What Effective Protest Could Look Like
Perspective from the right on Trump’s political challenge for the left
Fourteen years ago, I found myself an unexpected micro-target of a left-liberal protest demonstration. I had visited London to watch the debate and subsequent vote in the House of Commons over the Iraq war resolution. A huge demonstration against the war snaked down Whitehall toward Parliament. I wandered into Trafalgar Square for a view. Somebody recognized me as a recent alumnus of the Bush administration; arguably its least important member, but undeniably the closest at hand. A small throng surrounded me, and there followed what the diplomats would describe as a candid exchange of views.
Midlife brings strange changes to us all. After a lifetime of viewing demonstrations from the other side of the barricades, I was one of the many who admired the orderly commitment and resolution of the women’s march on Washington the day after President Trump’s inauguration. Yet my admiration is mixed with worry. As I step through the police lines, I bring a message with me: Your demonstrations are engineered to fail. They didn’t stop the Iraq war. They won’t stop Donald Trump.
With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion. They lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event. They seldom are aimed at any achievable goal; they rarely leave behind any enduring program of action or any organization to execute that program. Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them—and to empower the targets of their outrage. And this time, that target is a president hungering for any excuse to repress his opponents. Look at how Trump positioned the University of California—whose out-numbered police battled to defend the speech rights of one of the most provocative and obnoxious of Trump’s minions—as a target for retaliation.
If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view - NO FEDERAL FUNDS?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 2, 2017
Trump’s statement is precisely the opposite of the truth. But it’s become dogma in Trumpworld, including even to many Trump-skeptical conservatives. Protesters may be up against something never before seen in American life: a president and an administration determined to seize on unrest to legitimate repression. Those protesters are not ready for it. Few Americans are.
It’s possible I’m not the right person to offer the following analysis. Yet it’s also a good rule to seek wisdom wherever it may be found. So here’s what I have to offer from the right, amid the storms of the Trump era.
The more conservative protests are, the more radical they are.
You want to scare Trump? Be orderly, polite, and visibly patriotic.
Trump wants to identify all opposition to him with the black-masked crowbar thugs who smashed windows and burned a limo on his inauguration day. Remember Trump’s tweet about stripping citizenship from flag burners? It’s beyond audacious that a candidate who publicly requested help from Russian espionage services against his opponent would claim the flag as his own. But Trump is trying. Don’t let him get away with it. Carry the flag. Open with the Pledge of Allegiance. Close by singing the Star Spangled Banner––like these protesters at LAX, in video posted by The Atlantic’s own Conor Friedersdorf. Trump’s presidency is itself one long flag-burning, an attack on the principles and institutions of the American republic. That republic’s symbols are your symbols. You should cherish them and brandish them.
Don’t get sucked into the futile squabbling cul-de-sac of intersectionality and grievance politics. Look at this roster of speakers from the January 21 march. What is Angela Davis doing there? Where are the military women, the women police officers, the officeholders? If Planned Parenthood is on the stage, pro-life women should stand there, too. If you want somebody to speak for immigrants, invite somebody who’s in the country lawfully.
Since his acceptance speech in Cleveland, Donald Trump has made clear that he wants to wage a Nixon-style culture war: cops against criminals, soldiers against pacifists, hard hats against hippies. Don’t be complicit. If you want to beat him, you have to reject his categories.
“Tone policing” has entered the left-of-center vocabulary as one of the worst possible things you can do or think. In fact, all effective political communication must carefully consider both tone and content. If the singer Madonna wants to indulge herself in loose talk about political bombing, let her do it on her own platform, not yours. If you see guys with crowbars in the vicinity of your meeting, detain them yourselves and call the cops. You’re the defenders of the Constitution, the Republic, and the Western Alliance. Act like it.
Strategic thinking; inclusive action
The classic military formula for success: concentrate superior force at a single point. The Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable. Successful movements are built upon concrete single demands that can readily be translated into practical action: “Votes for women.” “End the draft.” “Overturn Roe v. Wade.” “Tougher punishments for drunk driving.”
People can say “yes” to such specific demands for many different reasons. Supporters are not called upon to agree on everything, but just one thing. “End the draft” can appeal both to outright pacifists and to military professionals who regard an army of volunteers as more disciplined and lethal than an army of conscripts. Critics of Roe run the gamut from those who wish a total ban on all abortions to legal theorists who believe the Supreme Court overstepped itself back in 1973.
So it should be for critics of President Trump. “Pass a law requiring the Treasury to release the President’s tax returns.” “An independent commission to investigate Russian meddling in the US election.” “Divest from the companies.” These are limited asks with broad appeal.
On the other hand, if you build a movement that lists those specific and limited goals along a vast and endlessly unfolding roster of others from “preserve Dodd Frank” to “save the oceans”—if you indulge the puckish anti-politics of “not usually a sign guy, but geez”—you will collapse into factionalism and futility.
The Democratic party remains open for business. If your concerns are classic Democratic concerns, you know where to go. But if you are building a movement to protect American democracy from the authoritarianism of the Trump administration, you should remember that the goal is to gain allies among people who would not normally agree with you. Just as the iconography of your protest should originate in the great American mainstream, the core demand of your movement should likewise be easy to explain and plausibly acceptable to that mainstream, stretching from Bernie voters to Romney donors.
Here are a few useful tests:
a) Could this demand be achieved by a law passed through Congress?
b) Can I imagine my Rush Limbaugh listening brother-in-law agreeing with it?
c) Can I tweet it?
If so … good.
d) Would I still be upset about this if Marco Rubio were president now?
If so … bad.
Protests are fun; meetings are effective
Protests can be powerful. Just this past week, the Romanian government withdrew a law intended to protect high-level corruption in the face of mass demonstrations in the streets of Bucharest. Big mobilizations send the message politicians most fear to hear: “A lot of us are mad at you.” That message resounds especially forcefully in the ears of Trump, so obsessed with the massive popular vote tally against him.
But bodies in the street represent only potential power, not actual power. Even the largest rally must sooner or later disassemble and return home. What happens after that? The difference between Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party was that only the second movement translated the energy and excitement of its early mass meetings into steady organizational work aimed at winning elections.
Protests can energize people and overawe governments. But it is the steady and often tedious work of organization that sustains democracy—and can change the world. Protests are useful mostly to the extent that they mobilize people to participate in the follow-up meetings to realize the protest’s goals. Collect names and addresses. Form Facebook groups. Keep in touch. Don’t argue: recruit. Meet in real space as well as online. Serve cake. Make your presence felt on your local elected officials not just once, but day after day, week in, week out. Make them feel that they could lose their individual seats if they do not heed you. They feel the pressure from lobbyists all the time…to succeed, you should be equally focused and persistent. And that requires above all: be motivated by hope, not outrage.
The outrage may get you started, but only hope keeps you going. Hope, as Vaclav Havel insisted, is an expression of the state of our minds, not a description of the state of the world. It powers you to undertake the daunting but essential mission: unlimited efforts for limited goals. You’re not trying to save the world. Just to pass one law. It doesn’t sound like much. It could be everything.