If Trump’s Protestors Didn’t Exist He Would Have to Invent Them

Since last Friday’s canceled Trump rally in Chicago, there has been quite a bit of discussion about protestors at Trump rallies — both the propriety of disrupting his events and some scolding about what a bad tactical move it was for protestors to shut down the Chicago event, as well as some sudden realization among the chattering classes that Trump really does espouse violence.

I’d like to take a different approach and look at how Trump uses protestors.

For months, Trump has made protestors an integral part of his schtick at rallies. A person of color, a woman in hijab, a woman with a walker shows up and either silently protests, perhaps holding or wearing an anti-Trump slogan, or does boo and call out. Purportedly in response to earlier disruptions, Trump instructs attendees before any disruption not to hurt the protestors, but instead to surround them, holding up Trump signs and chanting his name, until security comes to throw the protestor out. “Get him out of here!” Trump yells after his attendees have disinfected the herd. This is all part of the rhythm now of Trump’s rallies, a way to reinforce the mob mentality in a participatory way.  Supporters become more than mere voters: they get deputized into reinforcing the purity of the herd, like drone bees cleaning out a hive.

I’m agnostic about the efficacy of protestors thus treated — they serve a useful function for Trump, sure, but given that every rally he does is covered on TV, they also serve as witness to the violence and assumed nativism of the rallies (not that the chattering classes seemed to take all that much notice before last weekend). But any individual’s decision to protest is their own choice, and I fiercely admire the courage it takes to walk into one of those rallies and serve as witness.

Of course, the neat formula Trump has long relied on depends on having — or rather, maintaining the illusion of — a majority. The “Silent Majority” has really become something closer to the “Silent 30%” or even “Silent 25%,” but at Trump rallies it appears as if those no-longer silent angry people are a majority.

On Friday, Trump lost control of that illusion.

I agree with William Daley, among others, who suggests that Trump chose to create a confrontation by scheduling an event at UIC. But I also think protestors got a sufficient mass of organized protestors to the event to thwart the managed confrontation Trump was hoping for, because they deprived him of the illusion of a majority. So he canceled the event before even showing up, falsely citing Chicago Police Department warnings.

I’m agnostic here, too, about the efficacy of this protest. One thing that has been largely — though not entirely — ignored (which itself testifies to something about the efficacy of speech rights in this country) is that the protest was part of a larger effort, including the effort to oust Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in today’s election; there were even “Bye Anita” signs at the protest. That is, the protest of Trump’s speech was part of a larger effort to fight systematic abuse of minorities, and as such had an affirmative message as well, though I admit the message reinforced afterwards — by both the protestors and press — is that they shut him down. I believe Alvarez has been leading in the polls, so we’ll see this evening whether the larger movement against her police cover-ups has achieved its goals.

But in questions of efficacy, I think it worth remembering how the Black Lives Matter protest of the Netroots Nation debate between Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders last July (which seems to have been entirely forgotten as people feel sorry for Trump). O’Malley basically gave up his microphone willingly; Bernie was more perturbed. A lot of attendees in the audience (the equivalent of all the Trump supporters who were deprived of their opportunity to hear him speak on Friday) were really angry; but many of those same people also wrote pieces in the weeks later talking about how important a learning opportunity being discomforted in such a way was. And that protest was undoubtedly effective, as it made the criminal and social justice issues a key focus of the Democratic primary. That’s not to say Trump protestors are as likely as Netroots Nation attendees to reflect on the privilege that attends uninterrupted speeches by white men, but sometimes protests do lead observers to rethink their own role (as, for example, mosque protestors in AZ who were invited inside only to learn about Islam in an unmediated way).

Let’s look, however, at what has happened in the days since Friday. On Saturday, Trump canceled and then uncanceled an event in Cincinnati, citing Secret Service concerns. Also on Saturday, protestor Thomas DiMassimo rushed Trump on stage (something I don’t defend, as it created real concerns about Trump’s safety; DiMassimo is lucky he wasn’t shot). Finally, in Kansas City, protestors achieved the result that Chicago protestors might have imagined: the sustained silencing of Trump, which he used to 1) claim Sanders supporters were the problem and 2) reinforce his love for the police.

