How best to sum up the peculiar derangement of the American experiment, circa 2017? The self-dealing, insanely corrupt Trump cabinet and campaign organization—with the latter, at least, now poised for an apparent moment of reckoning with special prosecutor Robert Mueller? The open-air auctioning off of the regulatory state, piece by compromised piece? The creeping normalization of fascist rhetoric, from the Oval Office on down? The pursuit of lavish tax cuts for the one percent at every possible civic and material cost one can imagine?
All of these dismal threats—and others yet untold—may yet pitch the remains of the American experiment into the dustbin of history. Yet precisely because of the urgency of the moment, it’s also extremely exasperating to behold the reliably aghast online liberal set’s recent campaign to commemorate the first anniversary of Donald Trump’s election with a scream-in. The event, originally scheduled for November 8 at Boston Common, has gone somewhat viral, attracting interest in a handful of other cities, even as the original Facebook posting for the Boston gathering has gone missing. That founding Facebook appeal—which had drawn several thousand confirmed RSVPs, together with more than 30,000 shows of interest—ran under the coy slogan “Scream helplessly at the sky on the anniversary of the election.”
“You can influence the latest thing he says on Twitter” is a far cry from “We shall overcome,” or “Workers of the world, unite!”
Yes, the conceit of these gatherings is funny, in the same throwaway fashion that similar finals-week escapades on college campuses can be cathartic. But that’s just the thing: these scream-ins, like their university analog, aren’t aimed at persuading anyone, or cobbling together majority coalitions. They’re not interested in advancing our politics in any meaningful sense at all. They are, rather, an all-too-familiar example of the aggrieved liberal superego simply advertising itself as aggrieved. Under this grand insular dispensation, stressed-out, privileged college students and disenchanted liberals alike can retreat to their own preferred sanctums of privilege to vent, as the rest of the world continues going to hell.
Not that they’d put things exactly that way, mind you. “This administration has attacked everything about what it means to be American,” Boston event organizer Joanna Schulman told Newsweek on Friday. “Who wouldn’t feel helpless every day? Coming together reminds us that we are not alone, that we are part of an enormous community of activists who are motivated and angry, whose actions can make a difference.”
Come again? Screaming helplessly is a symbolic validation of political agency and a renewal of an enormous community’s sense of shared purpose? Wouldn’t that make, say, Gilbert Gottfried the most powerful leader of the anti-Trump resistance—with Keith Olbermann as its all-too-eager minister of propaganda?
Alas, these distinctly muffled terms of rhetorical engagement are fast becoming the fallback brand of dissent in the social-media age—and like most social-media memes, this gestural form of protest comes with its own hermetically self-validating rationale. When another repellent landmark date came up on the calendar—the one-year anniversary of the release of Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood “pussy-grabbing” tape—the national women’s activist group UltraViolet first planned to organize a traditional mass demonstration in D.C. But that somehow just didn’t feel savvy enough. Instead, the group rigged a video screen on the National Mall to broadcast Trump’s offending remarks, over and over again, for twelve solid hours. The group’s chief campaigns officer, Karin Roland, explained to the Washington Post that the added value here was the opportunity to get under the president’s skin:
One of the reasons trolling him is so valuable strategically is that he does react to it. You can influence the latest thing he says on Twitter or what he says by getting in his Twitter feed or on the shows that he watches.
“You can influence the latest thing he says on Twitter” is a far cry from “We shall overcome,” or “Workers of the world, unite!” Indeed, the larger objective here, in terms of boring old coalition-building or ideological persuasion, is far from clear: once they’ve gotten the president’s attention—an especially mercurial, toxic, and truth-averse force in our politics—what would these troll-minded resistance leaders propose to do with it? Simply angering Trump seems to be enough—a startlingly low bar for a chief executive who seems to churn out fits of adolescent rage with the metronomic regularity of The Offspring.
