On Saturday I attended a General Assembly meeting of the as-yet-unnamed protest movement against the incoming Trump administration. If you weren’t involved in Occupy Wall Street, a “General Assembly” is an open meeting of activists (or anyone else who wishes to attend), usually in some public area; here in Los Angeles they take place on the steps of City Hall.
The meeting was pretty unremarkable, save for one statement that, for me, set off alarm bells. A young-ish man in sunglasses, after giving an eloquent and impassioned speech on the dangers of a Trump presidency, declared that there was only one option for the movement: to stop Trump from becoming President. “We have 65 days,” he said.
He was short on specifics on how to achieve that. It’s a sentiment I’ve heard before, though, specifically on a Facebook group I belong to, in which one participant laid out a more detailed plan, for a massive civil disobedience to blockade the swearing-in ceremony and force it underground.
This is a stupid idea.
Civil disobediences are great. Radical activism is great. Shutting down a swearing-in ceremony is neither of those things. Forcing a presidential inauguration into a secure location is less like a CD against an unjust law than it is like an attempted coup. And that’s how it would be treated by the Secret Service.
More important, though, than the random bloviating of macho rads on Facebook is the more widespread sentiment behind this dumb idea, which is the notion that Donald Trump is an illegitimate president.
Donald Trump won the election. He may have lost the popular vote, but the popular vote isn’t how we elect presidents. If it were, then both campaigns would have been run in a completely different way than they were run, and it’s not a foregone conclusion that under those circumstances, Trump still would have lost the popular vote. So the fact that Clinton won more votes than Trump is irrelevant.
“Not my president” is a catchy and cathartic slogan. I don’t begrudge anyone who uses it as an expression of their emotional state at this extremely stressful time. But it’s a dangerous sentiment to take too seriously. First of all, like the conspiracy theories about voting machines after John Kerry’s loss in 2004, it shields people from facing the reality we’re living through, which is that our democracy and our electorate was capable of electing someone who takes his policy prescriptions from white nationalists.
But even more dangerous is that rejecting the outcome of the election is, ipso facto, a rejection of American democracy. And it’s democracy that a Trump presidency potentially puts at risk. It’s democracy that those who oppose Trump are supposed to be defending.
Nobody asked me for my opinion, but here it is: Trump’s presidency is a potential threat to political pluralism, individual rights, the divorce of public offices from private ownership, the separation (however imperfect) of public service from private gain, the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority, the rule of law over the people that make and enforce them, and the symbolic sanctity — and therefore the functioning — of democratic institutions. The specter of what could replace these things are the building blocks of kleptocracy and arbitrary rule.
This is all the stuff that the U.S. Constitution was drafted to safeguard. The opposition movement to Trump’s presidency is a defense of the Constitution. You can’t defend the Constitution by rejecting the outcome of the processes that it enshrines, including the election of a President. Saying that Trump is not our President is emotionally gratifying and constitutionally protected speech; it’s also an expression of a norm that is unconstitutional.
The protests I’ve been to here in L.A. appear to be extremely diverse — not just in terms of gender, class and race, but in terms of political ideology and expression. Alongside protesters waving the American flag are other protesters hanging the American flag upside down and holding up signs saying “America was never great.”
We should be doing a lot more of the former and a lot less of the latter. “Diversity of tactics” is something of a sacred virtue on the left, and there’s a lot to be said for it. But it doesn’t mean that some tactics are not better than others. And right now, when the things that the opponents of the incoming Trump administration are defending are as American as the Republic itself, where’s the value in flaunting your disrespect for the symbols of those things?
The American flag might be a symbol of oppression and imperialism to a lot of people, but it’s the symbol of the opposite to hundreds of millions — and when President Trump starts abridging due process rights, openly selling political favors, and deploying federal agents to track down, harass, and suppress his critics, a very large portion of those hundreds of millions of Americans, including a great many who voted for him, are going to be as reviled by the desecration of the norms and institutions that Make America Great as his opponents are. We need to make sure they’re not equally reviled by us.