Since then there have been reports of Trump finally doing what he chose not to do before (I argue, because protestors play a key function in his rallies): screening attendees of likely protestors, including profiling on race, which carries with it its own visual messaging that may even influence attendees. Yesterday, Trump retreated to his less visceral means of reinforcing the bully structure of his campaign, again referring to Rubio as “Lil Marco” and publicly humiliating Chris Christie.

Here’s the underlying point, though. Amid all the discussions of both the law and norms surrounding interrupting speech, few have accounted for the way that well-managed spectacle is a key (arguably the key) to Trump’s attraction. That spectacle relies partly on Trump’s mock frankness — his ability and willingness to say anything he wants, including repeated promises he will address presumed grievances of his supporters. But it relies, at least as much, on his ability to mobilize a mob in a certain way, including to create the illusion for that mob that they are part of a coherent pure majority. That mob gives them the illusion of power they believe they have been illegitimately stripped of. It’s an illusion, of course, but Trump is a master at managing that spectacle to prevent cracks from forming in that illusion.

And this is why the response to Trump has largely been so ineffectual. Polls in FL showed that voters were more likely to support Trump given Friday’s shutdown (so on that level, at least, the protest may have backfired). But DC pundits scolding Trump has largely the same effect, reinforcing the sense of grievance. So if the DC press want to do something about Trump’s frightening power, they might do more reflection about how they have been a willing partner in it.

The way to weaken Trump is not to continue to magnify his spectacle, as the press has done non-stop for a year. This is tough for cable news to manage, because they are in the business of spectacle.

One way to weaken him is to reveal how Trump has exacerbated the grievances motivating his supporters, never addressed them. As a reminder, one of the only times Trump has really backed down over the course of this campaign was when Bernie attacked him for wanting to lower wages, because that’s a truth that, reinforced, might sow doubt.

The other way to is to disrupt Trump’s manufactured spectacle of strength, because his supporters are only going to support him so long as they believe his bluster about always winning (which relies, in part, on the bullying he performs at his rallies). I’m not sure whether disruption of rallies does that or not. Magnifying the degree to which Trump is a fearful man would. Reporting on his many failures would. Certain kinds of reminders of his past weaknesses might (though some would reinforce the sense of grievance).

Side note, one spectacle that did not get shown by the press were the protests in Detroit in advance of the GOP debate there. So as people complain about protestors not simply standing powerfully outside, know that the press has chosen in the past to ignore that spectacle.

I suspect Marco Rubio’s advisors had it right, even though they delivered it through the absolutely wrong messenger. Trump’s reliance on guest workers (he likes to conflate skilled H1B workers, which have been a central part of GOP debates, with unskilled H2B workers he employed at Mar Lago) and his use of Chinese manufacturers for his campaign swag are both real vulnerabilities. And if someone wants to suggest Trump is operating out of some sense of inferiority because he has a small flaccid penis and small hands to match, that may well undercut the spectacle of virility that Trump has affirmatively cultivated.

I think Megyn Kelly (because she’s a woman who has succeeded in making Trump look dumb, once Fox stopped letting Trump dictate her role in coverage), and — before Trump equated protestors with Bernie Sanders (maybe still, though I don’t know) — Bernie, are two of the few people who have the ability to undercut Trump’s power on mobilizing grievances. Probably some centrist union leaders have the same ability, as well as a select few faith leaders. There are vanishingly few people who have the power position to call attention to the degree to which Trump has contributed to his followers’ grievances, rather than done anything to alleviate them, but that evidence is out there.

I’m not sure what happens from here. Demographically, there should be no way Trump wins the general election; as I noted, the Silent Majority, to the extent it existed in Nixon’s era, is a minority now. Assuming it will be a Trump – Clinton race, I don’t know that we know, because Clinton will have a harder time addressing those grievances, and because the high negatives of both candidates will make turnout really unpredictable (though I also suspect Hillary will be an acceptable crossover vote for many Republican Neocons).

