Covering Activism In The Time Of Trump
Try picking the most dramatic day in the presidency of Donald Trump. Was it the Inauguration when Trump was strikingly dark at a moment that called for unity? Was it the next day when millions revolted in hundreds of cities? Or was it the last 24 hours when Trump and all the president’s men waged a rapid-response assault on anyone who stepped in their way?
In just 10 days, Trump has exceeded the fantasy of his most fervid supporters. But his reach, or overreach depending on where you stand, has also unified and mobilized grassroots opposition beyond anything the Democratic Party could have mastered as quickly or as effectively.
If the first 10 days are any indication, it will be impossible to keep count of the barrage of bravado coming out of the White House during the next four years. Dissent from the outside is met with aggression from the inside. When State Department officials issued a memo criticizing Trump’s executive order banning refugees and people from mainly Muslim countries, press secretary Sean Spicer said “they should either get with the program or they can go.” Days before, Trump described “a running war” with the press and his chief strategist Steve Bannon said the media “should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.”
Shut Up And Sing
Bannon telling the media to ‘shut up and listen’ harkens back to the last time we lived through such a divisive time in America. 14 years ago during the build up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Dixie Chicks were performing in London when its lead singer Natalie Maines told the crowd she was “ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas,” referring to George W. Bush. The moment created a firestorm in America, calls for the group to “shut up and sing”, death threats against Maines, a blacklist by radio stations nationwide, and the steamrolling of their CDs. Four years later, they realized redemption way beyond sweeping the Grammy Awards.
What the Dixie Chicks shook in 2003, other musicians are stirring today. On the day after the women’s march, Americans woke up to Bruce Springsteen’s fist pump of support, first in a rare news conference before his concert in Perth, Australia:
“Our responsibility is always the same thing. It is to witness and to testify…that is the basic job of the E Street Band. We observe and we report. We witness and we testify and hopefully through doing so we lift up and help people transcend and we try to inspire people during tough times. And it’s been our job for 40 years and will continue to be so in the next coming years.”
And then on stage:
“We’re a long way from home and our hearts and spirits are with the hundreds of thousands of women and men that marched yesterday in every city in America and in Melbourne…who rallied against hate and division and in support of tolerance and inclusion, reproductive rights, civil rights, racial justice, LGBTQ rights, the environment, wage equality, gender equality, health care and immigrant rights. We stand with you. We are the new American resistance.”
While Springsteen’s activist voice wasn’t a surprise, Barack Obama’s was unprecedented. Most presidents can’t be found in the days after leaving office but 10 days in, Obama woke from his brief sabbatical and issued a statement denouncing Trump’s executive order and praising the nationwide protests.
Dissent in America looks different today and we can credit movements as ideologically apart as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. “I think we should give credit where it’s due with Occupy, “ says Ari Kamen, Political Director for the New York Working Families Party. “They brought attention to issues of income inequality and corporate greed that it became part of the conversation that the Mayor of New York City ran successfully on it, the success of Bernie Sanders had the core message of income inequality, and to a certain weird extent so did Donald Trump…that the system is rigged for the elite and wealthy and everyone gets else gets screwed. Occupy had an important role in discourse in the country. Even if you don’t get 3.3 million people every few months, a committed group of activists can radically alter the political landscape.”
The Tea Party built their organization organically through small local groups of dedicated conservatives. They started talking online and then attended meetings, trainings, and town halls united in their opposition to President Obama. The Tea Party treated every Republican who made concessions with Democrats as traitors and applied pressure to lawmakers. “It’s one of the strategies that the Tea Party did during the Obama years,” says Renata Pumarol, Communications Director with New York Communities for Change. “They organized, they were consistent, they were occupying elected official’s offices. They kept it up for 8 years blocking every single Obama issue. So this is what Progressives will do against Trump.”
But what about the fatigue factor? Everyone agrees we won’t see 3 million protesters each weekend like the first. Can this new grassroots activism be sustained? “If I was working for President Trump I would be worried for public fatigue for him,” adds Kamen. “He has the lowest approval ratings of anyone coming to office. The President will continue to give them reason to be out there.”
In the weeks after the election at a postmortem event at Harvard University, Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski criticized the media. “You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
For all the talk of fake news and election manipulation, the indisputable fact is that in the first 10 days of Trump’s presidency, he has held true to everything he said he would do during the campaign, from taking steps to dismantling the Affordable Care Act to building a wall to banning Muslims. This all sets the stage for what Springsteen called “the new American resistance” which, by all signs, is just getting started.