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If at First You Don't Secede: Trump Could Revitalize Vermont Movement

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Vermont got a taste of independence between 1777 and 1791, when it was out of the British Empire but not yet one of the United States. It declared itself a sovereign republic 240 years ago this month and soon adopted the first constitution in North America that prohibited slavery.

A few Vermonters are hoping the confluence of that anniversary and the upcoming presidential inauguration will generate support for — or at least interest in — trying something similar. As Donald Trump prepares to become the country's commander in chief, these activists are girding for what one of them describes as a "very, very radical" form of dissent: advocating secession.

The origin of the modern effort to get the "U.S. out of Vermont" can be attributed to one man: Thomas Naylor. When he retired from Duke University in 2003, the Mississippi native and former economics professor moved to Vermont out of admiration for its thriving small towns and businesses. A year later, he began propagandizing for secession. Naylor's The Vermont Manifesto, which calls for the establishment of an independent republic, piqued the curiosity of a small group of Vermonters. Within a year, secessionist sentiment had become strong enough that some 300 demonstrators took part in a parade and rally in Montpelier to support the state's transformation into a nation.

The Second Vermont Republic — a term referring to both the aspiration and the loosely organized network that seeks to make it a reality — has lost momentum in recent years, but its partisans now see an opportunity for revival.

Waitsfield-based activist Rob Williams, publisher of the Vermont Independent, is sounding the loudest call for Vermont's breakaway. His online journal seeks to promote "vigorous debate about a more sustainable future for the once and future republic of Vermont."

Williams, a lecturer in the University of Vermont's environmental studies program, argues that the United States presides over a corporatist global empire that's inimical to participatory democracy and local autonomy. Secession, he argues, is the appropriate response to an intrusive, bellicose nation-state that's too big to budge toward positive change. In Williams' estimation, Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) defeat and Trump's victory prove that the U.S. is "incapable of being reformed."

For Brattleboro novelist Ralph Meima, the Trump presidency portends "a complete attack on the precepts that Vermont and this whole region are based on." He's the author of Inter States, a two-volume work of fiction that imagines a referendum on Vermont independence taking place in 2040.

As the 45th president implements what threatens to be a far-right agenda, Gwendolyn Hallsmith of Montpelier predicted that the notion of succession will catch on. "A lot of Vermonters are going to say it is a good idea," she said. Hallsmith advocates for the creation of a public bank in Vermont, an initiative that secessionists favor. She recently made that case as a guest on Williams' public access show on Mad River Valley Television.

But even if Trump confirms the fears of his legions of foes in Vermont, secession is not going to be an easy sell in its mountains and valleys. The prospect conjures its own set of fears. For one: Advocacy of even a nonviolent form of secession, which Williams espouses, could be interpreted as treasonous, he acknowledged.

Any move to rupture the Union is laden with associations involving the Confederacy and the Civil War, added Ian Baldwin, a cofounder of Chelsea Green Publishing and coauthor with UVM professor emeritus Frank Bryan of a 2007 Washington Post op-ed supporting Vermont independence. That piece triggered "an unbelievably hostile response" from many readers, Baldwin recalled.

"Secession is an anomalous or nonexistent concept for Northerners," the 78-year-old South Strafford resident said. "But it's a living concept for a lot of Southerners." And some of them still look away to the Dixieland of the era when cotton was king and black people were slaves.

In 2005, the Second Vermont Republic launched a dialogue with a collection of irredentists known as the League of the South. That initiative proved "disastrous," Williams lamented in retrospect.

Progressive Vermonters, some of whom had become intrigued with the Second Vermont Republic following George W. Bush's reelection as president in 2004, denounced the move to collaborate with a white-supremacist organization. Naylor was accused of fostering racism through his outreach to the League of the South. He vehemently rejected such guilt by association.

Ron Miller, coeditor with Williams of a 2013 essay collection titled Most Likely to Secede, contended in a recent interview that Naylor's critics "misunderstood that whole episode." Engaging in a dialogue with "those people about the dissolution of the Union didn't bother me," Miller reflected. "I never saw any indication of Naylor or anyone else in the Vermont secession movement being motivated by racism."

The SVR suffered catastrophic political damage as a result of its flirtation with the League of the South. A 2006 survey by UVM's Center for Rural Studies had recorded 8 percent support for peaceful secession — a promising showing for so outré an option. The following year, the center found 13 percent support for secession. In 2008, however, the Southern Poverty Law Center published a blistering analysis of the SVR's relationship with the League of the South. "Vermont's secessionist movement, born of the left, has forged a bewildering alliance with racist neo-Confederates," the Alabama-based hate-speech-monitoring group reported.

