Tom Hayden and I spoke and corresponded a good deal during the last year of his life about the 2016 presidential race. The great radical thinker and doer, who has died too young at age 76, understood the dynamics of a race that has seen wounds he sought to heal not just reopened but rubbed raw.
Hayden took seriously the threat posed by Donald Trump and Trumpism. He was old enough to have confronted McCarthyism, racism, sexism and anti-immigrant hysteria in all their awful incarnations during the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, the 2000s and 2010s. He had succeeded sufficiently to maintain a faith in what he described as “rare moments when hope and history rhyme.”
Yet his experience as a civil-rights activist, voting-rights activist, antiwar activist, anti-corporate activist, environmental activist, and political leader (state assemblyman, state senator, gubernatorial candidate, US Senate candidate) told him that those moments do not come by chance. They are forged in the crucibles of campaigns and movements. And they demand an honest assessment of dishonest politicians and disconcerting times.
Hayden knew enough to be unsettled by what the 2016 campaign was exposing about America’s ongoing capacity for political cruelty. Yet, he was not simplistic or resigned in his response to that cruelty. Raised in a Detroit-area Catholic church that was led by Father Charles Coughlin, a nationally-known “radio priest” whose preaching anticipated the crudest populism of the current moment, his first rebellions were against those who would use economic instability do divide workers along lines of religion and ethnicity.
Hayden’s lifetime was devoted to challenging the dogmas of the right, and the false populism of conservative politicians who would exploit global uncertainty for domestic gain. As the primary author of the Port Huron Statement, Hayden reflected on how “discontented, super-patriotic groups would emerge through political channels and explain their ultra-conservatism as the best means of Victory over Communism.” And he explained how this politics “becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.”
Hayden was offended not just by the rhetoric of right-wing politicians and parties but by the political exploitation of human beings he believed to be “infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.”
“We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things—if anything, the brutalities of the twentieth century teach that means and ends are intimately related, that vague appeals to ‘posterity’ cannot justify the mutilations of the present,” Hayden and his comrades declared in 1962. “We oppose, too, the doctrine of human incompetence because it rests essentially on the modern fact that men have been ‘competently’ manipulated into incompetence—we see little reason why men cannot meet with increasing skill the complexities and responsibilities of their situation, if society is organized not for minority, but for majority, participation in decision-making.”