GAITHERSBURG, Md.—By the time I arrived at the protest, the giant inflatable Trump Rat was already up and waving in the wind.
A mob of people huddled together under its shadow, outside city hall here, for nearly two hours last night in a show of support for today’s historic impeachment vote—just one of more than 500 rallies held simultaneously in cities and towns across America. Some members of the crowd listened attentively as a lineup of speakers proclaimed the president’s unfitness for office. Still others focused their energy on passing cars, brandishing homemade signs reading IMPEACH NOW and TRUMP IS LAWLESS. Every minute or so, a driver slowed down to lay on the horn.
It was the first time in more than a year that liberals have rallied on any mass scale to advocate for Donald Trump’s removal. There was no sustained popular protest movement triggered after the release of the Mueller report in April, nor after the revelation of the whistle-blower’s Ukraine allegations in the fall. Instead, the protests—held on the literal eve of the House vote—came at a time when the outcome is already essentially baked in: House lawmakers, including numerous vulnerable Democrats who for weeks were on the fence, have already decided how they’re going to vote, and the Senate seems almost certain to let Trump go.
The activism and enthusiasm now, in other words, seem to be too little, too late—raising the question: Why didn’t they do this earlier? And what, exactly, is the point of it all?
Progressive leaders don’t have a singular explanation. Some told me that they’ve been focused on local organizing efforts rather than large-scale protests, while others argued that House leadership was far too hesitant about impeachment to encourage demonstrations. But beyond those justifications, another factor may be at play: The impeachment of Donald Trump has simply never induced the same level of organic, take-to-the-streets rage on the left that other issues have.
“Nobody thinks impeachment is going to be successful,” says Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland and the author of American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave. The protests were symbolic—just “part of this cog in the political machine churning us toward the election.”
For the first two years of Trump’s presidency, the anger and strength of the so-called resistance was tangible, something to be seen and heard and felt—the hand-drawn cardboard signs, the coordinated chants, the matching pink pussy hats in Pittsburgh and Des Moines and Phoenix. Four million Americans attended the Women’s March the day after Trump was inaugurated, making it the largest protest in the country’s history. Dozens of demonstrations followed, including the spontaneous rallies at American airports over the Muslim ban, the continuous protests to protect the Affordable Care Act from repeal, and the gun-violence-focused March for Our Lives, all of which made for two jam-packed years of sustained left-wing activism.
In the past 12 months, though, the number of large-scale protests has dwindled. But it’s not as though progressives didn’t have a peg for action: Last night’s protests, led by a number of prominent progressive grassroots groups such as Indivisible and MoveOn, happened well after Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that the president obstructed justice 10 times, after months of debate over the merits of impeachment, after damning allegations from an anonymous whistle-blower and other officials inside the Trump administration, and after weeks of investigation and testimony in the House. At any point in this process, organizers could have staged demonstrations as an ultra-public way to try to influence both popular opinion and lawmakers’ votes.
“I don’t know why we can’t get the masses out,” said Bill Wirth, a retiree from just north of Gaithersburg, which is nestled in deep-blue Montgomery County, right outside of Washington, D.C. He and his wife have been taking part in small-scale actions outside the White House for nearly two years. “We want to be like Hong Kong,” Wirth added, referencing the ongoing pro-democracy protests there. But “we can’t get people out!”
When I asked rally organizers this question—why we haven’t seen mass grassroots activism surrounding impeachment—several explained that progressives had actually been focused on a variety of less visible tools to build public support for impeachment, including sit-ins at lawmakers’ district offices. “Collectively,” said Rio Tazewell, the senior campaigns manager for People for the American Way, “we’ve been directing hundreds of thousands of phone calls, generating letters to the editor, using social media to amplify messaging in support of the impeachment inquiry, putting up billboards, buying TV ads.”
This kind of local action can be more effective at building organizing power than a national protest, Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the anti-Trump movement, told me. “The impression that protesting has gone way down is true and not true,” she said. “There have been fewer big, D.C.-centered protests, and more dispersed protests.” More than 4,000 people are expected to demonstrate on Capitol Hill today as the House debates and votes on two articles of impeachment. But Washington rallies, by virtue of their size, can often have unintended consequences, Putnam explained. The demonstrations against the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for example, were “not super effective at building internal ties and reaching out to persuadable people.”
House leadership didn’t exactly create an environment welcoming of grassroots outrage either, Putnam told me. Until the Ukraine allegations came to light in late September, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was flatly opposed to launching a formal inquiry, concerned that it would further divide the country and threaten Democrats’ reelection chances in 2020.
“They were clear on the fact that they were being very sober about ignoring … any pressure from the grass roots,” said Nathaly Arriola, the executive director at Need to Impeach, the group founded by the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer. “No one was going to move the speaker unless she saw a very clear case that could be tried in the Senate.” Even after giving impeachment her sign-off, Pelosi seemed to want to get the process over with. She kept her pledge to fast-track the proceedings to avoid overlap with the upcoming election, and she’s plowed ahead with other legislative priorities, including announcing that she’d reached an agreement on a new trade deal with Trump on the same day that Democrats announced articles of impeachment against him.
“When leaders are sending completely different messages about when and where pressure should be brought to bear, you can have all the Facebook groups you want, but you’re not going to be able to solve the problem of, What should we do and when?” Putnam said.
There’s also been a degree of exhaustion among Democrats, some organizers told me. The impeachment conversation has been under way for three years now, which is a long time to be angry. “I think there’s a certain amount of outrage fatigue,” Tazewell said. That reality, more than anything else, speaks to why impeachment hasn’t inspired organic mass protests: For many Americans, Fisher explains, it just hasn’t hit the same emotional sweet spot as other protest-worthy events did.
People have been “so inured to the amount of outrageous information coming out of the Trump administration,” Fisher says, “that it would have to be an amazing level of outrageous to get people so mobilized to take to the streets in a spontaneous fashion.” Successful mass protests usually follow a major event that leaves people feeling helpless, Fisher says, such as the inauguration of a loathed president or an act of violence. Despite liberals having a variety of reasons to want to impeach Trump, there wasn’t a similarly galvanizing occasion for them to rally around.
That rang true for many of the protesters I spoke with at last night’s rally. Barb Trader, a retiree from Frederick, Maryland, shrugged when I asked why there didn’t seem to be more interest in demonstrating. “People have picked the issues they care most about and are focused on that,” she said.
Progressive organizations like MoveOn and Indivisible know that impeachment hasn’t been the most electrifying issue, Fisher says, and they recognize the likelihood that Trump will remain in office through at least 2020. The intention behind the nationwide protests, she posits, wasn’t really to advocate for the president’s removal, but to channel grassroots energy toward the 2020 election—to defeat Trump at the ballot box instead. “They’re using this as a way of building momentum and support,” she says.
It’s not impossible that Democrats’ mobilizations this week could have an effect on the Senate trial, if not the House vote, setting the stage for a lively January. Maybe their demonstrations will make Republicans and squishy red-state Democrats think twice about voting against impeachment. But more likely, in the end, the Senate will vote as expected. It will be as if the protests never even happened.
The Democrats I spoke with last night have steeled themselves for this outcome.
“I’m not here because I think somebody’s going to vote differently,” Trader told me, her face flushed from the cold. “I want Congress to know that we are paying attention. And we will turn over seats because of this in 2020.”