There are two possible outcomes from the huge anti-Trump marches the day after the new president’s inauguration. Perhaps, having made their protest, the marchers will go home and spend the next four or even eight years stewing and posting angry comments online.
Or the protests could morph into a sustained and powerful movement that sees Trump defeated and more progressive forces returned to Congress and the Presidency. Such a movement would at the same time transform American society.
Since the high point of social protest in the 1960s and 1970s, the power of the demonstration has waned. The reasons are complex, and include individualization, the decline of the organized left and the depoliticisation of the young, through to more effective counter-measures by police.
In addition, politicians learned to understand protests and could, with the help of opinion pollsters and detailed electoral analysis, decide which to take seriously and which to ignore.
Nothing drove home the dismal reality of this more than the 2003 demonstrations around the world against the Bush-Blair war in Iraq. Some 10-15 million took to the streets. In Australia, 600,000 marched against sending Australian troops, a massive number unprecedented in the history of social protest.
At its peak the anti-Vietnam war movement attracted 200,000 to the first Moratorium marches in May 1970. The size of the turnout astonished organisers and spooked politicians.
So how did Prime Minister Howard react when vast crowds marched against his Iraq war plans? Like President Bush and Prime Minister Blair, he just ignored them. His advisers had done the numbers and worked out that opposition to the war was not going to see the government defeated.
The Moratorium marches came at the end of several years of determined campaigning, from small beginnings to a mass movement that drew together students, churches, women’s groups, trade unions and many more. They rallied, leafleted, picketed, occupied, stopped LBJ’s limousine, burnt draft cards, staged strikes, held prayer vigils, petitioned parliaments and held scores of public meetings.
The 1970 Moratorium marches themselves followed months of organizing by hundreds of activists across the country. They were outgrowths of a movement.
The 2003 Iraq protests, while undoubtedly capturing a groundswell of opposition, were one-off events. After the marches ended, nothing happened. The organisers, and most of those marching, had at the back of their minds a theory of social change that was wrong. They believed that if enough people got out onto the streets, and the media reported their message, then “the government will have to listen”.
When the government did not listen and the war went ahead people became disillusioned and cynical. Nothing, it seemed, could change the system. “When they couldn’t stop the war, most of them never came out again,” said Tariq Ali.
The leaders of this week’s anti-Trump protests do not entertain such a misconception. The purpose of the marches is to start a movement, so their meaning and effectiveness will depend on what happens next.
Conditions for success
To build a movement that defeats the Trump forces (which now include the Murdoch media in the US and Australia), a number of things will need to happen. First, the rage of the protesters and those who were with them in spirit will have to be maintained. Trump will do this for them as he commits one outrage after another. He does not know how to behave otherwise.
Secondly, the movement will need a leadership that can keep together the broad and potentially fractious groupings in the anti-Trump camp. As I see it, the pressures to keep them united – the shared fear and loathing for Trump – will outweigh those that could divide them – for example, splits between those for whom racism is the dominant issue and those who want to appeal to the white working class that gravitated to Trump.
Thirdly, it will need to be vigilant about being white-anted from within by those who would see the movement direct all its energies to campaigning for the Democratic Party. The dominant faction of the Democrats, the ones who worked hard to undermine Bernie Sanders, is as much part of the problem as it is part of the solution.
The defeat of Hillary Clinton, the Wall St candidate and ultimate Washington insider with links to shady money from around the world, ought to permit the more radical, populist, grass-roots tendency in the party to become stronger. It is they that the anti-Trump movement will need to work with if it is not to have its energy drained away.
These are the basics. All sorts of other unpredictable and uncontrollable factors may come into play – terrorist attacks, war, alt-right violence, malicious work by WikiLeaks, CIA black ops, militant splinter groups and whether Trump’s economic ambitions are realized.
Beyond all of those imponderables, perhaps the biggest challenge is to understand what has happened to American society: How is it that a man like Donald Trump could ever be elected president? And beyond their particular demands, what kind of America do the anti-Trump forces want to create?
Clive Hamilton is the author of What Do We Want? The Story of Protest in Australia, recently published by the National Library of Australia.