As airports across the country were flooded late last month with demonstrations against President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily barring refugees and immigrants from seven countries, just a week after millions took to the streets for the Women’s March, one particular sign seemed to capture the mood:
“I guess we’re doing this every weekend now!”
Indeed. Lately, there seem to be protests, rallies and spontaneous political displays happening all the time – sometimes even on weekdays.
Trump’s upset victory in November, along with his quick work on executive actions in the first weeks of his presidency, has fired up the opposition. A recent poll conducted by The Washington Post found 35 percent of Democrats plan to get more involved in political causes this year – with even higher rates among liberal Democrats, young Democrats and Democratic women – compared to 21 percent of Republicans and independents.
Can the flurry of activity help protesters, whom the Trump administration has largely dismissed as paid operatives or sore losers, accomplish their aims?
“That’s kind of the million-dollar question,” said Rachel Einwohner, a professor of sociology at Purdue University whose research focuses on protests.
The anti-Trump “resistance,” as many have taken to calling it, is still being defined. Furious constituents have been confronting their Republican congressional representatives at town halls about the pledge to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, while demonstrations sprang up in cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix last week after reports of deportation raids on immigrants living in the country illegally.
Experts who study protests say it will take a long time to determine whether sporting pink hats and carrying clever signs will have a significant impact. Protesters’ goals vary, from targeting specific policies and appointees to boycotting companies affiliated with Trump to simply expressing dissatisfaction with the president himself.
Sustained demonstrations can shape public opinion on an issue, the experts said, compelling politicians and even the courts to respond if they sense a real shift. But they cautioned that the message of a protest can be subverted if it is overtaken by a debate about the tactics.
The most successful social movements in history, experts said, were those that used protests to invigorate more conventional political action.
Take the contrasting examples of two recent movements that galvanized huge followings: The tea party, which emerged in 2009 to shrink the size of government, changed the face of the Republican Party and shifted the national political climate while Occupy generated a tremendous amount of interest in income inequality issues in late 2011 before petering out.
Douglas McAdam, a professor of sociology at Stanford University who studies social movements, said the tea party showed itself as a force by looking for every opportunity to work within institutions as well as outside them. It organized at the local, state and national level, adopting an electoral strategy in addition to its mass rallies. Even when the tea party suffered some defeats, like the passage of the Affordable Care Act, it used those as fuel to make big gains in Congress in the 2010 midterm elections.
But Occupy, like many left-wing movements of the past three or four decades, was more suspicious of mainstream institutions and did not want to collaborate with them, McAdam said. Unable to capitalize on its momentum to achieve specific aims, it got trapped into a “dead-end strategy” of defending encampments against police that sapped public goodwill.
“You have no leverage. You’re not targeting anything,” McAdam said.
The anti-Trump demonstrations face a similar risk if they cannot gain the sort of insider access that traditionally marks the progress of a movement, said Remy Cross, an assistant professor of sociology and criminology at Webster University whose expertise includes policing of protests. The civil rights and anti-Vietnam War campaigns began as positions that politicians wanted nothing to do with, he said, but eventually crossed over to popular ideas with concrete achievements.
Cross said he has not noticed much engagement with the Democratic Party by protesters, nor much embrace of the protests by the Democratic Party – though some strategies have started to have an effect, like pushing Senate Democrats into unified opposition of Trump’s Cabinet appointments.
The tipping point may come if the movement can grow beyond reacting to Trump to shape its own message. Cross noted that the tea party had a list of demands with cuts to specific government programs and taxes.
“One of the things to look for is what do they want that is not on the table now?” Cross said, rather than just what anti-Trump protesters don’t want to happen.
Several experts said the protests have already succeeded in at least one regard: getting new people engaged politically.
Einwohner pointed to the surge of people calling their representatives, making record donations to organizations like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, and putting public pressure on corporations with ties to the Trump administration, like Uber, many of which are responding with changes.
David Meyer, a professor of sociology at UC Irvine who teaches a course on social movements, was amazed by the wave of airport protests, because they were not planned in advance. He said he could see the energy of the Women’s March carrying forward.
Just that morning, Meyer said, a computer scientist in Orange County who had never participated in a protest before called him looking for advice on organizing and raising money for sister events to the “March for Science” planned for Earth Day in Washington, D.C. It’s not the only such phone call he has received.
“Once people break the ice, all sorts of things are possible in the future,” Meyer said, and they develop a larger fabric of engagement in their lives. “People are tuned in and battle-ready when anything happens.”
The open nature of the protests, however, has attracted a wide range of activists that have also brought with them criticism of their tactics.
Backlash from both conservatives and liberals is particularly aimed at the “black blocs,” groups of more militant protesters dressed in anonymous all-black who often have ties to anarchist or “anti-fascist” groups. They vandalized property and assaulted some opponents on Inauguration Day and at tangential demonstrations, like a recent UC Berkeley rally that shut down a speech by right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopolous.
Cross said he has noticed conservatives ramp up their rhetoric about cracking down on the protests. The day after the Yiannopolous event was canceled, for example, Trump suggested on Twitter that he might withhold federal funding from the university. Republican lawmakers in at least 10 states have introduced bills to outlaw certain types of demonstrations.
But that sort of response by the government and police is exactly what encourages more extreme activists like the black blocs, Cross said, and perhaps emboldens them further.
“They’re hoping to shine a spotlight on authority and show authority as repressive,” Cross said. “They’re loving this. This has been a shot in their arm. This is probably the most high-profile they’ve been since the Seattle protests at WTO 1999.”
Meyer said opponents will always try to highlight the most radical elements of a movement in an effort to discredit it. Critics of the tea party similarly focused on racist elements of those rallies, such as hanging effigies of former President Barack Obama.
“You’re never ever going to be able to condemn them enough to assuage conservative critics,” Meyer said, “so the best strategy is just to focus on the message that you want to convey.”