When certainties crumble, it’s often on the streets that the most coherent narratives emerge. One crumbling certainty is that Americans don’t elect fascists. That’s a 1930s European thing, we have long thought. This certainty seems to have prevented Trump’s GOP rivals from calling him out with the “F-word” while they still had a chance to block his rise, even as he asked supporters to swear a personal loyalty oath to him at rallies, retweeted Mussolini quotes, curried favor with white-nationalist groups, showed profound contempt for the separation of powers that defines the American democratic process, and repeatedly injected the language of violence into his speeches.
That same certainty also stopped Republicans, until it was far too late to be effective, from explicitly denouncing Trump’s racism and demagoguery—even as he called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and decried Muslim immigrants as a fifth column. That same certainty has allowed television journalists to cover Trump either as entertainment—very profitable entertainment—or as just another suit in the crowd, rather than as an existential threat to the country’s democratic heritage. That same certainty led Hillary Clinton, during most of the primary season, to go no further than labeling the billionaire rabble-rouser “dangerous” and “risky.” Only in the days leading up to the California primary, after Trump declared that she should be imprisoned and that, as president, he would instruct his attorney general to begin investigating her, did Clinton finally denounce his dictatorial ambitions.
Throughout most of the primary season, there was a kind of quiescence to the mainstream, inside-the- Beltway approach to Trump, a crippling rhetorical caution in the face of a full-frontal assault on the culture of tolerance and pluralism. Trump’s attack on Judge Gonzalo Curiel and his outrageous response to the Orlando massacre have, at long last, galvanized mainstream political voices, from the president on down, to call him out more forcefully. In recent weeks, Trump’s abysmal fund-raising numbers, falling approval ratings, and weak campaign organization, along with the swirling allegations that his family may be personally profiting from his campaign, have added a new vigor to the stop-Trump effort within the GOP.
And yet, despite rumors of a delegate coup at the Republican National Convention, it still seems unlikely that a critical mass of GOP leaders will break with their presumptive nominee. And the Clinton campaign alone—reliant as the Clintons have historically been on focus groups and polling to craft their messaging—may not be able to marshal the political and cultural energies necessary to defeat Trump’s movement. If there is to be a true critical mass against Trumpism—a countervailing force that takes on not just the candidate, who could implode in the coming months, but the toxic forces he has unleashed—it will spring from the national protest movement that has been coalescing for months now.
“I see the emergence of a popular front,” predicts Nicole Carty of Momentum Training, a group that schools activists on strategy around the country. “What I think has happened: Trump and the Trump movement have unified these existing fronts. All of these movements were operating on their own before Trump. [But] he’s given them a focal point. They’re moving as one. They’re thinking systemically. It allows them to understand how their front line is part of a shared front line.”
Many trade unions, energized by successful campaigns for an increased minimum wage, have joined the protests. And behind the scenes, other groups like Color of Change have started lobbying corporations that have long embraced the principles of diversity, including Google, Coca-Cola, and Apple, to withdraw their sponsorship from the Republican National Convention. As Trump neared and then passed the magic delegate number for securing the nomination, a number of sponsors did stop the flow of dollars and announced they would not be a presence in Cleveland in July.
On the East Coast, it was Trump’s hometown, New York City, that became the focal point for the anti-Trump movement. Organizers knew that on April 14, the state GOP would be holding a gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street in Manhattan. With a few weeks’ lead time, dozens of groups around the city began planning actions for that day. Some focused on mobilizing for demonstrations, others on hand-painting banners in art collectives, still others on civil-disobedience training.
On the afternoon of the 14th, they gathered by the thousands. Fight for $15 activists, reveling in their recent success in persuading New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a $15 minimum-wage bill, marched east along 42nd Street from Times Square. Striking Verizon workers—who had greeted and hailed Bernie Sanders the day before—paraded toward the Hyatt as well. Also converging on 42nd Street were Muslim groups, Black Lives Matter activists, Latino organizations, supporters of Planned Parenthood, and protesters from MoveOn.org, which had already responded to Trump’s first call for a ban on Muslims entering the country last December by getting more than 1,600 progressive leaders to join a campaign based on the slogan “We Are Better Than This.”
Still more groups were brought together by the Stop Trump National Network, a Facebook-based organization that one founding member describes as “a crowd-sourcing place.”
White antiracists from Showing Up for Racial Justice, a national network founded in 2009 that now claims 25,000 members nationwide, also came en masse. “The first five years, we had only six chapters and 200 members,” said one national organizer, who didn’t want his name used because he was organizing civil- disobedience strategies. Then, after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, SURJ’s membership soared—and with Trump’s rise, those numbers have continued to climb; the network now has 150 chapters. “We see this as a great opportunity,” the organizer continued, “because Trump represents this white, racist demagoguery. He’s saying immigrants are the problem, and immigrants and Muslims are the No. 1 threat to our personal safety and security. There are echoes of the rise of the Third Reich. We know we can’t sit on the sidelines here.”
