Thankfully, the temperature in Vermont on Thursday January 7th, 2016 was warmer than the single digit weather that greeted the earlier part of the week. Sure, it was only around freezing, but in Vermont that’s a warm winter day.
The center of Burlington, Vermont’s downtown is a six or seven block pedestrian mall with cross streets. The pedestrian mall runs north to south and is named Church Street (a common street name in New England towns.) When my buddy and I got off the city bus at the north end of Church Street, a small crowd of union members and anarchists was gathering. I spoke with a few friends in the crowd before we headed south to the other end of the pedestrian mall. This is where the Flynn Theatre is. That is the venue Trump spoke at. The street the theatre is on—Main Street—was closed off for a block with police cars and barricades. The barricades also ran down both sides of the street, meaning the street itself was empty in that block except for numerous police from various agencies. The anti-Trump protesters were kept on the north side of the barricades, while the people hoping to get into the Trump event were on the south side. At this time the protester number perhaps 200; the line for the Trump attendees was about 2000. After fifteen minutes or so, my buddy went to get a cup of coffee and I headed back up to the top of Church Street. The crowd there had grown to about one hundred. We marched down the pedestrian mall, with many folks chanting anti-Trump and anti-fascist slogans. It took perhaps twenty-five minutes to meet up with the crowd at the south end of the mall opposite the Flynn Theatre. Our arrival swelled the growing crowd to around five hundred.
As the afternoon turned into evening, the temperature dropped below freezing, the protesting crowd continued to grow and the Trump supporters grew more boisterous. By 6 PM, the anti-Trump crowd was well over a thousand in number. Their chants were loud and referenced Trump’s racism and sexism, while also supporting immigrants and refugees. Across the street, Trump supporters responded with a couple oldies but goodies of the right wing crowd: “USA!USA! and “Get a Job!” Burlington city officials looked out of their offices in City Hall where a large hand-lettered sign in the windows read “Refugees welcome here.” The two crowds were substantially different in makeup. The protesters were about equally mixed in terms of gender and their ages ranged from a large number of high school and college aged youth to many gray and white haired folks with a fair smattering of those in between. Although it was mostly white skinned (like Vermont) the numbers of African-Americans, Latino and Asian people was much larger than that of those waiting in the mostly white male line to see Trump. Indeed, there could have been ten non-white folks in the crowd of protesters and that would have been more than those waiting to see Trump. As it later turned out, at least two of the African-Americans waiting to see Trump got thrown out for protesting him.
Many of the protesters carried hand-made signs. Popular slogans were No Hate in my State and Love conquers hate. My favorite, though was the one that simply read, “Mein Trumpf.” My favorite chant of the night was “Donald Trump you’re a liar/We wanna set your wig on fire.” When the line of those waiting to see Trump began to move, it became apparent that anyone wearing Bernie Sanders paraphernalia was being refused entrance. In addition, Trump security forces were questioning folks as to whether or not they supported Trump. If they answered in the negative, they were also tossed. Some of those not supporting Trump objected to this treatment and were threatened with arrest. Whether or not they would have been arrested was not tested. Despite these precautions by Trump’s brownshirts, a couple dozen anti-Trump supporters got in. Most got tossed over the course of the speech when they heckled the lout. After leaving, several indicated that the theatre was not completely full, despite Trump’s campaign giving away 20,000 tickets online.
Outside, the crowd fluctuated in size. I would guess that at its peak there were more than a thousand people protesting Trump’s presence. Many held candles, some chanted and shouted, some played music and danced, while most hung out in the cold, talking it up with others, occasionally joining in on the chants or the dancing, and enjoying the scene. A socialist friend of mine called it a festival of protest. I thought he described it perfectly. By 8:00 PM, the crowd was beginning to dwindle. I had to catch a bus and left the area around 8:30 PM. There were still several hundred protesters.
As I walked away, I noticed a young woman arguing with the father of a young girl on the crowd’s edge. The girl, who looked about twelve or thirteen, was holding a handwritten Trump sign. The father said he supported Trump because he was afraid for his daughter. ISIS and criminal migrants topped his list of fears. The young woman argued that she thought respect for other people’s religion and ethnicity was a better way to fight fear than the hatred Trump identifies with. The argument was spirited but not threatening to either of the young females. The crowd was chanting “Another world is possible” to the beat of a snare drum. There was a group of high school girls on the bus making fun of a guy wearing a Trump button who told them he was a nazi. This happened while they were standing in line to get in to the speech. When they got to the front of the line, they were asked if they supported Trump. They said no and were told they could not enter.
In our celebrity focused culture, getting people to focus on Trump’s politics and not his loutish behavior is a challenge, even among leftists. The discussions prior to the protests in Burlington included the suggestion to just ignore him. After all, we are told that he hates being ignored. While that might seem to make sense, I found it necessary to remind folks that one cannot ignore his politics. Instead, they must be challenged in every arena possible, including on the streets of every town he decides to speak in. Ignoring a wannabe fascist can easily be seen as weakness, not strength. These types of moral protest assume that people like Trump might actually have doubts as to the correctness of their views. The truth is, they don’t.
The Trump campaign reminds me of other campaigns I have observed in my lifetime: Ronald Reagan, the George Bush’s, and Richard Nixon’s. However, the one it most closely resembles is the 1968 and 1972 campaigns of Alabama’s George Wallace. Both campaigns were racist to the core and played on the fear of the working class white fear of a Black nation. His contempt for what he called the pinheads in DC was merely a cover for the anger southern white racists felt for the recent spate of laws passed by the federal government making racial segregation illegal. Despite the fact that the white power structure is still in command in the US South, along with the rest of the nation, politicians like Wallace and Trump know that they can manipulate white US residents’ fear of the Other to their advantage. Although Trump is not as overtly racist when it comes to African-Americans as Wallace was, this is only because he knows it wouldn’t play as well as it did fifty years ago. However, believe me, many of his supporters, advisors and donors are just as racist as Wallace’s were, if not more so. In order to hook in more mainstream voters, however, Trump plays on more current fears: Latin American immigrants and Muslims. By playing on these fears, Trump and his campaign can bring folks who might otherwise be turned off by the support he receives from nazis, klansmen and other white supremacist into his protofascist campaign, thereby opening these Middle Americans to the extremist politics of those extremist supporters.