Donald Trump’s March 13 rally in Boca Raton, Florida, was revealing. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank left the press corps and inserted himself into the core of the giant crowd. In that rally protesters had been screened out. Trump brought forth his usual inflammatory rhetoric, saying he might pay the legal fees of someone who sucker-punched a protester. Milbank reports, however, that the rally remained fairly tame. When Trump eventually asked, “Do we have a protester anywhere?” no one responded. Where was the drama?
Milbank noted, “Trump and his advisers seem to delight in the confrontations, which fuel the crowd’s energy.”
We activists might want to ask, “If Trump wants us to provide drama, why would we want to play his game?”
Fear could be making us reflexive here. It helps to remember that Trump has been winning about 40 percent of the voters in the Republican primaries, and Republicans are about 20 percent of the American electorate. That amounts to Trump gaining the vote of about 8 percent of the entire primary electorate. It’s a bit early to panic.
How we can unwittingly empower our opponents
A couple of weeks ago I joined a group of mostly white people concerned for racial justice that gathered because a reportedly militia-affiliated group was demonstrating at the Federal Building in Philadelphia. The demonstration supported Ammon Bundy’s January armed occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon and called attention to the killing of one of the group members by federal officials.
Before I joined the progressive group as it gathered around the corner from the Federal Building, I checked out the group we aimed to confront. I found about a dozen people carrying signs, clustering and chatting together, offering handouts to the few pedestrians who passed them. They were from out of town, and looked disoriented and very low-energy.
I rejoined my group and grabbed a sign as we went around the corner to face our opponents from across the street. As we marched toward our spot the other side straightened up, forming a line holding their signs so the passing drivers could actually see them. Their leader with a bullhorn began to speak. It began to look like a real demonstration.
A delegation from our side went across the street to dialogue. Then a few people not of our group came along our sidewalk, one carrying a bullhorn, and began to hurl accusations and insults at the group across the street. I saw body language on the other side go into heightened alert; people placed their feet farther apart and glared. Another set of activists came to our spot and then advanced across the street, blocking traffic in the lane closest to the opposing sidewalk while shouting at the demonstrators, who shouted back with spirit. Police stepped closer to remind all that they were being watched.
I imagined the out-of-town demonstrators’ reports at the dinner table and the bar when they got back home: “Well not much happened at first, but then the crazy political correctness people came and it got really interesting. We really showed them we’re not going to put up with the tyranny of the federal government.”
I joined our side in giving the militia-defenders a gift that day, supporting their empowerment in standing up for their cause.
Of course, I believe in the value of polarization in the living revolution — as prescribed by Alice Paul, Gandhi and King — and described by Mark and Paul Engler’s “This is an Uprising.” But there seems to be an art to polarization: We surely don’t want to spend our time empowering our opponents by giving them energy they need to build their movements. Artful polarization uses tactics that reduce the power of the opponent, undermining their commitment and reducing support from their allies. It also brings more light to the situation, as well as the inevitable heat.
Empathy as a national deficit
As Ender discovered, a resource for practicing the art of polarization is empathy, but where is that honored in our culture? When our nation’s leadership asks why terrorism continues to grow despite massive firepower, it rarely tries to get inside the worldviews of either leaders or recruits of terrorist groups. Institutionalized racism, classism and other oppressions flourish with the scarcity of empathy. To my regret, I didn’t ask, back in the 1960s, “Where does the violence of the members of the Ku Klux Klan come from?” I would have felt I was somehow letting down my cause if I turned to my empathy. That’s a pity, because I might have discovered how much the experience of capitalism was (and still is) a driver of the Klan.
For decades America’s white working class has been sliding downhill, accelerated by the Great Recession — schools failing, jobs departing, houses foreclosing, insecurity growing. There are even formerly middle-class people now identifying as working class. These increasingly marginalized people have for years felt themselves to be voiceless on the national political stage. Donald Trump offers a voice. When interviewed, his supporters forgive his contradictions because he speaks so loudly and vividly, outside the restrained stylistic norms of the elite.
“The protesters,” I can hear Trump’s supporters thinking to themselves, “want to silence our voice.”
Then the Trump campaign arranges a rally in a spot in Chicago likely to provoke more protesters. The rally is duly canceled. I can hear the Trump supporters growling: “The protesters are succeeding in silencing our voice!”
Do we want to be seen as trying to silence someone perceived as an advocate by some of the more oppressed people in our country?
In a culture tilted toward violence, scary scenarios are easy to imagine. Trump has found that his provocations succeed in manipulating leftists into protesting at his events. He has prepped many of his fans by talking violence, enacting bullying tactics and threatening to escalate by sending his people to disrupt Sanders rallies. One scenario is that his own supporters will, in groups or freelance, attack the demonstrations mounted by “elite leftists.”
Just as polarization can be either artful or destructive, escalatory tactics can be thoughtful or mindless. Alice Paul, King and others escalated thoughtfully. Californians watched middle-class environmentalists do the mindless version of escalation at the Children’s Pool beach in San Diego in the decade after 2005. Judging from the recent story on “This American Life,” environmentalists stepped up their angry and aggressive moves against the public when they faced resistance to their demand to reserve the beach for the harbor seals. Both sides went well beyond their better judgment.
Trump has already accused Sanders of directing protesters to disrupt his rallies, seeking to brand the left as the enemy. If anti-Trump protesters choose not to weigh the consequences, they will continue to protest — swallowing his bait — and we’re likely to see escalation at Trump rallies.
Such escalation has, at least, two consequences: It confirms the perception of the left as the enemy of beleaguered working-class people, whose voice “protesters are trying to silence.” It also invites escalation of the policing power of the state. Police violence has drawn criticism lately, but police will gain in legitimacy when the vast majority approves of police intervention to control the escalating tactics on both sides.
Trump has already threatened “riots” if the Republican establishment manages to avoid nominating him at the Cleveland convention. Where do his working-class supporters go if they find that the electoral arena did not work for them and believe that elitist leftists scorn them? The militias await.
The good news is that nonviolent struggle offers an abundant toolbox plus the invitation to creative thinking. Activists do not need to imitate the hammer that can see only nails. Protest is a tactic. This is a time for strategy.