“The rhetoric has gotten so hostile toward Arabs and Muslims and immigrants,” said Kayla Santosuosso, the 26-year-old deputy director of the Arab American Association of New York and speaking as an organizer for SURJ. “When it was announced that the GOP gala was hosting Trump, it was kind of like the Bat-Signal. Everyone jumped in. It feels organic; it doesn’t feel orches- trated. And most of all, it’s inclusive. There are some parallels between what’s going on now and Occupy. You’re seeing a groundswell of people.”
“There’s a trend where direct action is exciting again,” noted another organizer, 33-year-old Vida, a social worker who works with immigrants, adolescents, the LGBTQ community, and homeless youth. “People have been digging into creating a shared language, a theory, an activist culture.”
Because of the tight security cordon around the Grand Hyatt, none of the young activists who had trained for civil disobedience managed to get close enough to the hotel to realize their plans. Yet the point was made: Anti-Trumpism was now a cause capable of bringing many thousands of people, from many walks of life and with an array of political priorities, out to protest.
“We’re New Yorkers,” said Kaitlin Campbell of SURJ New York, who got involved in organizing a year ago. “And we don’t want hate speech used to politicians’ advantage here.” Campbell is well versed in the teachings of Saul Alinsky and the mass-protest ideas of Frances Fox Piven. The Occupy movement, she believes, was a classic “moment of the whirlwind.” Now, five years on, she thinks the anti-Trump moment has similar potential, “creating moral dilemmas that make [people] choose sides.”
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Prior to the New York action, there had been several high-profile protests, including civil disobedience, at Trump rallies across the country, most notably in Chicago, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Now, with the end of the primary season and the start of the general election, that activism is going national. “What we saw in Chicago and Arizona set off a wave of motivation,” says Sandy Nurse, a New Yorker active in the anti-Trump movement. “People are activated to do something.”
Even in historically conservative regions like Appalachia and Western Pennsylvania, organizers have started carving out counternarratives against Trump. In college towns, in particular, groups have formed to protest at Trump events whenever they’re announced.
In the small Appalachian town of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, Lynn Cockett, a professor of communications at Juniata College, and one of her colleagues set up a SURJ chapter to counter Trump’s appeal. They were also animated by what had happened in their part of Pennsylvania in the wake of the racially motivated mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white supremacist. That attack led to a political backlash against public displays of the Confederate flag. But while politicians inveighed against the symbol, in small Appalachian towns the flags began to appear all over, and racially inflammatory rhetoric took on a life of its own. In essence, alienated locals were giving the middle finger to the political establishment. In that sense, it fit the Trumpist moment perfectly.
In response, SURJ activists designed and distributed a Unity flag to oppose the outbreak of Confederate nostalgia and the coarsening of racial discourse. “We like to refer to ourselves as accidental activists,” Cockett said. “I’ve always had liberal politics, but I’ve never done activist work.”
“Our intention,” fellow organizer Susan Prill added, “is to work more on building community locally—doing door-to-door work, doing outreach, and trying to build bridges to counteract the general tenor. This isn’t just about Trump; it’s about the larger issues.”
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Trumpism, in all its vulgar horrors— some overtly neofascist, some just clownlike—has now swamped the GOP. In the historically depraved calculus of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and most other Republican leaders, power clearly wins over decency or ideological coherence. Which means that Trump is being normalized; that his extremist ideas are now an accepted and acceptable part of the GOP conversation; that Islamophobia and all the other bile he spews can now be advocated and embraced, without apology, in polite society. This is how a politics of barbarism, of undiluted majoritarian tyranny, emerges.
Will Trump succeed in converting the GOP, against the will of many of its current grandees, into an explicitly ethno-nationalist, conspiracist, protectionist organization? If so, he will have accomplished a hostile takeover of one of the country’s two major parties, morphing it into a party that has more in common with, say, France’s National Front than with the British Tories or German Christian Democrats.
But even if Trump loses this fall, he has already unleashed venomous forces, allowing the worst, most paranoid elements from America’s past—elements that have long been a core part of the GOP base but have, in recent decades, been successfully, if barely, contained—back into the heart of modern political discourse. Unlike Pat Buchanan, who played to the same crowd but failed to generate crossover appeal in the 1990s, or George Wallace, who ran a third-party segregationist candidacy in 1968 but failed to take states outside the South, the reality-TV entertainer has worked out a way to deliver his toxic message that appeals to a disturbingly large number of voters.
And thus the necessity of urgent protest. If wonks alone cannot stop the rise of a would-be dictator, or educate the public at speed about the political perils of the moment, then a mobilized movement must take up that challenge, by framing this election as a struggle for the very soul of the Republic.
By themselves, the protests that have emerged in one city and state after another since last winter aren’t big enough yet to transform the political discourse. And there is a risk that a series of scattershot demonstrations—especially those, like the one in San Jose in early June, that turn violent—will simply drive more conservative voters into Trump’s so-called silent majority. That’s certainly what the GOP candidate hopes, as he eggs on both the protests and his fans’ reactions, fueling the flames of a political street conflict the likes of which this country hasn’t seen in decades.