But there is one other unpredictable player here: the cops. For some time, both Ted Cruz and Trump have been feeding the perceived feeling of grievances of cops that they have been unfairly targeted by activists complaining about police violence. As noted, Trump hails the cops even as he dehumanizes protestors. Both Cruz and Trump have been buttering up the cops that may one day have the ability to turn the violence that has been simmering for some time in one direction or another (with the consequent spectacle). Though there were a few reports of heavy-handedness from Chicago cops, in general they did a good job of managing the tensions on Friday. I really, really worry that Cleveland’s cops (who are getting some new war toys in advance of the GOP convention) won’t exercise the same restraint.

Trump’s power rests on spectacle. He will not be defeated, primarily, with a rational argument or some tut-tutting about norms about violence (that, in fact, the US neither culturally nor internationally really abide by in any case), in part because there are few credible messengers of the rational argument about how Trump has contributed to grievances. If his spectacle starts to crack, however, the investment in Trump as a savior will dissolve. It won’t go away — it’ll get invested somewhere else, potentially even someone more violent (though that person is unlikely to have the soapbox Trump has). But his power depends on illusion.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

15 replies
  1. Denis says:

    “Trump’s power rests on spectacle. He will not be defeated,
    primarily, with a rational argument or some tut-tutting
    about norms about violence” Amen, Sister Marcy, and pass
    the digital plate. Where do I send my bitcoins? I’m ready
    to invest the kids’ inheritance to stop Trump.
    .
    Goldwater is probably the best historical analogy to DT’s
    egregious BS-carnival, which is why this Johnson ad from 1964
    “Confessions of a Republican,” is now going viral. Even
    “Daisy Chain,” widely held to be one of the most brilliant
    campaign ads ever, doesn’t match the understated brilliance of
    this one.
    .
    http://www.nationalmemo.com/endorse-this-confessions-of-a-republican/
    .
    If I thought I could light a cigarette that suavely, I’d start
    smoking again.

  2. orionATL says:

    a fine detailed analysis of trump’s manipulation of what may appear to some as spontaneous, independent happenings.

    as for “why”, i’d guess to keep the excitement level up for his supporters. trump doesn’t have the nomination yet. pictures of people at trump rallies leave me with the impression of folks at a concert or sporting event – having fun, laughing, excited to be there – maybe waiting for the anticipated confrontation, similar to the “you’re fired” moment on teevee.

    i would expect this behavior to disappear once trump has the republican nomination (if that happens). trump is p. t. barnum; he is a showman but no fool. i would expect he would be aware of the picture such behavior would leave in the minds of voters in the presidential election.

    as an aside, police unions are small relative to the pool of all possible supporting voters, but i imagine them as like evangelicals – they are cohesive, they and their families vote, and (i suspect) are strongly authoritarian conservative.

    • gmoke says:

      “Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature in 1865 as a Republican for Fairfield. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution over slavery and African-American suffrage, Barnum spoke before the legislature and said, “A human soul, ‘that God has created and Christ died for,’ is not to be trifled with. It may tenant the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot – it is still an immortal spirit”.[6] Elected in 1875 as Mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut, he worked to improve the water supply, bring gas lighting to streets, and enforce liquor and prostitution laws. Barnum was instrumental in starting Bridgeport Hospital, founded in 1878, and was its first president.”

      Interesting to note that Bridgeport, CT also had a mayor for nearly 25 years in the early 20th century who was a Socialist, Jasper McLevy. McLevy, like Dan Hoan who was mayor of Milwaukee for nearly 25 years, and Bernie Sanders, who was mayor of Burlington, VT, was called a Sewer Socialist because he concentrated on providing reliable and safe city services and good government (what people like the odious Chris Matthews call “goo-goo”).

  3. Klynn says:

    Hello EW. Feeling sad about Ohio voting… Was hoping to drive by and see some witty commentary from bmaz about Pam Bondi!

    Hope you are well.