Comparisons with more successful recent protest movements are no doubt unfair—but also instructive in showing the concrete results to be gained via more concerted organizing and message framing. Last month, nearly 200 protestors were arrested for chanting in the faces, and obstructing the movements, of Republican lawmakers who were then maneuvering to get through the Graham-Cassidy bill—yet one more bid to roll back the minimal guarantees of health-care access under the Affordable Care Act. If any cause would be justified in succumbing to the siren song of arm’s-length trolling, it would be the foes of Republican health-care brigandage, since votes to overturn the ACA have moved through Congress more than seventy times now. Yet these activists met the latest weary Kabuki-play of Republican demagoguery on the issue with expertly controlled outrage—and with the bodies of hundreds of disabled Americans, many associated with the activist group ADAPT, on the line. Protesters evacuated wheelchairs to stage a “die in” and the resulting footage of Capitol police forcibly removing demonstrators who already suffered from limited mobility brought the savagery of the Graham-Cassidy cuts to immediate and dramatic light. When protesters employed the same tactic in June, ADAPT organizer Bruce Darling summed up their aim in remarkably pithy fashion: “Our lives and liberty shouldn’t be stolen to give a tax break to the wealthy.”
The gap between the self-dramatizing reflexes of the social-mediafied left and ADAPT’s confrontational efforts to ensure that the whole world was watching its protesters is, in many ways, a yawning chasm of hands-and-wheels-on historical experience. Though their recent actions were by far their longest and brightest turn in the media spotlight, ADAPT’s activist corps has been waging similar policy-focused protests for the better part of four decades now, in statehouses, courtrooms, and capitols throughout the country. ADAPT protesters first made their name in the 1970s by putting their wheelchairs in the path of Denver city buses that lacked any accommodations for disabled riders. The group can’t afford to troll, or to settle for glib one-upsmanship on Twitter; too much is at stake to risk the movement’s credibility on a wayward meme or a cathartic scream-in.
The whole point of the new breed of cloistered, self-dramatizing liberal protest is to create an activist version of the Harvard credo of success: once you’re in, you’re in.
It’s dismaying, to say the least, that the strategists of the anti-Trump resistance have been so slow to register the full import of this tactical divide, since the stakes for them aren’t getting any lower a year into Trump’s reign—and a year out from the pivotal 2018 midterms. Indeed, the idea of protest as glorified trolling seems also to have bewitched the big-money Democratic donor class. Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer recently forked over $10 million for Trump impeachment ads, and told an MSNBC interviewer that in making this huge outlay he was not “looking at this through a tactical or political lens” —a manifestly delusional pronouncement, since the only force likely to secure a Trump impeachment would be a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. If you’re not devoting that $10 million to that tactical and political aim, you’ve failed to understand the most basic thing about impeachment: it is primarily a political and not a legal proceeding, as any cursory study of the impeachments of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton will make abundantly clear.
It’s worth recalling that the virtual prototype for commemorative election scream-ins and other such social-media minded interventions into the political sphere may well have been the epically misguided Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” which was staged the weekend before the 2010 midterms—and was every bit as unfunny and determinedly ineffectual as the coming array of scream-ins promises to be. As Rick Perlstein recently noted in a Baffler essay on the liberal cult of smartness, the chief aim of that 2010 gathering was to secure a smug conformity of bien-pensant opinion among the wanly ironic congregants. The event was largely “dedicated to pointing and laughing at conservatives while winking ferociously,” Perlstein writes.
The signs [demonstrators] carried were along the lines of “ANYONE FOR SCRABBLE LATER?” and “USE YOUR INSIDE VOICE” and “I SEE SMART PEOPLE”. . . . That was on the very weekend when the Tea Partying objects of their scorn were out knocking on doors to get out the vote for the following Tuesday’s election. Thereupon the Democratic Party lost control of Congress. I see stupid people.
You’d think that one sign of political intelligence is learning from past mistakes. But the whole point of this new breed of cloistered, self-dramatizing liberal protest is to create an activist version of the Harvard credo of success: once you’re in, you’re in—and God forbid that the judgment of anyone as self-evidently clever and public-spirited as yourself should come in for critical scrutiny. For the millions upon millions of disenchanted, downwardly mobile Americans who find themselves on the outside of these charmed circles of elite deference, it’s enough to make you scream.