Protests change minds and shift public opinion. That's why opponents are quick to disparage them
How we feel about protests, and their legitimacy, is often self-serving
While the first month-and-a-half of Donald Trump's presidency has been a flurry of unpredictable antics and executive orders, one constant has emerged: that of unrelenting protests.
The dynamic dominated from inauguration day — mere sour grapes, according to Trump's fans. On that day, down in Washington, I witnessed one elderly Trump supporter yell, "Too late snowflake, you lost!" over her shoulder as she passed anti-Trump marchers. Others shrugged off protesters as jobless college graduates, and poorly dressed.
In this dismissal of protesters, Trump voters are fairly typical. It's polite, politically, to acknowledge the right to protest in a democracy, but that doesn't necessarily translate into real support. How we feel about protests, and their legitimacy, is often self-serving.
It certainly has been for Trump's team. It threw big muscle behind the March for Life in late January, with Vice President Mike Pence and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway making precedent-setting appearances (in the past, White House staff — including President George W. Bush — have phoned into the event, but not physically taken part). That type of protest was fine, according to team Trump.
But the protest a few days earlier — that of the Women's March on Washington, and similar marches around the world — was not. "Was under the impression that we just had an election!" Trump tweeted, while Conway remarked that she "didn't see the point" of the march, calling it needlessly divisive.
The American right didn't always see protests as futile. Back in 2009, when the Tea Party movement was shaking up the Republican party, Fox News portrayed the protests as crucial and important, and star personality Sean Hannity even fundraised for the political movement.
But the cheerleading for political dissent ended in January, after then-President Barack Obama encouraged concerned Americans to speak out about the issues raised during the campaign that were concerning them. Hannity responded by accusing Obama of stoking "out-of-control behaviour" from "anti-democratic, alt-radical" protesters.
The same hypocrisy happens in Canada, too: in January, The Rebel's Ezra Levant labelled protesters against Trump's travel ban "white leftist global extremists," just a month after he hosted his very own political protest — sorry, "rally" — against carbon taxes in Alberta. What were protesters there called? Virtuous demonstrators for freedom?
The fact is, protests seem to change minds and shift public opinion. And that's why, for many, it makes sense to slander the movements they dislike.
A striking example of the power of protest is that of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S., the existence of which has been correlated with a dramatic shift in American perceptions of systemic racism. In 2015, 59 per cent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Centre said they think the country needs to do more to bring equal rights to white and black Americans — up from 49 per cent only a year earlier. That's not definitive proof, but it would be hard to deny the impact of protests — such as that over the death of Freddie Gray, who died in police custody in April 2015 — has had on public awareness of race issues in the U.S.
We've seen the same trends in Canada over perceptions of Indigenous issues. In 2013, a majority of Canadians didn't support Idle No More protests and believed Indigenous Canadians were the authors of their own suffering. By 2016 — after years of demonstrations, coupled with the tabling of the widely publicized Truth and Reconciliation report — those views began to shift, and an Environics Institute poll found one quarter of Canadians said their views of Indigenous peoples had improved.
Although we can't prove causation in these cases, it's clear the believed power of protest is strong enough to put many people in power on guard. Indeed, with Republicans now controlling the White House, the Senate and the House, "protest" has become somewhat of a four-letter word in Washington. And Team Trump isn't stopping at simply disparaging demonstrations: it's trying to undermine their legitimacy by suggesting they are being set up by wealthy Democrats.
"It's not organic uprisings that we've seen through the last several decades," White House press secretary Sean Spicer told Fox and Friends on Feb. 6. "This has become a very paid, astro-turf type movement."
Professional anarchists, thugs and paid protesters are proving the point of the millions of people who voted to MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!—@realDonaldTrump
That unproven but popular claim on the right was repeated by Trump himself on Twitter a few days earlier and is considered truth by 48 per cent of Trump voters (who believe George Soros is the bankroller), according to a survey by Public Policy Polling.
It's particularly ironic, in the era of right-wing hand-wringing over free speech, that so many on the right are now quick to discount protesters. Perhaps many worry that the anti-Trump movement — thus far a virile one — will in fact sway public opinion against Republicans. But there's a destination at the end of this anti-protest trend, and it's nowhere near the realm of a healthy democracy. That should bother everyone, on both ends of the political spectrum.