, or Beto O’Rourke’s sweaty sprint across Texas.

I felt this movement vibe as I marched through the rainy streets of a suburb called Mount Joy with King and a team of 15 volunteers. King was stomping past puddles in shin-high leather boots, knocking on the doors of registered Republicans in an effort to persuade them to vote for her. She talked about universal health care, her refusal to take corporate PAC money, and her desire to ensure debt-free higher education, and she criticized her opponent for failing to hold town-hall meetings with his constituents. But more than anything else, she was out in the rain, talking patiently with people, asking them about the issues that mattered most in their lives. She was showing up.

At one small suburban house, a 41-year-old Republican named Andrew answered the door. King asked him his thoughts on politics. He said he was “sick of career politicians.” She responded that she was born and raised in Lancaster, that this was her first run for office, that she wasn’t taking corporate money, that she would never become a lobbyist, and that she wasn’t a millionaire, unlike so many in Congress. Andrew was receptive; he took her campaign literature, told her he’d share it with his wife, and wished her luck.

At another door, a 51-year-old Republican woman dressed in a bathrobe emerged from her home. She seemed reluctant to talk at first, but King mentioned a friend she knew at the local hospital, where the woman worked, and they soon hit it off. They spoke about the need for more female representation in Congress; by the end of their chat, the woman clapped her hands and thanked King for having the courage to run for Congress.

In both cases, King and her team walked away from the encounters feeling pretty confident that they’d earned the support of former GOP voters.

This approach—asking questions, listening to people who might disagree with you—seems obvious, but with notable exceptions, it is not the norm in an era when congressional campaigns rely on fancy fund-raisers, consultants, and support from die-hard partisans. “The heart of our campaign,” says Rast, who is now King’s campaign manager, “is the people: What do they care about, why are they not interested in participating in politics, what would make them interested in participating?”

The dynamic is much the same with the campaign’s field program, a sprawling enterprise that Nick Martin oversees. A slender 29-year-old with a penchant for camouflage caps, Martin skipped college and instead spent his 20s honing his skills as an organizer in campaigns against fracking and mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia, where I first met him. He was also a local field campaigner for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 primary run.

When we meet at campaign headquarters, Martin tells me, with barely repressed exuberance, about the scope of the campaign’s fieldwork. From the beginning, he says, he had an ambitious vision, because “the only way we can win is if we knock on a ton of doors and make a ton of phone calls.”

And so King’s team recruited a massive network of more than 1,000 volunteers, with 20 or more teams running regular canvasses across the district. It also trained 60 interns in the methods of field organizing, fund-raising, and voter persuasion. Altogether, these folks have made more than 400,000 phone calls, knocked on tens of thousands of doors, distributed as many as 6,000 yard signs, and organized more than 50 town-hall meetings with the candidate.

“I have seen campaigns that have a lot of hype online, but when you dig into their ground game, it isn’t there,” Martin says. “One thing we were always careful to do was spend a lot of time training and supporting, doing leadership development and building political analysis among all the staff and all the volunteers. If you don’t spend the time, especially in a district like this…then you can’t win.”

The question, though, is whether the volunteer enthusiasm, populist messaging, and robust field campaign will be enough. The district where King is running was scored R+14, or 14 points more Republican than the national average, by The Cook Political Report. Indeed, as of the latest poll, published in September, Smucker leads King by nine points, with 21 percent of respondents undecided.

“I think [the King campaign] is very good at organizing, and if a Democrat is going to be competitive in this district, she is the one,” says Stephen Medvic, a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “Still, if I had to bet, I would say that they will lose, because it is such an uphill climb.”

Lloyd Smucker isn’t taking his advantages for granted, however. In recent weeks, perhaps sensing the energy behind King, he unveiled a new campaign ad attacking her as “royally out of touch.” And in a statement to The Nation, a Smucker spokesperson amplified that critique, writing: “Jess King moves around the district listening to her supporters and being propped up by special interests while Congressman Smucker delivers results to those he serves.”

The state GOP, meanwhile, has recently filed a pair of campaign-finance complaints against LSU, using the close personal ties between the group and King as fodder. The first complaint alleges that LSU failed to report its independent expenditures on behalf of King. Shortly thereafter, LSU amended two of its Federal Election Commission filings to more fully detail its spending. The second complaint alleges that LSU and the King campaign have engaged in “intentional coordination” with one another, a claim that a King spokesperson called a “baseless and cynical attempt to muddy the waters.”

Ultimately, the civic revival taking place in south-central Pennsylvania is about much more than a single campaign. Even if King loses in November, the inclusionary populists of Lancaster County have seeded the ground with a new generation of smart local organizers who understand that democracy is a practice that must be pursued constantly and as part of a community.

“It will take time to rebuild the emaciated progressive infrastructure we have inherited,” Jonathan Smucker writes in his book’s conclusion. “It will take time to build our political analysis, leadership and on-the-ground skills. But so many of us…are ready to resume the project of building a society that is based on social justice; a society that is for all of us.”

You can count Ahmed Ahmed among the architects of that new progressive infrastructure. A 24-year-old who came to Lancaster with his family in the 1990s after political violence forced them to flee their home in Chad, Ahmed says he has always been interested in politics. Indeed, he went to Howard University to study it. But Ahmed was forced to drop out of school for financial reasons a few years ago, and he came back to Lancaster in a depressed, apolitical state. “I got so disengaged from politics because I thought I had failed,” he says. “I didn’t even vote in the last election.”

Then, last summer, he was walking through a street fair in the city when a volunteer with LSU randomly approached him, asked him his thoughts on the political process, and invited him to go to the group’s next meeting.

“It was the first time a stranger had ever asked me how I felt about politics,” Ahmed recalls. “It was this great opportunity for someone who wanted to be an organizer but thought the door was closed on them. I thought, like, you needed a PhD in public policy to have a say or be involved in the political process.”

And so Ahmed started organizing with LSU, registering students to vote and knocking on doors when he wasn’t working his day job at Lancaster’s Marriott Hotel. A few weeks ago, he took a part-time gig as a canvasser with LSU, and on the afternoon we spoke, he was preparing to head out into the rain for an eight-hour shift. He does it, he says, because he wants to build lasting independent political power in the place where he was raised. He does it because his neighbors deserve better than the parties and politicians currently in power.

“This is my way of repaying the place that took me and my family in as political refugees,” he says. “I owe this city a lot, and now I can give back.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the Pennsylvania Republican Party filed a pair of campaign finance complaints against both LSU and the Jess King campaign. In fact, it only filed a complaint against LSU.

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