April 7, 2018
The Changing Shape of Protests in the Second Year of the Trump Era
Since Donald Trump took office, the tenor of liberal mass protest has grown sophisticated not just in its messaging but in its sense of how local political power can be. Photograph by Scott Heins / Bloomberg / Getty
In the past month, teachers in three conservative and comparatively poor states have gone on strike, and, in that short time, certain patterns have developed. In West Virginia, Kentucky, and, most recently, Oklahoma, the teachers have worn red clothing, and they have had a protest song—Twisted Sister’s hair-metal anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It”—which, at the Oklahoma state capitol on Monday, was played enthusiastically on drums and brass by several dozen of the state’s band teachers. The strikes have been organized on Facebook rather than called by union leaders, and, in West Virginia and Oklahoma, the teachers have rejected lawmakers’ initial offers of pay raises; they have said that they also want to change the systematic underfunding of education. “The real midterms are happening right now, in Kentucky, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona,” the left-wing political theorist Corey Robin tweeted on Sunday.
The tenor of liberal mass protest has changed in the fifteen months since Donald Trump became President. The early demonstrations (the counterprotests at the Inauguration; the vast and furious crowds at the Women’s March, a day later; the more anxious ones that gathered at airports, calling for the release of sequestered Iranian graduate students and Iraqi grandmothers, after the President issued his first travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim nations) had a feeling of holding the country back from a precipice. There was talk of creeping fascism, and a sense that the Trump Administration was a bad dream from which the country might awake if people pinched themselves hard enough. At a Los Angeles march in November, 2017, protesters carried signs that read, “Let this nightmare end.”
The protests in the second year of the Trump Administration have taken on a different character. For one thing, they have been somewhat less about Trump. As a gun-control movement coalesced in the aftermath of the massacre of seventeen people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, its villain was not Trump but the National Rifle Association (N.R.A) and the influence it exerts in Washington and state legislatures around the country. The student activists from Parkland have been careful to argue that their call for gun control is in the reasonable mainstream, in contrast to the inflexible, extreme positions taken by politicians loyal to the N.R.A. “Our platform is moderate and common sense,” Matt Deitsch, a recent Stoneman Douglas graduate, who served as the head of messaging and outreach for the March for Our Lives, tweeted this week. “Anything that polls with a supermajority in our country cannot be seen as left / right.”
The Parkland protests were sophisticated not just in their messaging but in their sense of how local political power can be. In Sacramento, California, during the past two weeks, there have been demonstrations in response to the police killing of Stephon Clark, a young, unarmed African-American man who was shot after allegedly running away from officers who had confronted him in the yard of his grandmother’s house. The protests have aimed to shut down civic life in the city—blocking an interstate that runs through downtown Sacramento, delaying the start of a Sacramento Kings game. Shortly after the killing, Clark’s brother Stevante took over a Sacramento City Council meeting, and for three days demonstrations were held outside the offices of the county’s District Attorney, Anne Marie Schubert, who many residents believe has failed to hold cops accountable. These beliefs existed before Clark was killed. A few days before the shooting, a leader of the local Black Lives Matter chapter, Tanya Faison, had called for volunteers to follow police officers around Sacramento, recording what they did, as a method of citizen surveillance. The plan, she told reporters, was an unarmed version of a tactic the Black Panthers used, half a century ago.
The red-state teacher revolts have been especially precise in their tactics. They have focussed on the long-running matter of how conservative states, some of which require legislative supermajorities to raise any tax at all, pay for their schools. A common refrain in Oklahoma, where school funding has been so aggressively cut that about a fifth of schools now open for only four days each week, has been that many teachers have taken home about the same pay for a decade or more. The images that have circulated are of textbooks so old that they must be held together by duct tape. Schools are in bad shape all over, not just in states run by conservative politicians; in Baltimore, for instance, many public schools closed this winter when the city could not heat them. But, as Paul Waldman pointed out in the Washington Post this week, Hillary Clinton won nineteen of the twenty states where teachers are paid the most in the 2016 election, and Trump won nineteen of the twenty where teachers are paid the least.
Robert Mueller is taking his own sweet time and spending American taxpayers’ money as if there was no tomorrow, all in the name of thoroughness.
The world of American politics right now is bracing for two events: the outcome of the Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the midterm elections. Together, these two concerns occupy so much of the horizon that it is difficult to see much else. Mueller is following his own private timeline, discernible to the public only in glimpses. But the midterms are beginning to take shape—or, at least, the stakes of the elections are. Since the ascendance of the Tea Party, in 2010 (and, in some places, since long before then), politics in many parts of the country have been arranged around a program of cutting taxes and radically limiting governmental services. In November, we will know quite a bit more about whether that approach will continue to be a major part of our politics, or whether it will prove to be an ideological fad that took over for a while, and then dissipated. In the past few months, Democrats have continued to win special elections in places where they used to lose handily. Thousands of people have declared themselves candidates for public office. And the confidence of teachers in red states has grown: in Oklahoma, they rejected an offered fifteen-per-cent pay raise; in Arizona, they are demanding a twenty-per-cent hike. Those are not the bargaining positions of people who assume that the public will abandon them. It is the posture of those who assume, like the student activists from Parkland, that they are taking the common-sense position, that, even in red states, they have behind them a critical mass of support. (A recent poll released by the Oklahoma Education Association found that ninety-three per cent of Oklahoma residents believe the state legislature “has not done enough to increase funding for Oklahoma students and public schools.”)
In the months after Trump took office, it seemed like the nation’s politics had shifted for good; that the new normal would be cyclone after cyclone of angry populist feeling on the left and the right. But the demonstrations of the past few months have suggested not a split country but a broken political system: in a less toxically partisan time, a slightly more restrictive gun-control regimen or a steadier rate of funding for the schools could be resolved by subcommittees, instead of through marches. The increasingly extreme Republican regimes of this decade—Scott Walker’s in Wisconsin, Sam Brownback’s in Kansas, Mary Fallin’s in Oklahoma, and Paul Ryan’s and Donald Trump’s in Washington—have tended to act as if narrow electoral majorities were a mandate for vast political change, and as if those groups who supported their opponents should have no voice at all. For the past decade, these politics have redesigned actual towns and cities, leaving them with books with rotting bindings and schools that close on Fridays because they can’t afford anything more. But people live and teach in those towns, and they take notice of changes like these. Eventually, a bill comes due.