  4. scribe says:

    Out last night for a beer with some friends – all of them erudite, knowledgeable, experienced and cynically witty – the two things we definitely agreed on:

    1. Trump:Hitler::Cruz:Heydrich

    No, I’m not violating Godwin’s law here. Keep in mind that Heydrich was both the efficient, ruthless Nazi head of the SD and the one the British chose to whack and did, successfully. Hitler, the Allies never really tried to get (Republican “would you kill Baby Hitler?” pre-season debate questions to the contrary notwithstanding). I suspect that non-attempt was deliberate. He was disorganized, prone to procrastinate or obsess on irrelevant details, a repeated failure at organizational things and not a good manager. While he was a brilliant media user and manipulator and possessed of intuition that served him and his cause quite well through the summer of ’41, when his intuition failed him, everything collapsed in a wreck around him. The Donald is, as his repeated business failures on the one hand and his media mastery on the other show, pretty similar. Feet o’ clay, if the mystique can be broken.
    Heydrich, OTOH, had ruthlessness and organization to match his strong intellect and will. If he had been in charge (his posting to run Bohemia/Moravia suggests he was being groomed for the big job), the outcome of things would have been radically different.
    So, in short, when getting rid of The Donald, make sure it happens when Cruz can’t step into the breach and take the nomination.

    2. There are a lot of otherwise sane, liberal people scared to death of Sanders, to the point that they would vote Trump if Sanders had the nomination. Why, I dunno. Sanders would be one of the more conservative members of FDR’s cabinet; his policies are not that far left. Henry Wallace was far, far to the left of Bernie.

    In other words, be careful what you wish for and, if you insist on getting it, try to time it so the damage won’t be too bad.

  5. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    One thing I’ve not seen mentioned anywhere: Why aren’t people attacking the myth of Trump being self-made? Not sure a lot of his followers, or the public in general, really understand that Trump has been living off his daddy’s money his whole life. (His daddy, who may have been in the Klan.) I would think telling that story would go a long way to deflate the mythology of Trump.

    Also, what the hell is Christie doing? What’s he going to get out of this? It’s pretty easy to imagine some dark shit going on there.

  6. gmoke says:

    Herr Drumpf is coming close to getting burnt by another of his ruses – blaming the media. Reportedly, one of his schticks is to ask the crowd to turn around and look at the press pen (he keeps the press in a penned off area at his PRIVATE rallies and all his rallies are PRIVATE) to jeer and laugh at. He is naming the enemy. The press may be beginning to realize that this is becoming more than a little dangerous for them and, at some point, someone with a TV or newspaper megaphone is going to remember Ed Murrow and go for the exposed and throbbing jugular.

    Here in Boston, Emily Rooney, Andy’s daughter, has a Friday half hour show on the press and media. She had been defending Herr Drumpf as someone who has made himself eminently accessible and thus somewhat deserving of the free media he’s received. Last week, after the incident with the now former Breitbart reporter being allegedly man-handled by His Loudness’ campaign manager, she backed away from that position. As more violent rhetoric and actual violence comes down on people with press passes, I suspect that there will be fewer and fewer voices supporting our own Il Douche.

  7. Rayne says:

    Ran across this short video in my Twitter timeline comparing handling of protestors. Fascinating stuff. Protestors are really just props for Trump; they are not intended to create/open dialog with voters. They’re used instead to engage the reptilian brain.

    I’m surprised you didn’t dig further into ‘spectacle,’ Marcy, a la Debord and the Situationist movement. We’re watching Inception-like protest against protestors, dissidents colonialized by the inauthentic. Hell, we are now deep into Baudrillard’s third order, a full and complete simulation where we can no longer tell the difference between artificial and real, where a synthesized television personality is a candidate for the presidency, and the audience/target market has become the base. The TV star’s makeup is the spray-on tan of the candidate. It’s the synthesis of the parallel, the completion of the simulation, which would demand protestors for the spectacle called Trump, counterpart to the naysayers who disliked his television program.

  8. orionATL says:

    “.. The TV star’s makeup is the spray-on tan of the candidate…”

    you mean his tan isn’t real either? i can’t take any more. say it ain’t so, rayne.

  9. Rayne says:

    orionATL (5:00) — *-snort!-* Don’t get me started on Trump’s ex-wives as demarcations of orders in descent from simulacra to full simulation.

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