After the shudder and wretch inducing inauguration, the incredibly successful Women’s March on Saturday was balm for a lot of our souls. A reminder that Trump does not have the support of the American people. Which is all well and fine, but what good does protesting actually do? Especially when the aims of the protest are so nebulous and ill defined? Even if we have the numbers, the bad guys have the power. Does all this marching and protesting actually matter? Are we just yelling to the wind as some critics have charged?
Well, I would argue that protests – especially large, noisy, hard to ignore protests do matter and will make a difference. And this is true even when there’s no specific policy goal or demands being made. Heck, the Republicans have spent the last 8 years (or longer) demonstrating that protest works, even when no one actually agrees with what you are trying to do.
The reason that protests work and are worthwhile has to do with the way that most people think about politics and the political process. Which is to say that they really don’t. Most Americans are what are referred to as “low information voters“, meaning that they aren’t keeping up with all the ins and outs of what’s going on in the political and policy world. And let’s face it, with the complexities and competing narratives surrounding politics, a lot of people are going to struggle to make sense of what’s going on even if they did paying attention. So what most people rely instead when forming their opinions are called heuristics, or rules of thumb, in evaluating the political sphere.
One of the important heuristics which people use when deciding whether a president (or party, but mainly the president) is doing well or not is the presence of open conflict. If there’s open conflict, that sends a signal to voters that the president is not doing his job well. If there’s relative quiet and things are getting done – even if they are things that voters don’t necessarily agree with – that sends a signal to voters that the president is doing a good enough job. This is a well documented phenomena which has strongly influenced which party holds power in the legislative branch for the last 30 years.
Typically, the conflict is created by the politicians from each party on capital hill. But given the Democrats’ demonstrable inability and unwillingness to provoke and sustain conflict, the work of creating conflict has fallen to the American people. While conservatives have been busy having a meltdown over the protests which basically amounts to screeching “shut up stupid women” over and over, this massive show of discontent and opposition sends a powerful signal to the average low information voter that there’s a problem. And when there’s a problem, it’s the president and his party which gets blamed.
Of course, one protest isn’t going to change things, popular though narratives about “protests that changed the course of history” are. In order to bring about change, there needs to be sustained efforts, protests and confrontations which keep the conflict front and center in the public’s eye. At this point it seems likely that those of us who oppose Trump aren’t going to settle quietly back into normal life. The election of Trump has already radicalized a significant number of people. And Trump appears determined to do his part to keep the movement motivated and active.
The problem we face is that Trump and the GOP are authoritarians who don’t much care what the public thinks or wants. And the GOP has managed to gerrymander and essentially cheat their way into a permanent grip on power. Which just makes it all the more important that we continue to engage in frequent, highly visible displays of opposition. While our opposition may not move Trump or lawmakers, the public has the expectation that the president will create peace, not turmoil. Really, there’s nothing that the average Joe blow wants less than a breakdown of social order and the ongoing presence of this conflict will send a powerful signal to them that the president is failing in his most basic tasks and duties.
The danger of pursuing a course of action which maximizes conflict is that Trump’s authoritarian impulses will lead him and/or his supporters to respond with a show of force meant to shut down opposition. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the kinds of state violence which we observed against Standing Rock water protectors will become common place throughout the country.
However, a president who essentially goes to war against his own people will be signing his own resignation papers. Americans value peace and order (at least within our own borders), but at the very core of our identity is that we are a free people. We can be manipulated, but we’re damn hard to exert control over. No president who openly turns on masses of his own people will long endure. And when that president seems to be going out of his way to be as divisive and unpleasant as humanly possible, people are not likely to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I mention the possibility of provoking a dangerous, repressive response because we need to be honest with ourselves about what we’re dealing with. However, I don’t think it will come to that. While it’s been criticized by the “give cheeto Mussolini a chance” brigade, the fact that there is such intense opposition right out the gate will work to our advantage so long as we maintain it going forward. Donald Trump is a thin skinned, vengeful billionaire who isn’t used to engaging in fights that he can’t just buy his way out of. He’s also a megalomaniac who has to bring his own cheering section with him where ever he goes. Either he’s going to start trying to placate us (getting rid of his appointees and advisers who have ties to white nationalists would be a great place to start). Or he’s going to continue to misstep badly. Either way works to our advantage.
Never forget: both reality and the will of the American people are on our side. So protest away! It’s going to make all the difference.