Flavorwire is taking the final week of 2017 off, because God knows we need it. But all week, we’ll be reposting some of our favorite pieces from the year. Read them all here.
In the world of political action, you know you’re really starting to get somewhere when a Serious Man in his mid-fifties admonishes you sternly and tells you you’re doing it all wrong. A round of applause, then, for compassionate conservative™ and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, who used his column in the Atlantic earlier this week to argue that the left is ruining its chance at stopping Donald Trump by failing to rein in its extremist fringe. (Jonathan Chait, you’d better get your ass into gear, because your thinkpiece on this topic is officially overdue.)
Given the speed at which awful news comes at us these days (seriously, it feels like being Homer Simpson in goal, all day, every day) Frum’s piece — and, indeed, the protests that catalyzed it — has almost been forgotten, but it’s worth re-focusing on, because if the portion of America’s population that didn’t vote for Trump wants to minimize the damage down to this country over the next four years, we need effective strategies to do so.
Frum’s argument is a familiar one: that in doing things like punching fascists and pepper spraying, um, other fascists, protesters risk alienating middle America. “[Leftists],” he argues, “lack the means, and often the desire, to police their radical fringes, with the result that it’s the most obnoxious and even violent behavior that produces the most widely shared and memorable images of the event… Again and again, their most lasting effect has been to polarize opinion against them — and to empower the targets of their outrage.”
Under the rubric of providing “Perspective from the right on Trump’s political challenge for the left,” Frum sets out his vision of what he feels would be effective protest: “You want to scare Trump? Be orderly, polite, and visibly patriotic… All effective political communication must carefully consider both tone and content. You’re the defenders of the Constitution, the Republic, and the Western Alliance. Act like it.”
On face value, there’s an appealing pragmatism to this idea. Rein in the extremists who smash windows and hit people, and the country will suddenly see that leftists aren’t all white dreadlocked crustpunk types who haven’t washed for days. The problem with this argument is that its vision never, ever been reflected in reality. The idea that if everyone just puts their view across politely and respectfully, those in power will consider it, be won over by its wisdom and eloquence, and amend their policy accordingly… it’s a fiction. It’s never happened. (OK, not never — but over the course of human history, the amount of change effected by convincing those in power to change is dwarfed by the amount of change wrought by forcing governments to change.)
More importantly, subscribing to this idea allows the right to set the parameters of protest. They’re not parameters that the right works within itself, obviously — when conservative extremists get upset, they bomb abortion clinics and invade federal buildings. The thing is, though, the right’s aggressive tactics work. Look at abortion, for instance — since Roe v. Wade, we’ve seen 30 years of the decision suffering a death by a thousand cuts, with the access to abortion being rolled back slowly but inexorably. None of that change has been catalyzed by peaceful protest; it’s been catalyzed by intimidation, outlandish rhetoric, and violence.
I’m not arguing that leftists should go down that path, at all, but they should look at America’s ongoing shift to the right and understand that the gentler tactics they’ve used over the last two generations simply haven’t worked. They’ve been too easy to ignore. And much of this is because of leftists’ subscription to exactly the sort of respectability politics that Frum is advocating here. In the same way that an institutionally racist police force isn’t going to treat young black men better if they’d just pull those damn pants up (read about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ classmate Prince Jones for evidence of that), our institutionally capitalist, prejudiced, and privilege-biased government apparatus isn’t going to treat those for who the left stands — the poor, the old, the sick, the uninsured — no matter politely how they behave.
And, just as importantly, even if the left were to somehow magically rid its protests of the drum circle people and the antifa activists and all the other scary types that middle America doesn’t like, they’d still be stereotyped as violent and destructive. How many times have you been to an entirely peaceful protest, gotten home, switched on the news, and been met with images of the police confronting chanting protesters, giving the impression that the event was violent and dangerous? It happens every damn time.
It happened during the inauguration, and the blame here can be placed just as much on media outlets looking for a story — and, of course, it’s stories of violence that rate and sell, because “Nothing Much Happened At Protest” isn’t exactly a punchy headline, is it? The lengths to which people will go for a story that fits the bill is demonstrated beautifully by Evy Mages’ image from the inauguration protests of a crowd of photographers snapping pictures of a single forlorn burning trash can. (It’s the image that’s also at the top of this page.)
Look, I don’t think Frum’s heart is in the wrong place here. Unlike some of his conservative contemporaries, he’s not inclined to fall in line and unite behind Trump, and that’s to his credit. But his arguments represent a fundamental misreading of both the purpose of protest and the reason why protest can be effective. And despite his best intentions, they betray a squeamishness at the thought of leftist activism. It’s a squeamishness shared by the rest of the country, the legacy of the effectiveness of the right’s strategy of leveraging the fear of Stalinist communism into a fear of anything remotely left-of-center.
The simple fact that protestors will always be demonized and stereotyped is demonstrated, as much as anything, by… David Frum’s essay. I mean, ask literally anyone who went to the women’s march in DC, its sister events around the country, or any of the emergency airport protests over the travel ban, whether their event was characterized by violence or property destruction, and you’ll get the same answer: no, of course it wasn’t. And yet, here we are, reading a piece arguing against violent protest. If we’re going to be depicted as violent troublemakers, no matter what we do, then we should stop trying to convince people otherwise. I’m not saying we should be violent troublemakers, but we should shed our sense of shame about doing whatever is required to enact the changes we want. If the left continues to allow itself to be gaslighted into ineffectiveness, neither history nor the present day will thank us for it.