The New Power of Popular Protest
The new administration’s condemnation of dissent and the arrogation of more and more power in the president’s hands have made street protest and its images more forceful. The president made his way to power by creating images of himself with broad brush strokes vague enough to appeal to many. Persons who would soon fall into quarrels if they were to discuss policies find easy agreement in comforting images of a powerful, benevolent leader. The president laughs off anyone who takes his words “literally,” preferring to masquerade as a metaphor– a brand name for greatness, never mind the details.
This is characteristic of a new current of populist authoritarianism, which is bound to repress all images that conflict with its own. Trump has publicly admired Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan, emerging dictators who have introduced harsh prison sentences for popular protest. The force of their propaganda depends not just on their own line but also on erasing all signs of opposition. Blotting out images of opposition serves to isolate dissenters and dissipate their dissent, making it appear as though everyone agrees with the ruler.
The images of masses peacefully expressing protest, by contrast, invites others to join in, shifting the norm away from quiet compliance and offering a separate identity group. The White House dismisses oppositional words as “alternative facts” and manipulates statistics to support its narrative. But the Women’s March and successive protests dimmed the glare of Trump obsession in the headlines. Importantly, it has breathed new life into public discussions of whether protests do any “good,” and former president Obama as well as the Democratic National Committee have now appealed to the protests as forceful and heartening.
The mass demonstrations of 1989 in East Germany were effective because they divided the will of the communist leadership, opening up space for those who wanted reform or saw opportunity to advance in siding with the people. In Russia, street demonstrations resulting from grain shortages expedited the collapse of the tsarist regime and then helped bring down the provisional government; a decade later, a similar threat of shortages and unrest spurred Stalin toward collectivizing agriculture. Even within the Nazi dictatorship, popular protest caused dissensions about how to respond, dividing leaders who were looking for every edge in their power struggles with each other. This is part of the reason that Hitler, known for simply using terror to get what he wanted, also worried about images: Eighteen days after he became the Chancellor, his satrap Hermann Goering decreed that in Prussia, protecting the “patriotic population” required the “most drastic” ban on oppositional demonstrations. This was soon followed by a ban on all public processions in Germany except for those of the Nazi Party.
In his inauguration address the president spoke only to his base while pretending that he was speaking to all Americans, which would make it easier for him to bully the officials he was addressing in person. Mass protests of persons willing to put their opposition on the line in public shows that his base is not all there is, and builds broader solidarity. Like an army, opposition has people on the front line supported by some from less conspicuous positions. People passing street protests are moved to honk or wave in solidarity.
Two days after the election, Trump surrogate Rudy Giuliani advised the protesters to go home for a year, and then “you are going to find you are living in a much better country than you are living right now” But what should we wait to see? What standard for measuring our leadership is more important than how it treats first amendment rights of free expression?
If collective expression of one voice had no influence, Trump would not be so interested in his signature rallies, or so worried about the size of his crowds. Images of the strictly nonviolent 1989 protests in East Germany showed power shifting from the police to the mass of protesters, the majority engulfing them. In 1992 and 1993, hundreds of thousands of Germans took to the streets to express their rejection of neo-Nazi violence, assuring the world in ways their leaders could not, that the country had an established democratic narrative.
Recently, commentator David Brooks wrote, “Marches can never be an effective opposition to Donald Trump” because they “are too small for this moment” and focus “on the wrong issues.” But Trump came to power by accumulating single votes, one at a time, not by something “big” like a military coup. The beauty of protests is their power from the bottom up; anyone can join, content to be a face in a sea without expecting immediate policy results, and encouraging officials to develop a spine of resistance. With the new administration seeking to suppress dissent, protest is on behalf of the right to make images of dissent, the first amendment itself. Many issues are “right” for protest, so long as these remain disciplined and without violence, because a society that has forgotten how to express and listen to dissent is a foundation for a failed democracy.
Nathan Stoltzfus is Dorothy and Jonathan Rintels Professor of Holocaust Studies at Florida State University. He has been a Fulbright and IREX scholar in West and East Germany and an H. F. Guggenheim Foundation scholar. His work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and Die Zeit. He lives in Tallahassee and Washington, DC.