Cold, overcast, and windy, the afternoon was not one of New York City’s nicest. Despite this, thousands stood outside of Trump Tower on Nov. 12, shouting “New York hates you!” and “Can’t build a wall, hands too small!” Inside, Trump, our King Lear of a president-elect, lingered on one of the top floors of his towers, no doubt trying to resist tweeting out a series of angry 140-character rants.
The protestors remained for hours, chanting “Black Lives Matter!” along with “Build a fence around Mike Pence!” They held signs that read My Pussy Bites Back and Not Mein Fuhrer. Their ages were varied, some high school students, some senior citizens. Many were in their twenties, but anyone expecting a protest filled with college students would be surprised at the various backgrounds the protestors came from.
The police blocked the protestors off one street away from Trump Tower, no doubt afraid of the crowd’s anger. And angry the crowd was. During the march to Trump Tower, when the temperature had been a little warmer and the sky a little less cloudy, many laughed and shouted out jokes; but the atmosphere in the shadow of Trump’s fortress was anything but light. Jokes were slim, insulting chants and angry gestures were many. Whenever one of the denizens of Trump Tower stepped onto a balcony, the protestors would scream “Shame! Shame!” or “Pay your taxes!” Fury filled the air, so many feeling betrayed by the results of the presidential elections, and, now, after having to sit with it for days, they could unleash their feelings at the building that housed the man who’d come to represent the antipathy of social progress.
On the other side of the nation, in sunnier Los Angeles, thousands of protestors also marched, chanting many of the same slogans. In Middle America, just the night before, protestors in Iowa had blocked the I-80. That same night, New Orleans filled up with hundreds furious with Trump’s win, with a country that allowed someone like him to ascend the ranks. That such displays could be found in all corners of the country for a week straight was not just noteworthy, but almost without historical precedence. The last time a presidential election resulted in so many Americans marching was when Abraham Lincoln took power.
Responses to the protests were predictable. Americans, despite living in a nation forged in revolution, have an authoritarian streak that results in them disliking protests. Many called them crybabies, Fox News accused them of being paid disrupters while its anchors questioned whether the protestors even knew what they were doing, and Trump himself tweeted out a complaint. To put the criticisms succinctly, as I overheard someone at my gym say, “Why doesn’t someone just run them all over?”
I’d like to think the gentleman at my gym is an outlier, but he’s probably not. I attended the November 12th protest and had many ask me what the point of it was at this juncture; even some who hated Trump did not understand the point. Trump already won and was well on his way to establishing his cabinet, an orgy of evil. Why bother taking to the streets? What good could it possibly do now?
Czechoslovakia. 1989. November. After decades of rule by an oppressive one party state government, the citizens of Czechoslovakia took to the streets in, mostly, non-violent protest. Hundreds of thousands came out after a student protest clashed with the police, although this incident was merely the one that broke the camel’s back. Dissent was already rippling under the surface. In a matter of weeks, the current government found its back broken; too many people marched in the streets, abandoning their jobs. The country had come to a standstill. The leaders had to step down. The country began to move to a parliamentary form of government.
The United States is not Czechoslovakia. The size of the United States makes replicating the events during the Velvet Revolution a daunting, although not impossible, task. But the Velvet Revolution does show that protesting a government can have long-lasting effects, especially if the protests are consistent. Since the protests in the week following Trump’s election, there have been protests not targeted solely at Trump himself, but at the entire Republican government, particularly around the issue of immigration. Already marches are being planned for Inauguration weekend, including a million woman march. More will be sure to come as the country lumbers towards one of the most depressing inaugurations in the United States’ history. Will these protests make Trump step down? Will it force Mitch McConnell to hand the reigns of the Senate over to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren?
Almost certainly not. But they don’t need to. Trump is a unique figure in the current political landscape, because he is singularly susceptible to the effects of protesting. Trump has blasted Obama for the past four years, but, upon meeting him, he immediately took a liking to him simply because Obama treated him with respect. This incident gets at the heart of Trump: as much as he likes to portray himself as a maverick who hates political correctness and the current establishment, he needs nothing more than to be liked. That need has been at the heart of Trump’s now forty-year public temper tantrum. For there to be consistent, angry protests will, at the very least, unsettle Trump and may make him reconsider taking certain actions. He will scream and shout about the protests, especially on Twitter, but, when the Trump rallies dry up and there’s only protesting, he’s going to do anything he can to get back to the days when, from his perspective, people loved him. If there is even a possibility that protests could result in Trump not creating Muslim registries, then protesting becomes a moral duty.