SVR never recovered from the combination of that takedown by a respected civil rights group and Barack Obama's election later the same year. The idea of seceding from a nation that had installed an African American in the White House seemed entirely inappropriate to Vermonters smitten with the promise of hope and change. Naylor died in 2012 at age 76, leaving a leadership vacuum that Williams, 48, has been trying to fill.

One of his first steps was to rebrand the group: He changed its acronym from SVR to 2VR, suggesting that this is the second iteration of the Second Vermont Republic. Williams vows that there won't be any further dealings with the far-right likes of the League of the South.

At the same time, he's taking care not to pigeonhole 2VR politically. Advocates of secession are "neither left nor right — we're decentralists," Williams said. "We're open-sourcing Vermont independence," he added, extending a welcome to "anyone with good ideas about self-reliance."

Williams eschewed descriptions of 2VR as a "movement." That term implies "grassroots organizing, and we're not really about that," Williams said, implying that 2VR functions more as a think tank than a vanguard.

Such an intellectual approach appeals to John McClaughry of Kirby, a libertarian Republican who served eight years in the Vermont legislature and founded the Ethan Allen Institute. The essay he contributed to Most Likely to Secede is titled "Left and Right: An Introduction to Decentralism." Of the collection's 35 pieces — drawn from the annals of Vermont Commons, an SVR-related journal that Williams launched in 2005 — only three call explicitly for Vermont's divorce from the U.S., McClaughry pointed out. He therefore doesn't take the group's secessionist stance literally, instead seeing it as a prompt for "finding ways to make Vermont a stronger example of the values most of us hold." The thread running through 2VR, McClaughry added, is "the need to create a more vigorous civil society."

Hallsmith, the public banking advocate, offered a similarly nondogmatic view, suggesting that 2VR represents "an exciting thought experiment."

J.D. Thomason, an Enosburg Falls filmmaker who's making a documentary about Vermont's secessionist movement, likewise has reservations about using the S word. It scares some people, Thomason said, proposing: "If you don't call it secession and focus instead on values, probably 90 percent of Vermonters will support you."

Miller, a Woodstock resident long involved in the search for education alternatives, is the person who called secession a "very, very radical step" — as well as one that is unlikely ever to be taken. The coeditor of Most Likely to Secede said he got involved with Vermont Commons because "the editors and writers were asking such good questions." In Miller's view, 2VR stands as "a provocative idea that gets us thinking about questions of power, local autonomy and greater democracy."

Miller said he hopes to establish a Free Vermont University that would offer courses and organize forums on general themes of decentralization.

Williams is meanwhile mapping out an electoral route that might enable 2VR to take its message to every corner of Vermont. "We want people to run for office at all levels," Williams declared, noting that as a member of the Waitsfield School Board he's currently "the only committed secessionist holding public office in Vermont."

Williams also wants to arrange for UVM's Center for Rural Studies to take another sounding of secessionist sentiment in the state. Student researchers at the university are simultaneously studying ways of making Vermont more self-sufficient — a prerequisite to independence, in the view of most secessionists.

Some of the main movers behind 2VR suggest, however, that the effort won't get very far unless it's regional. "We're so small and resource-poor," novelist Meima noted. Vermont might realistically make progress toward greater autonomy if its aspirations for self-determination are melded with similar yearnings in neighboring states, he said. "Why not create a New England regional health care system?" Meima wondered. "We're a region of 12 million people, so that might work."

In making a case for "energy-efficient" food consumption in Vermont, environmentalist Bill McKibben has defined "local" to include Québec.

Secessionist stirrings can now be discerned in several states, most notably California, where opposition to Trump's rule may eventually coalesce behind a push for "Calexit."

"A lot of activity is going to take place" in the coming months and years, Williams predicted. "But it's not our job to define it."

Asked if he expects Vermont's independence movement to gain traction, McKibben said, "I guess it depends to some degree on what happens with Trump — on whether he turns out to be normally bad or abnormally bad.

"It also depends on whether any such effort can distance itself from the gross racist and other weird right-wing connections of the last time round," McKibben continued. "Naylor truly poisoned the well by hooking up with people and institutions that any rational Vermonter would consider disgusting."

Correction, January 13, 2017: This story was updated to include findings of the 2007 survey regarding support for secession.

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