By Yuram Abdullah Weiler

Protest Paradox: On the futility of liberal “resistance” in the age of Trump

July 8, 2017

“If the State authority is open to democratic influence, the demonstration will hardly be necessary; if it is not, it is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat.” —John Berger (1926–2017)

From the Boston Tea Party to the civil rights movement and mass rallies against the war on Vietnam in the 1960s, the United States has a long history of public protest, some of which has taken the form of civil disobedience and involved violence.  Opposing the citizens’ expression of dissent is a government, allegedly “of the people by the people and for the people,” which has frequently employed force to suppress the selfsame right it is supposedly sworn to uphold.

Given the widespread opposition to the Trump regime coalescing in the United States, governments, particularly in those states with Republican leadership, are taking countermeasures in the form of attempting to pass legislation criminalizing protest.  While some of the proposed legislation has already been rejected, much of the insidious intent of disrupting dissent has now been codified in police training manuals nationwide and, of course, in Trump’s own rhetoric.

Among the concepts codified in the debate over dissent are the “paid protestor” and “violent protests.” but even more chilling are the legal attempts at blurring the distinction between riots and protests.  Yet these attempts, disturbing as they may be, predate Trump’s ascendancy to power.  For example, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA), which coined the term “eco-terrorist,” was passed by the U.S. Congress in 2006.  Under AETA, individuals were convicted of “animal enterprise terrorism” and incarcerated for up to six years for merely being administrators of an animal rights website.

Examples of state violence against protestors and suppression of dissent abound in American history.  One of the most egregious examples is during a labor dispute at Ludlow, Colorado in April of 1914.  The strike by miners working for the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation was triggered by the murder of one of the United Mine Workers Union organizers, but was in protest of low wages, dangerous working conditions and feudal-like company towns.  The Colorado governor called for federal troops to restore order, which resulted in the massacre of 66 men, women and children.

In 1967, Blacks came out in huge numbers in protest of their ongoing oppression and disenfranchisement by the white-dominated U.S. political system. After 83 Blacks had been killed in protests in Newark and Detroit, the U.S. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  However, the system hedged against itself by creating an exception for members of the National Guard or other armed forces engaged in riot control.  The legislation also added another loophole for police by defining a “riot” as an action by 3 or more people involving threats of violence.

Still, something feels qualitatively different with the arrival of the Trump regime.  Perhaps it is the vicious vulgarity of the current U.S. commander-in-chief, a bombastic billionaire who has no qualms over voicing his disdain for the poor.  In any case, the shift can be sensed in the mainstream media, where news commentators, like Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, present a scathing, sarcastic verbal volley against Trump and his machinations, while admitting that they have no idea how to reverse what now appears to be an unstoppable juggernaut.  

Perhaps the queasy feeling in the stomach over Trump comes from the apparent contradiction between the populist rhetoric in his inaugural address and his vigorous crackdown against any hint of criticism. The editors of the Des Moines Register pointed out that Trump assured the citizenry that his ascendancy ushered in the “transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the people.”  Yet when 1,000 in the U.S. State Department signed a letter in protest over Trump’s policies, they were given the choice of either to “get with the program” or resign. “This represents a seismic shift in attitude toward respectful, constructive dissent,” wrote the editors of the newspaper located in the conservative heartland of America.

This is where English art critic, author and poet John Berger, the interlocutor of the opening epigram, got it right concerning the value of demonstrations.  Protest without the threat of force, or at least the potential threat thereof, is completely ineffective on a government devoid of any democratic inclination.  And the tyrannical tycoon Trump is certainly not open to any sort of democratic influence.  As evidence of the veracity of this assertion, consider that on January 20 2017, over 200 people were arrested for merely protesting the ignominious icon’s inauguration and now face up to 75 years in prison if convicted.

In an insightful 1968 essay titled “The Nature of Mass Demonstrations,” Berger wrote, “Theoretically demonstrations are meant to reveal the strength of popular opinion or feeling: theoretically they are an appeal to the democratic conscience of the State.”  But in the absence of any such democratic conscience—and this is clearly the case with the Trump regime—Berger explained that the government “is unlikely to be influenced by an empty show of force containing no real threat.”

So far, all the liberal “resistance” movements such as Indivisible, which is the source behind numerous local grass roots groups, suffer from a lack of a credible threat to the U.S. political establishment.  In short, these groups are attempting to effect change within a corrupt and broken system, as Indivisible readily concedes on their web site:  “Indivisible energizes and informs Americans about government’s potential and enlists them to imagine and create the government we need for all to have a safe, healthy, just and prosperous future.”  Most likely, Berger would deem demonstrations sponsored by liberal “resistance” groups such as Indivisible as “a mere public spectacle.”

Liberal “resistance” movements represent a futility in this age of Trump, since, according to professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin Robert Jensen, “Liberals typically decry the worst excesses of capitalism and empire, but don’t critique the system at a more basic level.”  Jensen, who considers himself a “leftist” or a “radical,” wrote that leftists “reject the idea that the United States has the right to dominate the world, refuting the assertion that we are uniquely benevolent in our imperial project.”  For his part, Trump, with his motto of “Make America Great Again,” is evidently in league with those Americans who believe they have a right to dominate the world.

Yet Trump is merely a symptom of the problem of the worst excesses of capitalism, and not the problem itself, which can only be addressed with the help of demonstrations that are, in Berger’s words, “rehearsals for revolution.”   For a demonstration to be effective according to Berger, the participating protestors must be willing to provoke violence upon themselves.  The purpose of the self-imposed violence is in order “to show the injustice, cruelty, irrationality of the existing State authority.”  For as the American poet, philosopher and tax resister Henry David Thoreau wrote in 1849, “Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison.”

In other words, protesters must join movements whose ideologies represent a tangible threat to the corrupt U.S. political establishment.  Unless Americans are willing to work outside and against the system by embracing radical, alternative ideologies, their demonstrations will not be effective against an American government that lacks any democratic conscience.


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