Marches and protests will likely have less direct effect on Paul Ryan, a person whose economic policies are so sociopathic that they border on the satirical, but Ryan still must manage the House of Representatives. Should he go forward with his plans, he will need to explain to his colleagues how they can spin privatizing social security and Medicare to their constituents. If people are used to marching to protect their rights and make their voices heard, then Republican congressmen will be less willing to cave in on unpopular policies. Running a re-election campaign is hard when hundreds are in the streets, saying you took away Medicare.
Trump, too, would be angered if Ryan’s plans resulted in outcry. Trump ran on the platform of not cutting Medicare at all. Should Ryan go full austerity, Trump’s popularity will be hurt, and we can all guess how he would react to that. Trump is not as ideological as Ryan, Trump simply doesn’t have the intellectual curiosity to develop anything outside of very basic platforms, so he will be less married to austerity and much more likely to be persuaded by popular opinion. Should people be ready to make their opinions known, it is not impossible that Trump may end up hearing them and punishing the Republican Party for the tumult.
Despite the right wing’s distaste of protests, whether they’re over Trump, the Iraq War, or the Dakota Access Pipeline, the right managed a very effective protest movement that the left could learn from: the Tea Party.
The Tea Party was filled with austerity-adoring racists, such as Ted Cruz, who took Congress by storm in 2010. That the Tea Party could load Congress up with the worst examples of humanity you can think of is disturbing; however, it should also be a signal to leftists who are lamenting Trump’s win. If the Tea Party managed a Congressional takeover only two years after Obama’s decisive victory, then progressives should be able to do the same, especially by 2020 (2018’s math makes it difficult, but not impossible, for Democrats to retake control). To have a Tea Party of the left, there needs to be organization and protests are a great way to begin such organization. You already have a mass of people with, at least, somewhat similar goals crowded into the same area.
Some steps have already been taken in this regard. Due to the success of Bernie Sanders, a leftist populist movement has been growing, with organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) receiving an influx of new members. Sanders himself has started an organization that aims to place progressive politicians into the government: Our Revolution. The organization aims to elect progressive Democrats by primarying corporate Democrats and to help pass referendums that mirror progressive policy. It has already had some success in both areas.
If Our Revolution or the DSA or another group that soon arises manages to mimic the Tea Party’s ability to get rid of dead wood and put in new candidates, then the future will look a little brighter. However, for this to happen, there will need to be grassroots movements larger than the ones the Tea Party had, especially since the Tea Party had the help of Koch Brothers cash, something progressive movements will not be able to call on. The protests can be the start of these movements, the place where people meet, learn about allies, about organizations, about new candidates. Remember those Tea Party rallies, the ones where people held signs such as Keep Your Government Hands Off My Medicare? The ones that, back in 2009, we all laughed at? Well, they made a difference. Not only did they get in candidates that subscribed to the Tea Party’s vision, they also put the Republicans currently in office on notice: get in line or this mobilized force will take you down. Imagine if progressives had an organization like that, one that could threaten Chuck Schumer if he gives an inch on Medicare or could call for a presidential candidate to embrace socialized health care.
Despite the mass protests, despite the reasons why they could change the political landscape, there is still the possibility that, in the end, they will achieve little. People might get tired of marching against Trump, the media might normalize his antics to an extent that his behavior starts to seem acceptable, the Republicans might dismantle the welfare system piece by piece so no one notices right away. It’s also possible that the protests will fall under such heavy criticism that they end out of a feeling of rejection. During the Vietnam War, conservatives did an excellent job painting war protestors as out of work hippies who just wanted to start trouble. Trump and the Republicans are already attempting to do the same to the opposition today.
Then, of course, there is the threat of state violence. Without a doubt, the police will strike back at protestors. They did so during the Vietnam protests, during Occupy Wall Street, continue to during Black Lives Matter and Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and they will no doubt do it during anti-Trump protests. The police state aims to crush any protest that has real movement, because, thanks to the militarization of the police, the police are more interested in protecting the state than in protecting the people.
Yet there is still hope. The protests have been so widespread and so well attended that, short of outright military force to stop them, they cannot go unnoticed. If enough people make enough noise consistently, with a vision towards policy, then change can begin. The urge to protest was struck down in America during Vietnam. Those who protested were smeared as anti-authority and anti-American. It’s been several generations, though. The protest is ready to return. It won’t be the end of Trump, not right away, but it could be the start of a new progressive movement. It’s not guaranteed to work, but it is guaranteed to fail if we don’t take to the streets now.