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.