Left Americana in Trumpland

Vigo County, Indiana is Trump country now — but nestled somewhere between Dean’s Party Mania and USA Fireworks Superstore is a vital piece of American socialist history.

Eugene V. Debs, seated at desk, 1909. F. K. D. / Wikimedia

For most of the last century, Terre Haute’s Vigo County, in western Indiana, has served as one of the country’s most reliable electoral bellwethers. As goes Vigo, so goes the nation — at least in presidential races, where it has picked the winner of every election since 1956.

But before that, the small city about seventy-five miles southwest of Indianapolis drafted a different sort of footnote in presidential history, as the birthplace and lifelong home of the American socialist movement’s most iconic figure, Eugene V. Debs.

Debs ran for the presidency five times between 1900 and 1920. In 1912, Debs’s campaign represented the high-water mark for the American socialist movement in national politics, pulling in 6 percent of the vote.

The home that Debs and his wife, Kate, built stands today, nestled in the campus of Indiana State University. Built in 1890 while Debs was an official in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the house was his residence throughout the rest of his life — a place to reflect on Victor Hugo or recuperate between whistle-stops on the Red Special train as he underwent his transformation from a city clerk to revered labor leader and the face of the Socialist Party.

Today the house serves as the Eugene V. Debs Museum, preserving the relics of this era in what is probably the closest thing we have to a socialist presidential library in the United States. It captures a hopeful chapter in American history hard to find in most history museums — and it almost didn’t survive.

When Debs died in 1926, five thousand mourners crowded the lawn to witness his memorial service. But as the US socialist movement declined over the next four decades, so too did the importance of this bit of history. Ownership of the Debs house passed through a number of hands, including a stint as the home of the Theta Chi fraternity, who, the tour notes, kept it in pretty good shape.

The home that was once viewed with suspicion for its relative extravagance — “Disjointed, substantial, ugly … an architectural copy of the typical expensive house in the Midwest,” appraises Debs biographer Ray Ginger. It soon was overtaken by taller, boxlike structures as Indiana State razed the surrounding neighborhood to expand its downtown campus.

Seeing the threat, in 1962 Debs’s niece and a group of local academics chartered a foundation to purchase the home and preserve the site, which was granted National Historic Landmark status in 1966.

Inside, the museum holds a cache of ephemera from Debs’s life and campaigns — vintage Young People’s Socialist League pennants, century-old ballots, yellowed photos and typewritten well-wishes from union supporters, an inscribed copy of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and of course the iconic campaign badge promoting Convict #9653 (Debs won nearly a million votes in his 1920 run, his last, despite being imprisoned on sedition charges).

In the kitchen, a high chair used by Debs and his siblings allows visitors to imagine infant Debs issuing his first protestations.

But some of the greatest delights come in pieces that contextualize Debs in the country’s left-wing past, such as a playing-card set produced by the Amalgamated Meat Cutters bearing the images of labor leaders so workers could learn their history on break (Debs adorns the ace of clubs). Bound volumes of the legendary socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, which boasted a circulation of about 750,000 in 1912 and was itself a product of the American Midwest, are kept for perusal upstairs.

A large tribute painting that once graced the Christian-socialist Rand School of Social Science’s auditorium has been recovered to hang over the home’s main stairway. “The bravest heart, the noblest soul, and most eloquent voice of the toiling men and women of America,” it says of Debs.

Such elements are reminders that Debs’s socialism, however internationalist its orientation, was not a foreign object transplanted into the country’s heartland, but one that grew out of it as much as the crops in the neighboring Indiana fields.

At the height of the Socialist Party’s strength, even small cities like Terre Haute had pockets of organized radicals, says the museum’s director, Allison Duerk. The Party-affiliated Unity Band of Terre Haute performed at labor events in town, and cities like Indianapolis were large enough to support a left cultural scene. Indiana Socialists formed groups “including bands, debate clubs, study groups, and even Euchre nights to maintain social connections and spread the Party’s ideas,” one of the museum’s accounts reads.

Vigo County went for Bernie Sanders — who keeps a photo of Debs in his office — in the last Democratic presidential primary but then Donald Trump in the general. The house itself continues to host meetings of local leftists but is short on red marching bands these days, as evidence of the region’s radical heritage has largely faded.

After visiting the museum, my co-traveler and I went to find Debs’s grave at the Highland Lawn Cemetery, about a ten-minute drive from downtown Terre Haute. After a fruitless search for the headstone, we flagged down a truck that had circled the graveyard for an hour, assuming it to be the groundskeeper. The driver, pleading ignorance of the cemetery’s best-known resident, held up his cell phone. “Nah, man. I’m just playing Pokémon Go.”

Duerk estimates that around 800 visitors came through the museum last year, up from the year prior. About half, she says, are general local history tourists and a dwindling number of elementary school groups. The rest are radicals paying pilgrimage.

These numbers are modest even by sleepy Midwestern standards — about 130,000 visit the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum each year, for example.

One suspicion holds that openly promoting one of the country’s great labor leaders doesn’t comport with the state’s drive to bill itself as “business friendly.” (A representative of the Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau I contacted did not appear aware of such a capitalist plot.)

Regardless, as recent controversies over Confederate monuments attest, public memorials can be sites of a sort of recollective struggle — both reflecting and influencing what parts of our history we deem worthy of remembrance. Duerk volunteers that maybe a statue would help.

“We just got one to Larry Bird,” she says.

But as the economy crumbles and young people look for alternatives, the possibilities for reinvigorating the link to a past in which a socialist got a million votes for president perhaps don’t seem as remote as they used to. Maybe some of these roads lead back through places like Terre Haute.

“Debs’s politics changed over the course of his life,” Duerk says, “But what he maintained was an undying optimism and a commitment to solidarity. Debs understood that the working class has everything stacked against it but sheer numbers.”

A century later, the challenge remains getting them to come through the door.