Using Soft Power Against Trump, Minus Madonna

An opposition movement needs to attract diverse points of view, not preening celebrities.

Keep it simple.

Photographer: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The women's marches last weekend were a grassroots success. They unnerved the U.S. president and put members of Congress on notice that millions across the country are not only paying attention but sufficiently alarmed by Donald Trump to hit the streets in protest.

But the marches also entailed costly, avoidable mistakes. Narrow, interest-group agendas, the frequent caricature and occasional bane of the left, alienated some would-be participants. The speakers at the main event in Washington D.C. were not uniformly atrocious. But enough were.

Anyone looking to discount the entire affair, and reject its moral urgency, needed only cite Madonna's asinine remark about blowing up the White House. You don't win a battle with a narcissist by enlisting another one.

Likewise, opponents of Trump are going to have to recognize that one priority is paramount. Are you a die-hard defender of Obamacare? Great. An intersectional feminist demanding a woman's right to control her body? Good for you.

But a larger cause -- democracy preservation -- trumps those issues and any other individual passions. The near or distant triumph of whichever policies you prefer may well depend on a functioning democratic system that's accountable to the public. Trump is undermining that by the hour.

There are not many conservatives willing to challenge Trump publicly. Those few resisters are especially valuable and should be treated accordingly. Pro-lifers disgusted by his treatment of women are potent allies. Small-government conservatives horrified by his blatant conflicts of interest are potent allies. Libertarians appalled by his authoritarianism are potent allies. Don't alienate them; work with them.

Trump will seek to splinter the opposition. (His decisions this week on energy pipelines insert a wedge, for instance, between some labor unions and environmentalists.) 

Democrats, however, have some unique advantages. Popular culture is anti-authoritarian and very liberal. Social media gives it extraordinary reach. The trick is to enable popular culture to generate its own memes and energy and rallying points while gently shoving divisive or otherwise counterproductive figures off the stage.

Culture produces leaders. Patton Oswalt, a comedian and actor, has been pushing the idea of an April 15 march against Trump, to demand release of the president's tax returns.

That's 15,000 retweets and more than 42,000 "likes" for a precise, actionable agenda on a date certain -- all free of self-righteous preening and stereotypical Hollywood self-indulgence. Sign that man up.

Coming from a different angle, Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, has been expanding her portfolio from guns to democracy preservation. She is an effective organizer who seems poised for a bigger stage. 

Civil libertarians and small-d democrats need mass numbers more than ideological purity. And they need to exploit their enormous advantage in the soft power that is popular culture.

The battle for democratic legitimacy is engaged. Opponents of Trump's dishonesty and disorder must constantly balance a broad welcome to allies with selectivity about the messages transmitted to a divided and uncertain nation. It's never easy, and social media makes it harder. But as "Saturday Night Live" reminds us on a weekly basis, culture is a powerful base camp. So for the next battle, leave Madonna behind.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.