Anti-Trump protesters in Fountain Hills, Ariz. Photo by Chris Vena.
As we make our way through primary season, a new group of players has emerged: Instead of turning out in support of their favorite candidate, they show up to try to silence their least favorite.
Small groups of protesters have appeared at many Donald Trump rallies more or less since he began campaigning. These protests led to isolated incidents of violence as early as last fall. But a scheduled appearance at the University of Illinois’ Chicago campus served as a tipping point for the size and nature of the demonstrations. Campus groups and noncampus activists mobilized thousands of protesters, leading Trump to postpone the event.
A day later, Trump’s appearance at Dayton International Airport was interrupted when a man tried to charge the stage. Trump was also repeatedly interrupted at an event in Kansas City, Missouri, prompting him to suggest he might press charges against protesters, though he did not specify what particular charges he meant. (I suspect they might be similar to the charges I would probably face if, say, I were to start chanting political slogans during a performance of the Broadway show “Hamilton.”) The following weekend, protesters in Arizona blocked traffic to a campaign event, following Utah protesters’ attempt to rush the doors of a rally in Salt Lake City.
The protesters who seek to disrupt Trump’s rallies are the ideological fellow travelers of those who made a nuisance of themselves in the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago. In some cases, they are no doubt the same people. While Occupy more or less fizzled out into infighting and irrelevance, and its participants have largely moved on to greener causes, the same animus has cropped up at the edges – and occasionally the center – of Trump’s recent campaign appearances.
At least this time the protesters have a specific purpose, obnoxious as it is: They don’t want Trump to talk. They also don’t want people who care to listen to Trump talk to have that opportunity. Their actions are not about making their own views known; they are about stopping someone else from expressing views that they find offensive. All in the name of democracy, of course.
While Trump accused Bernie Sanders’ campaign of organizing the protesters in Chicago and elsewhere, Sanders’ camp has firmly denied these accusations. And, in fact, nothing as neat as pro-Sanders sentiment drives the anti-Trump demonstrations. Participants have included Sanders supporters, yes, but also Hillary Clinton supporters and even some of those pulling for Trump’s GOP rivals. Much like Occupy before them, the demonstrators are much better at answering what they are against than effectively defining what they are for.
The path from occupying Wall Street to Trump rallies took a pit stop along the way at many of the nation’s college campuses, where similar arrogations of public space for the personal views of the occupiers have been justified under “the right to protest.” That “right” evidently translates to: “My rights are more important than yours because I’m louder and more aggressive.”
Even President Obama, whose track record for encouraging dissenting opinions is far from flawless, warned students not to lose sight of the difference between disagreement and silencing others. In an NPR interview, he observed, “I do think that there have been times on college campuses where I get concerned that the unwillingness to hear other points of view can be as unhealthy on the left as on the right.” But for a certain set of protesters, on college campuses and elsewhere, shouting down or shutting out the opposing point of view remains the method of choice.
It is hard to see how Occupy Wall Street generated any appreciable increase in public support for the noisy, messy, self-interested occupiers. The campus protest movements have cowed some campus observers, particularly administrators and nonconforming faculty members, but have also triggered backlash.
As for the Trump protesters, they are succeeding in provoking some low-level violence from frustrated attendees. Of course, this is all to the good from the protesters’ standpoint. If you want to portray people as evil, it is useful to get them to do something inarguably bad, such as hitting you when you are being escorted out of a hall for causing a disruption.
And if Trump backers started attending Clinton or Sanders rallies and drowning out the candidate or blocking access so supporters could not attend? That would be clear evidence of racism, sexism or half a dozen other -isms.
The irony is that the most determined opposition to Trump comes not from the political left, which is the spectrum generally occupied by the Occupiers, but from the right – where Trump’s potential hijacking of the Republican Party base threatens to dilute, eclipse or redefine the roles of people who, until now, have considered themselves the embodiment of political conservatism.
Trump is far from my favorite candidate or my favorite person, but I have to give him credit. Anyone who can be such a threat to both ends of the political spectrum is probably doing something right.
Want to Occupy Trump? Throw in a prayer meeting at the start of your protests. Then you’ll really draw a crowd.