All over the world right now, outraged citizens are taking to the streets. Mass protests in Hong Kong have been going on for months, at one point drawing about a quarter of the territory’s population. For the last five days, hundreds of thousands of people have been marching against austerity and corruption in Lebanon, and the government has pushed through a package of reforms to address their grievances. In Chile, protests over a subway fare increase have exploded into a broader uprising against inequality.
These demonstrations are part of a global trend. “There has been in this decade a real rise in the use of mass protests in particular as a way to address grievances against governments around the world,” said Erica Chenoweth, a Harvard professor and co-author of “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” In fact, she said, in the last 10 years there have been more mass demonstrations calling for the removal of political leaders than in any decade since 1900.
So as President Donald Trump’s sneering lawlessness and stupefying corruption continue to escalate, it’s confounding, at least to me, that Americans aren’t taking to the streets en masse. This presidency began with the biggest protest in American history, and its first two years were marked by a series of high-profile demonstrations. But three years in, even as the conviction that Trump threatens the Republic unites stolid military heroes and socialist feminists, demonstrations against the administration have faded. Lyndon Johnson was famously tormented by protest chants that could be heard through the walls of the White House. Why isn’t Trump?
Organizers and experts offer both optimistic and pessimistic explanations for Americans’ relative quiescence. Let’s start with pessimism: Some people are burned out. In her book “American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave,” Dana Fisher, a professor at the University of Maryland, described how a series of “moral shocks” propelled people who hadn’t thought of themselves as activists to join protests. But after three years of Trumpism, it takes more to shock people than it used to. “People have grown accustomed to a certain baseline level of outrage,” Fisher told me.
But that’s far from the whole story. Fisher surveyed people at the Women’s March and other demonstrations and then tracked them afterward, doing follow-up surveys six months before the midterms and two days after. “All of their levels of civic engagement went up,” she said.
Many had called elected officials and attended town halls. Now, she says, much of the Resistance is focused on organizing for presidential candidates, particularly Elizabeth Warren. “One of the reasons we’re seeing less protest is that protest is being seen as the beginning of activism and political involvement rather than being the end,” she said.
So if America isn’t seeing the sort of huge demonstrations roiling other countries, it’s at least in part because those most fiercely opposed to Trump still believe in the power of our democracy to get rid of him. “People actually trust the election to sort it out,” Chenoweth said. “This is something that’s common in democracies — when you start to see a protest wave really pick up, a lot of time that mobilization really gets filtered into the next election.”
But the next election is a year away, and American democracy is in danger now. You can’t count on an election to restrain the president when the president is using the power of his office to subvert the election with foreign interference. Each day, it seems, Trump and those around him become increasingly brazen in their lawbreaking.
The president’s reelection campaign is selling T-shirts that say, “Get Over It,” which is what the acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said after admitting on national television to Trump’s quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump associates are blithely defying congressional subpoenas. With the staffers who used to at least try to restrain the president long gone, he’s testing the limits of his authority. And he’s retreating only in the face of bipartisan public fury, as he did when he backed off his plan to hold next year’s Group of 7 summit at the Trump National Doral, his failing Florida resort.
As the impeachment investigation closes in, Trump will continue to act out. That’s why a growing number of people — many of them more temperate than I am — have started calling for mass protest in response.
Organizers are brainstorming how to make this happen. “Our experience has been that the most successful mobilization moments have some kind of trigger or flashpoint,” said Leah Greenberg, a co-founder of anti-Trump organization Indivisible. “The place that we have agreed as a movement to make that next flashpoint mobilization moment is going to be around the House vote.”
Once the House votes to send articles of impeachment to the Senate, there needs to be a public groundswell to force the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, to allow a thorough and transparent trial. Then, assuming the evidence is as compelling as it seems, there should be mass nonviolent action calling for Trump’s removal.
Americans might feel that democracy in our country is more robust than in places disrupted by enormous protests. But at this dangerous phase of a dangerous presidency, enormous turnout in the streets may be the only way to make sure it stays that way.