Protesting Trump: how to make it work, how to make it last

Keep it lit. EPA/Erik S Lesser

The protests that have erupted since Donald Trump’s most recent executive order was signed have been impressive. They were quickly organised and continue to be large in scale. But there is a long road ahead. So how can those opposed to Trump’s policies continue to pile on the pressure?

The latest opposition to Trump’s policies began with airport protests and quickly spread to include city centre demonstrations across the United States from New York to Washington, Los Angeles to Dallas. Then came events in the UK, largely aimed at pushing the government into unambiguously denouncing Trump’s new immigration policy.

The rapidity with which the protests came together in part reflects the increased frequency of these kinds of demonstrations during the so-called “age of austerity”. A growing proportion of the population is becoming familiar with demonstrations in public spaces as a way of sending a message to those in power. Governments have become increasingly unable or unwilling to meet the welfare demands of their citizens, who as a result have sought new and more disruptive ways to ensure their voice is heard.

In a sense, therefore, the speed with which anti-Trump protests have come together – facilitated by social media – is a continuation of pre-existing movements such as Black Lives Matter.

Maintaining momentum

Once mobilised, the longevity of protest movements are often determined by both the responses of those in power, and the subsequent further responses of the protesters. For those in power, the question is whether, and how, to respond. Should this involve repression, concessions or control of the media narrative? Once one or more of these strategies begins to succeed in containing protest movements, then the momentum of those movements starts to dwindle.

And while the appearance of success for a protest movement tends to result in a gathering of momentum, the sense that it has exhausted itself, or achieved all that it is able to, tends to result in its gradual demise.

Protesters gather at JFK airport. EPA

Perhaps one of the biggest lessons that we have learned during the so-called “age of austerity” is that for protest movements to maintain momentum they need to continuously innovate. They need to find new ways in which to disrupt the containment strategies of those in power.

This raises the question of whether we should consider the recent anti-Trump protests to have been so far successful, and why.

Trump shows little sign of wavering as a result of the protests, but he has undoubtedly been pushed onto the defensive. He has denied that the ban on the entry of the nationals of the seven Muslim-majority countries was at all a Muslim ban, and reversed an initial ban on those with green cards.

The protest movement has also obviously resulted in a massive politicisation of the issue, creating a more receptive climate for the multiple legal challenges of the executive order. It has also clearly put pressure upon international leaders to condemn the policy.

Keeping it disruptive

In terms of impact, research also suggests that, in a context in which those in power are unreceptive or unresponsive, it is the more disruptive forms of protest that are more likely to have an effect on policy outcomes. So a key factor in determining the longevity and success of the anti-Trump protest movement will be the degree to which it can disrupt both the functioning of the administration and its media narrative. This also needs to be done in a way that seeks to minimise the scope for repression, or the further marginalisation of minorities.

Perhaps one of the reasons that the airport-based protests have so far been relatively successful, therefore, is that they have been disruptive. In practical terms, they have frustrated travel operations, and provided solidarity for those targeted by the ban, but they have also worked to shift the media discourse away from what would otherwise be the more controlled messages of the White House.

The protesters also seem to be enjoying the support of the general public and international leaders. It therefore remains relatively difficult (but clearly not impossible) for more directly repressive measures to be deployed, especially in response to what are ostensibly innocuous activities, such as gathering at an airport.

If and when Trump is able to get more control over the media narrative, however, to decry the actions of protesters as a threat to the security of “ordinary” US citizens, the tables could turn. At this point, there will be a greater risk of repressive measures being taken.

Especially important, therefore, is for protesters to avoid succumbing to governing strategies that divide “good” (legitimate) protesters from “bad” protesters. If Trump can succeed in depicting that latter as a threat to public safety, he can legitimise the use of repressive measures against them.

What is important in the coming weeks, months and years of contesting Trump is to continue to find new ways to disrupt both the practical operation of the Trump administration, and its media narrative. These protests will also need to continue to attract sufficient numbers, and to maintain the degree of unity necessary to minimise the administration’s ability to marginalise those who are expressing dissent.

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