Protests and the silent majority

A view of the National Mall during Barack Obama’s first inauguration in 2009 and for Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017. Photos by Reuters and Pool Camera (via PBS).

President Trump’s swearing-in ceremony was not a big success. Despite Trump’s shamelessly exaggerated estimate of “a million, million and a half people” present (and not minding the alarming “alternative facts” presented by new White House press secretary Sean Spicer), the crowd that attended the ceremony at the National Mall in DC was in fact around 160,000 people. A number that cannot be compared to the 1.8 million people who attended President Obama’s inauguration back in 2009.

To make things worse (for Trump), the very day after the inauguration at least 470,000 women and men marched in Washington in support of women’s rights and against Trump’s presidency. The protest was a huge success and a global event that brought nearly 5 million people on the streets worldwide.

But despite all this, Trump did not seem particularly worried. In fact, as he usually does, he quickly expressed his thoughts on the Women’s March with a couple of tweets.

In the sea of egotistic lies-filled tweets that Donald Trump produces almost every day, these two are particularly important, because they capture a hard truth that we all have to deal with, starting now, if we want to get a better understanding of the complicated world we are living in.

Let’s start with the second one. “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy”. Ok, sure, that’s an important thing to say. Very responsible and even very presidential. In fact, it might be the only normal and non-confrontational thing Trump has said in his rowdy fist week of presidency. Now the second part: “Even if I don’t always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views”. After bashing the media, silencing the EPA, igniting a diplomatic war with Mexico and signing a bunch of executive orders “poised to destroy the foundations for the last 70 years of American-led peace and prosperity”, to know at least that Trump is acknowledging the right to protest surely brings some sort of relief. But this very democratic and statesman-like sentence takes on a different look if we connect it with what Trump wrote in the first tweet.

“Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote?”, Trump rhetorically asks in his typically arrogant and bullying tone. The answer, of course, is that most probably a vast majority of the citizens who marched in Washington and all over the US did vote, and did not vote for Trump. It is also true, though, that many other people, especially in places like Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, vote for him. And for that reason, he won the election. Period, as press secretary Sean Spicer would say.

What Trump is really saying in these two tweets is: I won the election, I am the president and I won’t be bothered by any of your silly protests.

People gather for the Women’s March in Washington, January 21. SHANNON STAPLETON/REUTERS (via Newsweek).

Protests are always problematic. The Women’s March was loud, colorful, clever, impossible to ignore, but as big and visible it was, it reflected the opinions of only a part of US citizens. This is something we always have to keep in mind when we talk about Trump or any other populist movement across the world. Populism thrives mostly in silence, far from the frenetic lives of the big cities. It emerges especially in low-income areas, among people with little interest in politics and often no history of public activism. A vast majority of Trump voters never took part to a political event or demonstration. They did not go to Washington DC for the inauguration because they are not interested in publicly show their support for the new US president. It is not something they do.

This doesn’t mean of course that it is useless to protest against Trump. On the contrary, it’s very important to keep doing it. But protesters must always keep in mind one very important fact: when you protest against Trump you are not talking to Trump, you are talking to that silent majority who voted for him. If you want to change things, you have to understand those people and you have to convince them that Trump is not the solution to their problems. And also — the hardest part — you have to give them a credible alternative to vote for the next time.