But if the protests grow in frequency, size, and geographic diversity in the coming months—if they become more than just Lilliputian annoyances buzzing about the Trumpian giant—then, in conjunction with other forms of organizing, they could provide much of the emotional energy needed to counter Trumpism during the slash-and-burn campaign that will unfold through the November election.
When Trump announced his candidacy last summer and declared that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, immigrant-rights groups at first took him as something of a joke. “You’d think that starting off with something so racist and inflammatory was a complete no-no,” says Apolonio Morales, political director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
CHIRLA’s offices are on West Third Street, just north of downtown. Along the cream-and-brown-painted exterior of the building are a series of murals. One shows a reclining Statue of Liberty, along with a hammer and the stars from the American flag. Another shows an old Spanish galleon, adorned with the red cross of St. James, crossing the oceans to conquer the indígenos. In the waiting area are framed photos from recent large-scale immigrant-rights protests.
On July 10 of last year, Trump held an event at the Luxe Hotel, in LA’s fashionable Westside. That was when CHIRLA’s Action Fund began mobilizing, launching a “No Hate in LA” campaign. It has been building momentum ever since.
This May Day—two days after anti-Trump protesters noisily protested the state GOP convention in the Bay Area town of Burlingame, barricading roads and forcing Trump to abandon his car and scramble, on foot, toward the back entrance—thousands of peo- ple marched through downtown Los Angeles. Brought to the streets by organizations like the Service Employees International Union, Unite Here, CHIRLA’s Action Fund, and a slew of other groups, the protesters marched along the industrial strip overlooking Highway 101 and onto Olvera Street, the old heart of Spanish LA, waving signs that read “Vote for Hope, Not Hate”; “I’m a Dealer of Change. I’m Latino and I Vote”; and, simply, “Dump Trump.”
Outside police headquarters, the May Day marchers organized a call-and-response, each line spoken into a megaphone and then repeated by the demonstrators: “It is our duty to fight for freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
“This is what democracy looks like!” the crowd chanted.
At the corner of Alameda and Aliso, the march stopped one last time. At the front, youth organizers unfurled a huge black-and-white-striped paper banner, lettered in red with the words “Wall of Intolerance.” At a signal, dozens of youngsters ran forward, tearing right through the wall and ripping it to shreds.
By early May, Trump had effectively wrapped up the nomination. But with the California primary still to come, he began barnstorming the West Coast on June 7, arguing that he, unlike every previous GOP presidential candidate since 1992, could capture the Golden State this fall. Trump made outlandish claims—including that California didn’t have a drought problem. And he promised one audience after another that he would seal off their state from Mexico. But wherever he went, he was dogged by protests.
In large part because of the efforts of the Immigrant Voter Project and other rights groups, Latinos are registering to vote in record numbers this election, according to the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials, the Pew Research Center, and others. There are also huge voter-registration drives under way in Asian and African migrant communities. And nowhere is that more the case than in the Golden State. In the first three months of 2016, says CHIRLA’s Morales, 850,000 new voters, mostly young and Latino, registered in California. And while Trump’s message will win him the undying support of California’s hard-core GOP primary voters, it is unlikely to play well in the state as a whole come the general election. Trump’s strategy, Morales argues, “is racial polarization. It’s about making working white folks look at what’s happened to them and providing simple answers—pointing to a community and saying, ‘That’s your problem.’” Morales doesn’t think this will fly in 2016. “You can’t have enough white male working-class voters to offset the numbers of people of color. We don’t live in that country anymore. We’ve created allies and partnerships with labor, with community groups, to ensure we fight against this kind of hate.”
The anti-Trump coalitions are determined to turn the GOP convention this summer into a creative carnival of protest. But they also want to generate “echo actions” in cities around the country. “Simultaneous protests—that’s how we usually operate,” says Angelica Salas, president of the CHIRLA Action Fund. CHIRLA will be focusing its efforts on Nevada.
A young New York organizer with the online group MPower Change, which works primarily within Muslim communities, puts it starkly: “It’s up to us to draw down on the point that this isn’t just about Trump—it’s an indictment of the entire system that allows people like this to be front-runners for president from a major party.”
In Los Angeles, Salas agrees. “We are transferring all our energy to engage our community to communicate with voters why Trump can’t be the president of a country as diverse as ours,” she says. “We stand by the values of this country. We have to stop Trump, and stop future Trumps, people who appeal to the worst divisions. We see it as a very real possibility that without our action, he could become president of the United States. If we have Trump as president, how do we ensure that our community is safe? We have to fight in the courts. Fight in the streets. Do mass actions.”
“We’ve seen a movement of people that’s gotten stronger and emboldened pushing back against hateful rhetoric,” says Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream, the country’s largest network of immigrant youth, which has been involved in the demonstrations from the start. “We will push back and expose it and speak against it. We’re having mobilizations in New York, Miami, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and many more, to make clear where we stand and all that’s at stake for communities of color and women and workers.”