Dissent in the age of Trump


By Daryl Auguste

Progressives must avoid being baited into isolation by an administration that uses civil unrest as political currency.

The first two weeks of the Trump administration have been defined by an onslaught of increasingly disturbing developments. From his religiously discriminatory executive order banning travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations (with exceptions made for Christians), to the inclusion of Breitbart propagandist / Dick Cheney wannabe Steve Bannon on the National Security Council (the group tasked with everything from breaking up intended terrorist attacks to authorizing drone strikes), the early days of Trumpistan have been a non-stop acid flood of bad news for progressives.

Encouragingly, Americans haven’t stayed silent in the face of this international tire fire. Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens took to the nation’s airports in a show of solidarity with the immigrants, refugees, and legal U.S. residents swept up in Trump’s executive order. Donations to the ACLU in the 24 hours since Trump’s ban totaled $24 million, almost seven times as much as the $3.5 million the organization raised online for the entirety of 2015, as reported by the New York Times. All this can be taken as a positive indication that a sizeable portion of the American public isn’t at risk of succumbing to the public indifference that would surely propel a Trump administration. Still, other anti-Trump developments have proved less encouraging.

Take the protests against right-wing extremist Milo Yiannopoulos that took place at UC Berkeley over the last week. Yiannopoulos was visiting the University as part of his “Dangerous F****T” speaking tour, a sort of Tour de France of attention seeking. Protests against Yiannopoulos eventually turned “violent” (violence in the form of property damage, rather than violence against individuals), resulting in the forced cancellation of Yiannopoulos’s speech. The damage that was caused was not caused by Berkeley students, but by “masked agitators’” according to KTLA.

A description of the tour by fellow Breitbart fabulist Allum Bokhari reads as follows.

“Triggered social justice warriors and cowering college administrators were breathing a sigh of relief. They thought it was all over. They were wrong … Milo’s previous tour, which took place in the spring and summer, grabbed headlines across the country as panicked social justice warriors threw tantrums, stormed stages, and held therapy sessions.”

Yiannopoulos is a paid troll. His sole focus as a speaker is to incite leftist protestors into a rage. His followers don’t love him for his intellectual contributions to rightist extremism,  they love him because he pisses off progressives in ways that few others seem capable of. In that respect, his words hold very little weight without the reactive power they generate. He came to Berkeley hoping to have his speech cancelled and succeeded in accomplishing just that.

In demanding that Berkeley administrators cancel Yiannopoulos’s speech, protesters unwittingly reinforced the idea that progressives shut down certain types of free speech, a popular notion amongst conservatives (and increasingly popular amongst moderates). While qualifying Milo’s ascientific, hateful drivel as “free speech,” may seem repulsive to many of us, blackballing these figures only drives home this false narrative, simultaneously empowering the individual. Case in point; the day after Milo’s Berkeley speech was cancelled, he appeared on Fox. In doing so, he was able to present his case to a mainstream audience of millions, as opposed to the few hundred followers that may have been in attendance at UC Berkeley. The flurry of publicity Yiannopoulos has received has also resulted in a huge increase in sales for his book Dangerous, which was the #1 book on Amazon as of Feb. 2.

Beyond protesters demands, the vandalism and violence perpetrated by a small number of individuals served to pour gas on an already flammable narrative. The use of over the top right wing doctrine as a means of inciting progressives to err is straight out of the playbook of President Trump / Bannon themselves. It was no surprise then, when Trump himself threatened to pull federal funds from UC Berkeley in response to the Yiannopoulos protests, tweeting, “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”.

All of this to say, Democrats, Progressives, and their various allies need to be careful in the way in which they resist a Trump administration. This fear was perhaps best summed up by conservative “never-Trumper” (conservatives who opposed Trump throughout his campaign) David Frum.

“Civil unrest will not be a problem for the Trump presidency, it will be a resource,” Frum said. “Immigration protesters marching with Mexican flags, BLM demonstrators bearing anti-police slogans. These are the images of the opposition that Donald Trump will wish his supporters to see.”

Trump actively goads protesters to burn flags, drive off unsavory speakers, and destroy property. In doing so, the protestors create the propaganda Trump uses as red meat to feed his base, and isolate the far left from mainstream society. He conflates protests with violence, a narrative which will ultimately be used as an excuse to clamp down on civil dissent. The left must exercise a reflexive sense of self-critical analysis as it relates to resistance / dissent in an era where the U.S. government openly covets said opposition. Let’s not turn any more peripheral bigots into cause celebrities.

There lies a tension between ideologically pure, “damn the costs” resistance, and more ideologically shrewd, pragmatic forms of opposition. How progressives plan on navigating it remains to be seen.

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