How Protests Against Trump Help Trump
I respect the desire to “stand up” against Trump. Toleration of his bigotry for too long helped him get this far.
But I hope those protesting against Trump realize that the way some of them are doing it is helping him, not hurting him. In fact, Trump couldn’t have scripted it better himself if this were a reality show.
Trump gets to flamboyantly act tough and decisive. “Get him out of here!” is like “You’re fired!” It creates an image of strength.
If the protesters are disruptive, that’s much better for Trump. Then he’s showing muscle against elements that are ruining the event (read: just as they’re ruining the country.) At this point, it’s practically a draw for Trump fans, a source of both entertainment and validation of their world view.
It becomes much harder to claim that Trump is causing trouble, when protesters disrupt. He seems normal, they are the ones violating his right to assemble.
Candidates are often defined not by actions they’ve taken in the past or what they say during campaigns but what they do during campaigns. Reagan defiantly saying “I paid for this microphone!” became a sign of his strength more so than dozens of things he did throughout his career.
That a lot of the protesters are people of color is a bonus for Trump. He doesn’t have to say “nasty” things about African Americans; he can just literally have them dragged away. He doesn’t have to say he would be tough on Hispanics; he can just theatrically tell the most prominent Hispanic in America (Jorge Ramos) to “go back to Univision” and have him deported from the press conference.
I suspect the protesters are using a variety of tactics. But the iconic civil rights images of the 1960s that bolstered the movement tended to be of rabid whites assailing peaceful blacks — whites full of rage and spittle; African Americans showing control, self-respect and dignity. The protests had a way of highlighting the unhinged hatred from whites.
In a way, the most effective image for anti-Trump forces is the protester getting sucker punched by a Trump supporter — not the protester disrupting the Trump event. It’s easy for me to say; I’m not the guy getting hit. But that moment showed Trump supporters to be thugs and helped highlight the ways in which Trump has been encouraging violence.
Political scientist Omar Wassow studied the impact of protest tactics in the sixties and found this:
One of the more troubling realizations for me was that the most effective disruption usually involved activists engaged in nonviolent tactics confronted by government or vigilante actors who responded with extreme brutality. Images like that of a dog sicced on a young man, fire hoses blasting children or girls killed by a church bombing helped move many fencing sitting white voters to greater sympathy for civil rights. Similarly, today, when a white male Trump supporter sucker-punches a black (or Latino or Muslim or gay or female) protester and it’s caught cleanly on camera, that brief moment sympathetically encapsulates why activists are so moved to stand up to Trump and his rhetoric.
Conversely, in the 1960s, my research finds that black resistance that escalated to aggressive disruption or violence moved the median white voter towards the conservative coalition.
Remember, in the past images of protesters clashing with police or counter-protesters — like the Chicago riots in 1968 — actually helped conservatives. Chaos usually beneits the “law and order” candidate. The Chicago protests were against the Vietnam War but because of the way it went down, the beneficiary was Richard Nixon.
To succeed, anti-Trump protesters need to be extremely careful and tactical. Disrupting Trump rallies by trying to drown out the speaker or making it hard for the event to proceed may feel satisfying. And it may make protesters feel like they’re taking action but they should do so with the knowledge that Trump is the main beneficiary.
By contrast, showing up en masse to peacefully protest, especially if it provokes ugly Trumpian reactions, is likely to be much more effective. Not easy — especially since Trump will paint everyone with the same brush. Even peaceful protesters will be called “bad people” ruining the country (as racists in the 1960s did too). He will say they were violent even when they weren’t. But that’s all the more reason that protesters cant so obviously play into their hands.
Having said that, I am curious about this: what WOULD be the most effective way to protest Trump that would actually hurt his electoral chances?