There’s a new trend story in town. You can smell it in the air in the hours following whatever new, outrageous directive Steve Bannon puts in the mouth of Donald Trump, and it amounts to a giant fart noise wafted toward the people whom the directives are intended to outrage. “Supporters Don’t Really Care If Trump Drains the Swamp,” McClatchy DC reported in December. “‘What’s the Big Deal?’ Ask Trump Voters on Russia Hacking Report,” the New York Times wrote earlier this month. “Trump Voters Shrug Off Global Uproar Over Immigration Ban,” CNBC charged on Monday. The front page of this morning’s New York Times declared, “In Ban on Migrants, Trump Supporters See a Promise Kept.”
In the days after the Women’s March, which may have been the largest day of protest in U.S. history, some journalists gave into a similarly defeatist tone. In a widely mocked column for the New York Times, David Brooks wrote that the marches were great and all, but they “can never be an effective opposition to Donald Trump.” In Canada’s Globe and Mail, columnist Margaret Wente downplayed the numbers by focusing only on the Washington march and wrote that because the majority of white women voted for Trump, “women’s solidarity is a mirage.”
The rejection of oppressed people’s struggles as so much noise is at the heart of supremacy ideology. Anyone who looks at evidence of mass protests throughout the country and feels comfortable enough to toss them aside with a pithy column or tweet is only adding fuel to the need for such demonstrations.
Where, as the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel pointed out, are all the stories about small red-state towns where protesters turned out on Jan. 21, and in the wake of Trump’s executive order suspending travel from several Muslim-majority countries? Why are some outlets and writers so quick to dump cold water over a burgeoning nationwide movement? Is that not exactly what Trump’s administration wants — for us to believe that we have no power over our elected officials? I don’t know how this is going to end, but if we’re going down, why not go down kicking and screaming, hysterical to the end? (C’mon, fellow neurotic Jews! You were born for this!)
Trump’s rise showed us how quickly a movement can take hold through a combination of grassroots support and relentless media attention. That’s why it’s disappointing to see journalists react with eye-rolling dismissals of the mass demonstrations, or to see outlets run stories about the Trump voters who aren’t bothered by the protests, while largely ignoring those who are.
For many men, women, and children, the Women’s March was their first public demonstration, and the first time they felt a collective sense of hope for a strong opposition movement. Now’s not the time to discourage budding participants in the political process; now’s not the time to wave off the hordes of people who have no choice but to organize and demonstrate and place daily frantic phone calls to their representatives in government who are sworn to protect their interests but who have learned that it’s easy to avoid being held accountable when people are complacent.
Social progress is not inevitable; laws are words on paper. Things don’t just happen — people make choices, and those choices compound, and one day you wake up and realize that our world is more fragile than it appears. To assume that long-held rights can’t be taken away is a dangerous failure of imagination and a willful disregard for history. The stakes are too high to rhetorically deflate this opposition movement when it’s just getting started. Think of it as a war for the nation’s attention; we have no choice but to keep showing up and drowning out the man who wants to remain at the center of our TV screens for the rest of his life.
There have been plenty of valid criticisms of the Women’s March and some of its participants; Vox’s Jenée Desmond-Harris is right to point out that for women of color, “we’re all the same” is not the most effective rallying cry. But heaping too much criticism on the march and subsequent demonstrations surrounding Trump’s executive orders feels dangerously similar to the infighting that splintered liberal voters and helped enable Trump’s win. If it wasn’t clear before, it should be clear now that no matter your politics, those of us who believe in democratic norms have to visibly fight for them.
The term “participatory democracy” has gone out of fashion since the student activist movement resurrected it with the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto written by the members of Students for a Democratic Society in 1962. But for young people today, participatory democracy is not a theory but a necessity. (And unlike the ’60s radicals, this time, we can’t simply retreat into the comfort of the middle class when we’re done fighting, because there won’t be one.) We need new leaders, young people with the imagination to envision an alternate future to the dystopia we’re barreling toward. That won’t happen unless we encourage this generation to see that they are part of something bigger than themselves.