A lot of words came to mind as I watched thousands of protesters shut down a Donald Trump rally in Chicago: inspiring, desperately needed, worthy of emulation. “Unproductive” certainly wasn’t one of them.
Yet over the past week and a half — with the disruptions and protests against Trump blossoming into something of a movement — that’s exactly where elite liberals seem to have landed.
Shortly after the aborted Chicago rally, Ron Grossman wrote at the Chicago Tribune, “If there is a genetic marker for carrying a picket sign, I’ve got it . . . But the time has come to halt the demonstrations.” New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait described the protests to stop Trump from speaking as a “horror.” And Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) chastised activists, telling them that “if you have a grievance with Trump, and I sure do, take it to the ballot box, not the barricade.” In brief, punish Trump — vote in November.
But of course, confining politics to the polling station automatically excludes a huge portion of the population, from undocumented immigrants (a favorite target of Trump’s) to young people (like the Latino high schoolers who heard taunts of “Trump! Trump!” and “Build the wall!” at a recent basketball game in Iowa) to the millions of American citizens, disproportionately African American, who have been stripped of the franchise because of felony convictions. Moreover, limiting politics to the act of voting fundamentally constrains the scope of social change we can bring about — and the reactionary forces that we can thwart.
The proffered solution of liberal elites, content denizens of the Democratic Party, is as convenient as it is inadequate. Successfully checking Trump’s rise will demand political action that goes far beyond the ballot box. It will require a fight for real democracy — not just trusting that a candidate who supports the very neoliberal policies that helped birth Trump can now drain the swamp. It will entail confrontations and real ideological battles that cannot be resolved simply through empathy, as George Lakey suggests. Passively waiting until November won’t do the trick.
For the liberals who oppose the anti-Trump protests, this kind of talk is the mark of an anti-democratic left. As Chait laments:
Because Trump is so grotesque, and because he has violated liberal norms himself so repeatedly, the full horror of the goal of stopping Trump from campaigning (as opposed to merely counterdemonstrating against him) has not come across. But the whole premise of democracy is that rules need to be applied in every case without regard to the merit of the underlying cause to which it is attached. If you defend the morality of a tactic against Trump, then you should be prepared to defend its morality against any candidate.
President Obama, after denouncing Trump’s “vulgar and divisive rhetoric,” expressed similar objections:
We’ve seen misguided attempts to shut down that speech. However offensive it may be, we live in a country where free speech is one of the most important rights that we hold.
Moving further to the left, longtime labor journalist David Moberg pleaded with protesters to play a game of “political jiu-jitsu” with Trump, to present a counter-message without shutting down events in order to prove the Left’s free speech bona fides.
But this is fundamentally wrongheaded. Trump rallies are not some abstract site where speech occurs. They are venues of hate where dissenters are attacked (by Trump supporters and staffers alike), where violence is condoned, and where Trump spews toxic bigotry. This climate of hate and brutality has a pernicious impact, mixing with a nationwide environment in which assaults on people of color are growing amid an uptick in hate groups.
The Southern Poverty Law Center found that last year the number of such organizations increased 14 percent; the United States is now home to at least 1,890 of them, with Klan groups accounting for a substantial portion of the jump.
Last August, just two months after Trump announced his candidacy, two men in Boston cited him — “Donald Trump was right. All these illegals need to be deported” — as they beat a homeless man they perceived to be an undocumented immigrant. Recently, supporters appear to have formed a group to monitor protesters that takes its name from a Mussolini quote Trump retweeted and defended.
Certainly, Trump and his supporters are not as organized as far-right formations elsewhere, particularly in Europe. But the billionaire is providing a point of unity for much of the extreme right. In addition to garnering the support of David Duke, Trump has been anointed by others in the same precincts as their “glorious leader.”
Free speech, while an indispensable principle of democracy, is not an abstract value. It is carried out in the context of power disparities, and has real effects on peoples’ lives. We can defend freedom of speech — particularly from state crackdowns — while also resolutely opposing speech that scapegoats the most vulnerable and oppressed people in our society.
Believing in democracy and free speech doesn’t mean paying deference to the authoritarian demagogues of the world. The notion that immigrants must allow a billionaire to get on stage and compare them to snakes while hoping that voters will not elect him in November is both insulting and dangerous. The idea that black activists should turn the other cheek and stand idly by as Trump supporters beat them and threaten to murder them isn’t just patronizing, it could get someone killed.
If anything, the protesters who nonviolently shut down Donald Trump should be heralded as guardians of democracy. They did not call for the state to prevent Trump from speaking, and rightly so. Instead, they demonstrated the power of collective action and asserted that ordinary people, rather than a billionaire demagogue, would be heard. And what they said was clear: racism is not welcome here.
What glib invocations of free-speech rights miss is that democratic rights aren’t some unchanging, ethereal thing. They’re contested, subject to erosion, fraught with internal tensions. Sometimes a combative scrum — not the marketplace of ideas — is the face of democracy. Severe threats to equality often push people to act militantly, marshaling their own speech to ward off their authoritarian foes. This — not the abrogation of democracy, but its protection — is what we’re witnessing with the anti-Trump movement.
In addition to complaining about abridgements of free speech, liberal writers have argued that protesting Trump only plays into his hands and further polarizes politics.
The vast majority of the country, however, already views Trump unfavorably. He may claim to speak for a “silent majority,” but if polling is to be believed, he doesn’t have one behind him. And it’s difficult to argue that increasingly chaotic rallies would inspire confidence among middle-of-the-road voters that his presidency would be much different.
Seen from this angle, the strategy protesters are employing seems quite sensible: impair the circulation of Trump’s hate-filled message, inject turmoil into his events, and further isolate him from the American mainstream.
As for polarization, liberals give Trump too much credit. The country was already firmly divided. Vitriol and unrest are the manifestations of underlying economic and social trends, not the causes of deep societal fissures.
The more pertinent question is whether years of anger over declining wages, austerity policies, state violence, and social oppression will fuel movements and candidates pushing for equality and popular control, or nativism and repression.
There’s no doubt that Trump has an angry base that’s been left behind. On Super Tuesday, “Trump Country” — places where he won overwhelming majorities, sometimes approaching 70 percent — shared one characteristic: they were areas, often former industrial towns, with high levels of white unemployment.
For too long, the Left has been too disorganized to provide a real alternative to the policies that ravaged these communities. But since 2011, we have seen cracks in the political and economic system that, while small, reveal a deep discontent with the status quo.
In this sense, the polarization driving the election is both beneficial and crystallizing. When thousands of people took to the streets of Chicago against Trump and hundreds shut down the rally from inside the pavilion, CNN informed viewers that “No one delights in this.”
Except, of course, the thousands of people across the country who were filled with joy, seeing that many people not only shared their distaste for Trump’s bigotry, but were willing to do something about it. In this election year — a referendum on neoliberal politics — we must take aim at Trump’s bigotry and the politicians in both parties who have enabled him at every turn.