Like A Bull In A China Shop: Trump and the Art of Brazenness

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Trump bragging that he is a man of action, as he did in a recent press conference, is like a bull bragging about his potential in a china shop.

So far, he has been sued over sixty times and faced denouncement by a majority of Americans. Even as his staff fluctuates and stumbles, the momentum has not seemed to peter and the structure we assumed could be trusted has never seemed more fragile.

We thought our country much more stable than the proverbial china shop, but most of what we assumed were laws were norms and the trust we gave past presidents, especially Obama, has been handed to someone who has proven unworthy of that trust and entirely capable of abusing it.

It’s tempting, and easy, to dismiss this recklessness as foolishness, and yet, without reading genius into a figure that has shown no sign of such cunning, we have to understand the purpose of such brazenness.

Even as his messaging knots, unfurls, and frays–it can still form a workable noose.

When we lambast him, from social media posts to New York Times headlines, we have to understand not that we’re playing into some devious hand but that there are simply other people out there that he is marshaling against us. The same liberals who, for a time, self-flagellated themselves and their bubbles for not paying attention to the Trump voter are brutal in their self satisfied evisceration of Trump’s hypocrisy, ignoring its functional value in favor of feeling intelligent by denigrating its truth value.

Brazenness reifies support. If Trump had started the Muslim Ban, for instance, by gradually turning the dial up on restrictions, he would have gradually lost supporters in proportion to his extremism. Not all Trump supports are as committed as Trump himself; he would have lost followers along the way, as each new, minute step was fought over.

Instead, he brazenly pushed forward, and in the ensuing chaos his support will only solidify. By moving forward all at once, he gets to establish himself as a man of action and as a man of his word–but not only his actions or his words, but the actions and words of his base.

The cognitive dissonance facing Trump voters is immense. They voted for someone who has already gone back on countless promises; meanwhile, he fulfills the most extreme promises they may have at one time doubted. The space for doubt, however, has been evacuated by this brazen action, the chaos and confusion rushing in in torrents.

They have already committed to Trump so in this chaos, in this action, they can only over-commit to him further. To take back that vote, to refuse his “winning,” to agree, even partially, with the partisans-become-enemies, is much harder than simply following Trump where he is headed, wherever he may be going, however brazenly he may be going there.

The more embattled Trump becomes, the more the ever further Trump-identified voter will feel embattled. They will say he is not being given a chance and feel too, that their ideas are not being a chance. Whiteness, primarily, will have convinced them that they are the forgotten centers of the universe, their champion fighting to have their platform reasserted.

Once this becomes a struggle, and it has for them, then merely pointing out hypocrisy, such as private emails or countless lies or elected family members or money wasted on hotels and vacations, will be useless.

Once this is a fight, the ends justify the means.

Democrats have forgotten that politics is not an argument about the merit of ideas and visions but struggles over the distribution of resources–and once a certain bloc of people have been promised jobs, happiness, cultural centeredness, fulfillment, they won’t give it up for the sake of the enemy’s rhetoric. And even if Trump is driven more by power, lust, and greed–his followers will be able to accept this as long as he gives them what he promised. At the same time, they will be able to delay this promise beyond any moves toward fascism in support of the champion who will eventually give it to them. Meanwhile, the fascism will become more and more palatable as they get accustomed to the taste.

Don’t expect the Republicans or Trump’s voters to slow him down. They all have vested interests in either picking up the exploded pieces of what he barrels through or in establishing something else in the scorched earth space he eventually makes.

This is why protest, even if it only forms an image of resistance, can disrupt the totalitarian image the fascist tries to propagate as the truth, as the undercurrent, as the rising tide. This image must, however, be truthful and it is only through militant organization–from the left, not the supposed center–that Trump and the political tides he rides can be overtaken.

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Why protest?

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Mass protest is alive again in America.

Of course, in reality, protest never died. Marginalized groups, in national, decentralized groups like Black Lives Matter, or in local groups like those successfully protesting Sherif Joe Arpaio in Arizona, have kept, and really have always kept, protest alive. But the historical moment now–with mass marches executed almost overnight, with resistance movements springing up everywhere across the country, people forming new groups and committing to consistent actions–demands its own evaluation. Progress, gains, when looked at from a distance remain difficult to assess and predict. Will marching against fascism actually constitute a way to resist it? Will the left actually make gains through protest? What does protest do?

Many millennials have gone to their first protest in the last few weeks and whether it was out of a deep, theoretical grasp of what protest means or out of a bone-deep anxiety about what is coming, it’s useful to rethink what the purpose of protest is. A grand outlining of such a historic strategy is impossible–but we can think through some of its uses.

  1. Energizes and builds solidarity: nothing kills a movement faster and more thoroughly than despair. Protest gets people together, gets bodies together, to act in tandem. We become energized when we feel a sense of our collective power. It’s too easy, too tempting to dismiss protest as the mere presence of shouting crowds–to be immersed in this throng is to get a taste of power, not its full expression, but a sense of what could be if this were harnessed. As strategic as we may become, as many other uses as protest does have, it should always be returned to as a well of energy for activists and organizers so as to be reminded of the power they are building to.
  2. Changes the discourse: protest challenges normalcy and presents a new image of both what is happening and how “people”, as a whole, are reacting to it. Private suffering is translated into public reaction. Controversy becomes useful, even when it seems to threaten to overtake the message, because it breaks open the accepted way of accepting the world. Police violence has become an issue again, thanks to Black Lives Matter, and even when it is dismissed, it is discussed and that sets the foundation for winning such a discussion.
  3. Disrupts the confidence of power: Power resides not only in the powerful but in the powerless for accepting that power. Protest retakes public space and public imagination as territories to fight over. Even if people in the streets, shouting and waving signs, fail to undo laws and guns, their presence can shake the powerful’s belief in their strength. As all fiction writers know, no villain thinks themselves evil, so to be faced, ideally every day, with a mass of people denouncing them, can shake even the most fearsome of leaders. And even if it does not shake them, it can push them to reveal their hand and make explicit what was before implicit. The more clearly the battle lines are drawn, the better the battle can be waged.
  4. Creates space for possibility: Protest is not the end-all, be-all of activism but it is one of the primary ways of setting the stage for further activism and eventually movement-building. As DeRay McKesson has said: “We’ve never said protests are the answer, but protests create space for the answer. Protest is disruption. Protest is confrontation. Protest is the end of silence and what protest does is it creates space for the other work to happen.” Protest creates space by opening a conversation and by filling it with bodies-at-work. Protest pushes the violence of normalcy into crisis and in crisis, there is opportunity.

There are many more uses and I encourage you to think and read of more. Going to a protest can be exhilarating but it becomes all the more exciting, and useful, when you come prepared to think through the purpose and the power of what you’re engaging in.

For millennials new to protesting: this need not be an event. This can be a habit, the basis of a practice that can become the sweeping tide of an entire political movement. In long-term politics, a whole lot can be done without anything necessarily being resolved. Protest is essential but it forms part of a greater strategy–a militant strategy of resistance. If protest can be a wellspring for energy, the strategy it builds toward can be a wellspring for hope.