On the first day of Trump’s administration, well over one out of every hundred Americans took to the streets to march and rally against the new President. A week later, airports around the country were flooded with protesters, forcing Trump’s team to back down on one of their signature proposals. In any normal parliamentary democracy, a crisis of legitimacy of this magnitude would have already led to the head of state stepping down and scheduling a new election.
This is America, and Hamilton and Madison and the rest feared the common rabble far too much to allow for that degree of instability, but even within the constitutional framework they designed, mass protest movements can be effective. A generation ago, such movements ended segregation, forced Lyndon Johnson out of office, and ended America’s quasi-genocidal war in Vietnam. More recently, the occupiers in Zucotti Park and other encampments around the country moved issues of income inequality and economic injustice to the forefront of national consciousness in a way that probably doomed the Presidential campaign of poor hapless Mitt Romney and which definitely paved the way for the insurgent campaign of Bernie Sanders and most recently the astonishing growth of Democratic Socialists of America.
The effectiveness of Occupy Wall Street was inseparable from the genius of its slogans. This isn’t a matter of precise accuracy. The really elite super-rich make up well under one percent of the population, and the broader ruling class is considerably larger. A businessman who ‘only’ has a hundred employees and who fires fifty of those hundred when they try to organize a union may not be anywhere near the top one percent of wealth-hoarders, but I hope no one in Zucotti mentally included him in the ‘we’ of “We are the ninety-nine percent!” Statistical nit-picking aside, the genius of the slogan was that it powerfully and succinctly conveyed the entirely accurate impression that the people whose interests are actually served by the current economic system are vastly outnumbered by their victims. The rules of political mobilization at that level resemble grenade-throwing far more than chess. It’s a context in which there absolutely is such a thing as ‘close enough.’
Still, we should be mindful of whether our grenades are being thrown in the right general direction. “Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Donald Trump Has Got To Go” is a perfectly fine slogan, even if it raises tricky questions about the prospect of a President Mike Pence. You don’t have to take any particular position about exactly where President Trump and his close advisor Steve Bannon land on the Kinsey Scale of Fascism to cheerfully chant, “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA!”
….but please, please stop chanting, “We Won The Popular Vote.”
It’s easy to see the rationale for this slogan. A popular vote victory is a source of legitimacy, Trump lacks it, ergo anything that reminds people of that usefully undermines Trump. Right?
There are at least three problems with that line of reasoning.
First and perhaps most obviously, it re-enforces the Fox News/talk radio narrative that anti-Trump protesters must just be Hillary partisans protesting the fact that their candidate didn’t make it to 270 electoral votes. “They’re just sore losers!”
Secondly, if Hillary had won, that wouldn’t have removed the need for street protests about the rights of immigrants and refugees. She was Secretary of State in an administration that deported more undocumented workers than all the Presidents in the twentieth century put together. She both diplomatically enabled a coup in Honduras and took a hard line on sending back Honduran children fleeing from the subsequent humanitarian disaster.
That’s not to say there’s no difference. Hillary would have violated immigrant rights to a ‘normal’ degree, like the sensible representative of the establishment that she is. Trump dialed those attacks up to eleven, like the crazed demagogue that he is. Even so, there’s no reason to pretend that Secretary Clinton has ever been on the right side of the struggle.
Finally, there’s a reason she didn’t get those 270 electoral votes. She was one of the most unpopular politicians in the history of polling even before she declared her candidacy. She combined the poisonous neoliberal politics of her husband with a stunning lack of charisma. (As she herself liked to put it, she wasn’t a “natural politician.”) Unlike Bernie Sanders, who as Barbara Ehrenreich said, “would have dispatched Trump’s populist pretension with a wrist flick,” Clinton defended NAFTA in her first debate with Trump. Facing tough battles in a series of economically depressed swing states, her message was literally that (as she said several times in those debates) “America is already great.”
Faced with a choice between pseudo-populist scapegoating and a miserable status quo defined by endless war abroad and the immiseration of the working class at home, a few million more people voted for Clinton than Trump, but the “we” of “we won the popular vote” leaves out not only the tiny smattering of people who voted for Jill Stein (and the somewhat larger number who voted for more popular protest candidates like Harambe, Deez Nuts, and Gary Johnson) but the more than ninety million eligible voters who stayed home in disgust. Adding in the Trump voters, more than a few of whom may see the error of their ways in the coming months, and we’re talking about seventy percent of eligible voters.
The vast majority of us aren’t protesting because we loved Hillary and she lost. We’re protesting because we’re against Trump’s racist bans, walls, and registries. We’re protesting because we want to defend abortion rights and collective bargaining rights and the rest against the vile judges Trump wants to put on the Supreme Court. We know damn well that, as George Carlin so memorably predicted, “they’re coming for your Social Security,” and with Paul Ryan as Speaker, Mitch McConnell as Majority Leader, and Trump as President, we’ve never been in greater danger of the Carlin Prophecy coming true.
Nothing can be gained from stitching the political corpse of a deeply unpopular and uninspiring politician to the living body of the movement to stop Trump, and telling seventy percent of the public that they aren’t part of our “we” is staggeringly counterproductive. The issues we’re mobilizing over impact the overwhelming majority of the population, not just the sixty-five million people who voted for Hillary Clinton. “We” didn’t win the popular vote, because we weren’t on the ballot. We are the ninety-nine percent.
Ben Burgis is a philosophy instructor at Rutgers University.