Former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum has been making the media rounds with some thought-provoking ideas about the Trump presidency and the risk that protests which lack a specific focus or which come across as a threat to public order may empower rather than constrain him.
In “What Effective Protest Could Look Like“, Frum argues:
With the rarest exceptions—and perhaps the January 21 demonstration will prove to be one—left-liberal demonstrations are exercises in catharsis, the release of emotions. Their operating principle is self-expression, not persuasion. They lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event. They seldom are aimed at any achievable goal; they rarely leave behind any enduring program of action or any organization to execute that program. Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them—and to empower the targets of their outrage.
Even those closely associated with the creation of Occupy Wall Street acknowledge that the lack of a coherent program of action with achievable objectives helped make the movement ineffective.
He also criticizes “the futile squabbling cul-de-sac of intersectionality and grievance politics” — a boldly stated position on the eternal question in progressive activism, namely whether disparate movements with progressive aims (reducing economic inequality, saving the climate, treating refugees justly, ending discrimination, curbing police violence, etc) can better achieve success by attempting to form a unified coalition that can alter policy or win elections, or whether each should be trying to build support among people of all political persuasions, and finding their effort hampered by the demand that anyone who they are trying to influence buy into the whole broad (though not necessarily coherent) progressive agenda at the same time.
In “How to Build an Autocracy“, Frum argues:
Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency. It will be a resource. Trump will likely want not to repress it, but to publicize it—and the conservative entertainment-outrage complex will eagerly assist him. Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags; Black Lives Matter demonstrators bearing antipolice slogans—these are the images of the opposition that Trump will wish his supporters to see. The more offensively the protesters behave, the more pleased Trump will be.
It’s also worth listening to The Current’s interview with Frum.
One aspect of Frum’s thinking which aligns with my own but clashes with that of many activists is that meetings are essential. While I have seen an entire activist group fall apart partly because of how frustrated people were with meetings, they are necessary for assembling a program of action that goes beyond socially-motivated and superficial support for causes your friends seem to approve of: Facebook activism and the occasional protest march not linked to a specific demand.
In any event, we need to be thinking carefully about activist effectiveness in terms not defined by what it does emotionally for activists. I would be very interested to hear responses to Frum’s arguments, along with links to any other analysis of the Trump situation which seems perceptive and useful.