Protest politics in the age of Trump

So who else is mad as hell about the sym­bol­ic trans­fer of power between rival fac­tions of the bour­geois­ie? Remem­ber all the demon­stra­tions that spon­tan­eously broke out eight years ago, when Barack Obama was first in­aug­ur­ated? And then the acute sense of out­rage we sus­tained throughout his two terms in of­fice, hold­ing reg­u­lar protests as the gov­ern­ment he over­saw de­por­ted a re­cord num­ber of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants?

Oh wait…

None of that ever happened. In fact, the first is­sue of In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ist Re­view re­leased dur­ing Obama’s pres­id­ency fea­tured one of his 2008 cam­paign slo­gans: “Yes we can!” Des­pite the fact his for­eign policy plat­form was vir­tu­ally identic­al to that of his pre­de­cessor (save some stuff about shift­ing fo­cus away from the Middle East, to­ward East Asia), and al­though do­mest­ic­ally he merely fol­lowed through on Bush’s bail­out of the banks, most self-de­scribed Marx­ists sat back and cheered to them­selves as Obama was sworn in. The lead ed­it­or­i­al an­nounced that

the elec­tion of Barack Hus­sein Obama as forty-fourth pres­id­ent of the United States is a wa­ter­shed event. In a coun­try where Afric­ans were brought in chains, were slaves un­til 1865, where leg­al (or de facto) se­greg­a­tion was the rule, and where the ma­jor­ity of Afric­an Amer­ic­ans were not giv­en the right to vote un­til 1965, Obama’s elec­tion is his­tor­ic… En­gage­ment is the or­der of the day.

By con­trast, this same pub­lic­a­tion frowns upon any sort of en­gage­ment with the in­com­ing Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Res­ist­ance” is the or­der of the day: “Let the res­ist­ance be­gin. The churn­ing fear and re­vul­sion swirl­ing in­side us as we watch Don­ald J. Trump take the oath to be­come the 45th pres­id­ent of the United States will be at least some­what bal­anced by the sat­is­fac­tion of watch­ing in­spir­ing and un­pre­ced­en­ted levels of protest rising up to greet an in­com­ing pres­id­ent…” Con­jur­ing up the ghost of fas­cism, any­one who en­ter­tains the idea of en­ga­ging with the new pres­id­ent is branded a col­lab­or­at­or.

What’s so dif­fer­ent, though? You’d think that a Marxoid sect that traces its lin­eage to Len­in would re­mem­ber his fam­ous para­phrase of The Civil War in France (1871) in State and Re­volu­tion (1917): “Marx grasped this es­sence of cap­it­al­ist demo­cracy splen­didly when, in ana­lyz­ing the ex­per­i­ence of the [Par­is] Com­mune, he said that the op­pressed are al­lowed once every few years to de­cide which par­tic­u­lar rep­res­ent­at­ives of the op­press­ing class shall rep­res­ent and repress them in par­lia­ment!” Ob­vi­ously it would be folly to ar­gue that both ma­jor Amer­ic­an parties are identic­al. Yet neither rep­res­ents the in­terests of the work­ing class, so why en­gage with either?

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Yas­min Nair put it bluntly in a piece weigh­ing the pros and cons of sta­ging demon­stra­tions against Trump: “Everything you’re march­ing to pre­vent, dear march­ers, has already come to pass.The anti-Trump spec­tacle is a cru­cial part of the Trump spec­tacle. But as I’ll prob­ably join in, if only to try and push par­ti­cipants bey­ond the lim­ited frame of protest polit­ics. In oth­er words, I’ll prob­ably just yell scary shit about the dic­tat­or­ship of the pro­let­ari­at.

Hav­ing at­ten­ded one of the protests today, I’m wor­ried they’re gonna be really lame. For the last few days, all the left­ists on my feed have been say­ing: “Come in­aug­ur­a­tion day, shit is gonna go down for real.” Noth­ing I’ve seen on any of the livestreams has come even close to that, though, though some an­arch­ists in Wash­ing­ton, DC torched a limo and smashed a few win­dows. To be sure, I don’t be­grudge any­one who wants to lift some shit they want if they can get away with it. But I don’t see what’s so spe­cial about today. Just don’t take a bunch of selfies as you do it.

It’s just all so an­ti­cli­mactic. Ex­cept for the in­aug­ur­a­tion it­self, which with 3 Doors Down has already cre­ated an im­press­ive end-times feel. But the protests are likely go­ing to fea­ture mind­less chants like “Hey hey, ho ho, Don­ald Trump has got to go!” and stu­pid ban­ners that say “When they go low, we go high.” When people go home they’ll all pat them­selves on the back for “let­ting their voices be heard” or what­not, smugly demon­strat­ing to every­one how right they’ve been this whole time (what the alt-right has ac­cur­ately dubbed “vir­tue-sig­nal­ing”). Maybe the In­ter­na­tion­al So­cial­ist Or­gan­iz­a­tion will sell some pa­pers.

The wo­men’s march on Wash­ing­ton to­mor­row is be­ing billed by its lead­ing or­gan­izers as ex­pli­citly not an anti-Trump march, which leads some to won­der about the event’s tim­ing. Nev­er­the­less, hear­ing them talk about the need to cre­ate “safe spaces” — where they can stage “cour­ageous con­ver­sa­tions about race and priv­ilege” — I can’t help but feel like the left is once again rud­der­less and adrift, as it was dur­ing the Bush years. Re­volu­tion­ar­ies should not be seek­ing sanc­tu­ary or asylum, some­where they can feel safe; they should be seek­ing to make re­ac­tion­ar­ies feel un­safe. Give them nowhere to hide.

7 thoughts on “Protest politics in the age of Trump

  1. I literally got online to see what you would say about this — recalling some rather acerbic words from earlier years about protest culture. Most of those who are marching were perfectly happy — or maybe had the occasional reservation — with the kinder, gentler surveillance state / neoliberal order, and they will find their indignation safely siphoned off for the next four years into appropriate channels, never realizing the indignation is a feature they are manifesting, not a bug they are imposing. A minority — with any luck, a sizable and gumption-filled one — will keep on doing what they’re already doing, and (let us hope, and help) positioning for the inevitable crash. I am myself a big fan of kind and gentle, of course, and I still hope (naively?) that the crash can be mitigated. But I also like honest, decent, and fair. Honesty, especially, makes things very hard, most of all for oneself.

    • Even if that’s true — let’s assume for a moment that it is — I don’t see how that impacts his ability to govern. There are any number of political reasons to oppose Trump that have nothing to do with his personal behavior.

  2. It’s a bummer to see people who should know better still making excuses for Obama. Still acting like his failures were a result of being stymied by the cruel world of politics and compromise, and not him just being neoliberal to the core. When it comes down to it, a lot of them care more about genteel presentation, personality and feelgood politics than actual policy. Shitty actions they would’ve rationalized (muh “pragmatism”) under Obama and the Dems will take on huge importance now, because the Republicans are cartoonishly villainous and Trump more uncouth in his pronouncements. Standard liberal centrism, basically.

    It’s kinda hard to be optimistic right now.

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