Premature Anti-Trump Protests Are Counterproductive
The footage of the anti-Donald Trump marches and the belligerent Tweets criticizing the U.S. president-elect fill me with ambivalence. On the one hand, Trump's victory hardly makes me happy; then again, as someone who has seen, and taken part in, both successful and failed mass protests, I believe the liberal cause would be better served if the demonstrators stayed home.
Street protest is a powerful force. Almost three years ago, I watched people gathered in the center of Kiev topple the government and force the president to flee. Five years ago, I participated in more peaceful protests in Moscow that gave Vladimir Putin a major scare and achieved some concessions such as the easing of party registration rules and the return of gubernatorial elections.
In a far more stable political system, such as the U.S.'s, protests can also be effective. In a 2011 paper, Andreas Madestam and collaborators showed that in the regions where the weather was better during the initial April 2009 Tea Party rallies, the movement was subsequently stronger and elected representatives voted in a more conservative fashion. Even the seemingly failed Occupy Wall Street movement probably achieved some results: The recent minimum wage increases, including those approved by state referendums on Nov. 8, might not have been on the agenda without those protests.
So the anti-Trump protests probably will achieve something, too. The question is, what exactly?
The demonstrators' principal message is "Not My President." They chant, "We reject the President-elect" or carry signs that read "Deport Trump" and "No Hate, No Racism, No Trump."
What these protesters are telling Trump is that they consider him a hateful bigot and that they voted for somebody else, most likely Hillary Clinton, a week ago. But Trump knows that. He followed the vote count, too.
The protesters also are telling Trump that, whatever he does, they don't consider him their president. They reject him in advance.
That's hardly a message designed to extract a constructive response. Trump has already said he's going to try to be a president for everyone -- but he knows many don't believe him. There's nothing he can do about that short of turning into someone else overnight.
For protest to work to any extent, there has to be a clear link between specific action and the public reaction to it. If there's a mass outcry against suggested deportations, President Trump may decide it's not worth his while to go through with them. But what is he supposed to do with the information that a lot of people simply don't like him?
Meanwhile, the world, whose security depends on U.S. stability, is getting the scary message that regardless of the outcome of U.S. elections, regardless of how free and fair they are, lots of people will go out and protest. That the rejection of a democratic outcome can be so vehement is worrying. I wouldn't have liked to see Trump supporters take to the streets had he lost.
Interestingly, those whom many expected to riot had Trump lost understand today's protesters. "They are angry just like we were," Jesse Wilkes, a recruiter for the III Percent Patriots militia in Florida, told me. That's also what Senator Bernie Sanders, who supports the protests, is saying: "People are angry. People are upset. And they want to express their point of view that they are very frightened, in very, very strong disagreement with Mr. Trump, who has made bigotry the cornerstone of his campaign."
Wouldn't it make more sense, however, to begin protesting when -- or, rather, if -- Trump actually proposes some action that smacks of bigotry? For example, if he actually attempts to make good on his promises to build a new border wall or to ban Muslims from entering the U.S.
In Moscow and in Kiev, we protested after the fact. In 2011, Putin's party had stolen a parliamentary election. By 2013, the Ukrainian regime grew so corrupt and oppressive that Ukrainians saw no future. Could we have prevented these abuses of power if we'd protested when Putin and Viktor Yanukovych came to power? Possibly; but they had both just won fair elections. I don't believe any street protests would have toppled them, because they had majority support and were recognized by the whole world as legitimate leaders. If we'd fought them hard from the very start, before they had a chance to do anything wrong, they'd have had every reason to crack down, and most of our compatriots would have backed them.
All Trump has done so far is elevate a few of people who helped him win. He's starting his presidency with a clean slate, if only because he has no idea how the system of checks and balances really works. That's what President Barack Obama is trying to tell Americans. At his first post-election press conference, Obama said:
Donald Trump will be the next president, the 45th president of the United States. And it will be up to him to set up a team that he thinks will serve him well and reflect his policies. And those who didn’t vote for him have to recognize that that’s how democracy works. That’s how this system operates.
Trump, a political novice, will need a lot of prompting when he's president -- both from his team and from ordinary voters. But for the prompting to work, the message needs to be actionable and geared toward a specific goal. I just hope he's still listening when the messages are more to the point.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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