The liberal establishment is positioning itself against anti-Trump protests across the country. Commentators, like the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah, are now calling for restraint, asserting that the recent protests and shutdowns are counterproductive and ultimately undermine the interests of Trump’s opposition.
I have a few thoughts on this.
First, if you are not among the groups of people most viciously dehumanized—and, really, targeted for worse—by Trump and his campaign, you probably have no business issuing such a critique. Seemingly, the current protest tactics are being employed, foremost, by immigrants and People of Color. It is these groups that, in the face of Trump’s campaign, rely on collective resistance to maintain dignity and well being. At this point, you need to make a choice. Are you going to stand with them or undermine them? I know I’ll be doing what I can to support these efforts, even if that means having difficult conversations with milquetoast liberals and progressives about why anti-Trump actions are reasonable and appropriate.
Next, the matter of these protests is not a free speech issue—at least not in the particular way it’s being presented. “Free speech,” strictly speaking, refers to how governments mediate and block the speech of citizens. What we have with the anti-Trump protests is citizens standing up to another citizen. (Though one might argue that Trump is more an agent of the state at this point, which further complicates these claims of a “free speech” issue.)
Let’s break down what’s really happening with these actions. The protesters are essentially using speech to challenge antagonistic, opposing speech from Trump. What gives the protest actions weight is simply the fact that large numbers of people back them, saying “dehumanizing others is unacceptable” or “Trump’s bigotry is not welcome here,” etc. There is nothing wrong with that.
And remember, even if protesters were to shut down every single Trump event, the man would still be capable of disseminating his toxic message without breaking a sweat. He would still have all of the US corporate news-media to use as a soapbox. He would still have his billions of dollars to promote his campaign for the presidency. The people standing up to Trump don’t have those things. By protesting, they’re simply doing what’s needed to do to allow for their speech to be heard. Without the protests, Trump would proceed to denigrate them without challenge and further erase their message. In this way, the protests actually promote a higher standard of free speech.
What’s more, the movement most insistently labeling the protests as a free speech issue—the US conservative movement—is one which regularly uses brazen and violent tactics that actually squelch free speech. Remember when a bunch of right-wing goons shut down the national dialogue on universal health care by showing up to town hall meetings across the country with firearms? Remember how the US conservative movement routinely calls for violent state repression in response to social justice movements like Black Lives Matter and Occupy Wall Street? What about the treatment of peaceful protesters at Donald Trump events?
These people are not serious about free speech. They wield the concept, selectively, to amplify their own voices and silence their opposition.
And consider this grim reality: the right’s brazen, heavy-handed tactics work. The US conservative movement, from its grassroots to elected officials, fights for exactly what it wants—tooth and nail. And its successes reflect that. The outcomes are horrendous, yes, but conservatives have for decades earned what they’ve sought. They understand how the system works.
Meanwhile, liberals and progressives have consistently lauded themselves for being more politically “sensible” and “reasonable”—more open to compromise. But where has it gotten us?
Well, the US is currently embroiled in several foreign imperial wars; our social programs have been decimated; structural racism infects our society from top to bottom; we still have an exclusionist for-profit health care system; we’re driving a global ecological crisis; we live in an economy characterized by malignant wealth inequality and widespread poverty; our infrastructure is crumbling; and our drinking water grows evermore toxic.
So, do you want to keep playing the game of “pragmatism”—i.e. pandering liberal and conservative establishments—and continue losing? Or do you want to stand firm, back what is right without equivocation, and take a real shot at finally stopping this madness?
Now is the time to make that choice.