What’s the point of protesting Trump?

Trump’s victory sparked a mass wave of protests in America and all over the world. An estimated 500,000 protestors participated in the Women’s March in Washington, and some five million across the rest of the United States. There were also protests in the UK, with further protests planned in an attempt to block Trump’s upcoming state visit.

So far the protests themselves have attracted a great amount of criticism. Attendees are accused of having a severe case of ‘sour-grapes’, and more proof of the liberal elite- with their superior world view- throwing the toys out of the pram. It’s not just Trump supporters vocalising their disdain either, even those who detest the new president have spoken out against the futility and the embarrassment of such protests.

The protests have also faced the serious charge of being anti-democratic. Trump won the election and to decry the result is to disrespect the political process. But is this true? How do we reconcile these criticisms with the view of protest as a healthy arm of democracy? Should we mind our own business in the UK?

A quick history lesson

Protest has been responsible for securing the women’s vote, abolishing slavery, but has also been credited for more abstract victories, such as changing public opinion on Vietnam and Afghan wars. At one point all of these were against the public opinion; by nature protest doesn’t respect the public opinion, but seeks to change it.

That is not to say that all protests are successful, in fact the majority are probably ineffectual, but protest is not a business venture: one does not embark on a march based on its chance of success. We rally against a perceived injustice irregardless of the end result (which may be abstract and not realised for years), so this is not a reason to avoid protest altogether.

Protest is a right, right?

The right to protest is safeguarded by first amendment in America’s constitution and is also a protected right under the ECHR in the UK. It is not some dust-gathering, archaic measure either, but ‘vital to a thriving democracy’.[1] Protest in itself then seems indisputably democratic. Where the friction occurs when what is being protested is the result of another democratic process: the election.

Protest vs Election

Firstly, democracy must be seen as greater than merely participating in an election; It is reductive to limit citizens input to one binary vote every 4 years. Such a narrow interpretation would itself undermine the notion of democracy and frustrate the electorate’s ability to truly have a voice.

Secondly, there are often values at stake which are more important than democracy. Some view Trump’s win as a threat to the principles on which the United States was founded: freedom, diversity, justice. Some of his rhetoric against minority groups has already stirred up hatred and violence towards in certain communities. Just because Trump won the vote, does not mean the electorate that did not vote for him cannot communicate their utter rejection of his actions not only to send a message to his administration, but also a message of solidarity to those now living in fear, that they are not alone.

Further, democracy itself may be threatened under the Trump administration. By now we are all familiar with a campaign of ‘alterative facts’ (Bowling green massacre, Inuuguration lies, ‘Last night in Sweden”) and the attack on the media who play a critical part in democracy by providing checks and balances against government.

March for one, March for all!

Recent petitions and organised protests against a Trump state visit to the UK has provoked cries of ‘hypocrite’ to all those who didn’t protest visits from other tyrants and human rights abusers from Saudi Arabia, Russia and China. This logic would suggest that the only genuine protestor is one that has protested against every similar injustice, which is a ridiculous barrier to entry to propose on the legitimacy of a protest. Critics or protest should also not miss the irony of comparing their beloved Trump to Putin, and other tyrannical leaders (Hadley Freedman, Guardian).

As the charge of hypocrite rings out with frightening let us deconstruct it a little further. As Freedman continues, it should be no surprise that the UK are more incensed by Trump than of Saudi Arabia. Not only is our stance against Saudia Arabia well documented, but America is a liberal democracy that is most similar to ours. When we invite Trump over we invite the risk of not only legitimising his methods but also normalising his reign for other such systems.

The oft-cited ‘special relationship’ by pro-Trump Brits seems only to be reserved for their arguments about treating Trump nicely. ‘It’s in our best interests to keep him happy’. It does not seem obvious to them that the special relationship we have is the exact reason why it is legitimate for the UK to be more sensitive to Trump than Putin — this is country with which our government frequently heralds the closeness of our countries shared values. And if Theresa May is not going to make her view clear, then it is up to the people to make their opinions heard.

Lastly, I want to reverse the charge of hypocrisy. It is human nature that people are stirred more easily when something closer to home is being threatened. People that until then had no reason to be interested in politics. Apparently, this is a damning credential and renders them unable to protest. But if protesting is a democratic right, the same as voting, then the same should be true of those with no prior interest in politics, but who voted and vote for Trump based on the fact he promised them jobs. Using this logic then anyone who votes or protests in self-serving circumstances is illegitimate. Unfortunately for the right, they cannot have their cake and eat it.

What are we marching for?

Even if we establish that protest is a right, what exactly was everyone marching for? Ask ten protestors and you might get ten different answers. The Women’s March drew criticism precisely due to its unfocussed nature, a fact that may have diluted its legitimacy amongst critics, providing ammo to those ridiculing protesters as nothing more than sore losers. It is easy to single out individual protesters and find fault with exactly what was to be achieved by waving a placard saying ‘Not my President’. If any, it was an incredibly small majority who believed they were marching to actually remove Trump as president. For most, it was a reminder to the President that there are millions of people who do not condone many of his bigoted views, and a show of solidarity to all those who may feel threatened, marginalised under the new regime, that the whole country is not against them.

The effects of a protest can be hard to quantify. A targeted campaign can easily achieve its aim of rescinding a law or gaining some protection, but for a protest like this, the results, if any, may not be felt for a long time to come. Professor Brian Martin says that protest can open up conversation with government, “When protesters represent oppressed groups or viewpoints, effective protesting can lead to the possibility of genuine dialogue. When protesters refrain from using physical violence, they leave open possibilities for respectful engagement with opponents”.

There is no doubt that those outraged by one or many of Trumps remarks used the protest to vent their feelings about him without much other thought to the process. There is no doubt that many of the protesters will now go back to their comfortable lives never to actively participate in democracy again.

None of these deal protest a killer blow. It’s just a reality of a massive-scale event and the reality of human-nature.

Conversations with protestors

Below are excerpts from conversations I had with some women who attended the march:

‘I marched because of a general distaste for trump, to feel solidarity and strength, support women’s rights and equality, hear the stories from other inspiring women”

“I marched because I became a victim of sexual assault at age 13 and, in the community where I was raised, many of my peers shamed me and told me I was to blame for a straight-up violation that I obviously never asked for. I was a victim of assault and was taught to stay silent. I marched on Saturday because by having an abortion I began to disconnect myself from a highly abusive relationship in my early twenties”

The rationale is clear. Not only did they march to send a message to Trump that his views are widely unacceptable, and against the very foundation of their constitution, but also to send a message to any of the oppressed, afraid and the ignorant. Mass protests like these can send strong messages to those who live in communities where they might never realise the strength of the opposing voice. Protests put pressure on the government to listen and react to the viewpoint that is being expressed.

Conclusion

Despite multiple accusations of being anti-democratic, protest is a cornerstone of democracy and one of the few times when a citizen can exercise the right to have their voice heard on the subjects most important to them.

Organised dissent is incredibly difficult to do. Rather than ridicule those that piggybacked on the ‘endless hysteria’ (Piers Morgan), those in power should respect the dedication and size of the protests. Whether the protestors can follow through on the momentum will now be the test.

Brian Martin says, “protesting election results is certainly legitimate. Whether it is wise or effective is another matter” (Prof, Humanities, Wollongong Uni). This is certainly the case where people march driven by a general ‘distaste’ rather than any specific goal. Results also may not be realised quickly or ever be truly quantifiable. However, the first mass protest was a success in terms of providing momentum and confidence for more focussed protests like those to block Trump’s state visit to the UK.

[1] Tony Benn, British politician