Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 3 May 2024


Opinion | Why the Protests Help Trump

Members of the New York Police Department confronting demonstrators on a street.
Police officers and protesters near the City College of New York in Manhattan. Credit... Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Opinion Columnist

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These days, I think a lot about Donald Trump. When the monthly economic reports come out, I think: Will this help elect Donald Trump? And, I confess, I’ve started to ask myself the same question when I look at the current unrest on American college campuses over Israel and Gaza.

Now, I should say that I assume that most of the protesters are operating with the best of intentions — to ease the suffering being endured by the Palestinian people.

But protests have unexpected political consequences. In the 1960s, for example, millions of young people were moved to protest the war in Vietnam, and history has vindicated their position. But Republicans were quick to use the excesses of the student protest movement to their advantage. In 1966, Ronald Reagan vowed “to clean up the mess at Berkeley” and was elected governor of California. In 1968, Richard Nixon celebrated the “forgotten Americans — the nonshouters; the nondemonstrators” and was elected to the presidency. Far from leading to a new progressive era, the uprisings of the era were followed by what was arguably the most conservative period in American history.

This kind of popular backlash is not uncommon. For his latest book, “If We Burn,” the progressive journalist Vincent Bevins investigated 10 protest movements that occurred between 2010 and 2020 in places like Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Ukraine and Hong Kong. He concluded that in seven of those cases, the results were “worse than failure. Things went backward.”

In Egypt in 2011, for example, about a million protesters gathered in Tahrir Square, thrilling the world with their calls for reforms and freedom. President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, but democracy did not replace his autocratic rule; the Muslim Brotherhood did.

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In June 2013, millions of Brazilians took to the streets demanding better schools, cheaper public transportation and political reform. But, Bevins laments, “just a few years later, the country would be ruled by the most radically right-wing elected leader in the world, a man who openly called for a return to dictatorship and mass violence” — the über-Trumpian figure Jair Bolsonaro.

Why do these popular uprisings so often backfire? In his book, Bevins points to flaws in the way the protesters organize themselves. He notes that there are a few ways you can structure movements. The first is the Leninist way, in which power is concentrated in the supreme leader and his apparatus. Or there is the method used by the American civil rights movement, in which a network of hierarchically organized institutions work together for common ends, with clear leaders and clear followers.

Then there’s the kind of movement we have in the age of the internet. Many of these protesters across the globe are suspicious of vertical lines of authority; they don’t want to be told what to do by self-appointed leaders. They prefer leaderless, decentralized, digitally coordinated crowds, in which participants get to improvise their own thing.

This horizontal, anarchic method enables masses of people to mobilize quickly, even if they don’t know one another. It is, however, built on the shaky assumption that if lots of people turn out, then somehow the movement will magically meet its goals.

Unfortunately, an unorganized, decentralized movement is going to be good at disruption but not good at building a new reality. As Bevins puts it, “A diffuse group of individuals who come out to the streets for very different reasons cannot simply take power themselves.” Instead groups that have traditional organizational structures, like the strongman populists, rise up vowing to end the anarchy and restore order.

Today’s campus protesters share this weakness. When you have no formal organizational structure, you can’t control the message. The most outlandish comments — “Zionists don’t deserve to live” — get attention. When you have no formal organizational structure, you can’t be clear on basic positions. Does the movement, for example, believe in a two-state solution, or does it want to eliminate Israel and ethnically cleanse the region?

Worse, the protests reinforce the class dynamics that have undermined the Democratic Party’s prospects over the past few decades. As is well known, the Democrats have become the party of the educated and cultural elite, and the Republicans have become the party of the less educated masses. Students who attend places like Columbia and the University of Southern California are in the top echelons of cultural privilege.

If you operate in highly educated circles, it’s easy to get the impression that young people are passionately engaged in the Gaza issue. But a recent Harvard Youth Poll asked Americans ages 18 to 29 which issues mattered to them most. “Israel/Palestine” ranked 15th out of 16 issues listed. Other issues like inflation, jobs, housing, health care and gun violence were much more pressing to most young Americans.

Especially since 2016, it’s become clear that if you live in a university town or in one of the many cities along the coasts where highly educated people tend to congregate, you can’t use your own experience to generalize about American politics. In fact, if you are guided by instincts and values honed in such places, you may not be sensitive to the ways your movement is alienating voters in the working-class areas of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Georgia. You may come across to them as privileged kids breaking the rules and getting away with it.

Over the past few decades, many universities have become more ideologically homogeneous and detached from the rest of the country. As my colleague Ross Douthat noted recently, Columbia students who study 20th-century thought in the “core curriculum” are fed a steady diet of writers like Frantz Fanon and Michel Foucault from one ideological perspective.

Writing in The Atlantic, George Packer quoted a letter that one Columbia student wrote to one of his professors: “I think universities have essentially stopped minding the store, stopped engaging in any kind of debate or even conversation with the ideologies which have slowly crept into every bit of university life, without enough people of good conscience brave enough to question all the orthodoxies. So if you come to Columbia believing in ‘decolonization’ or what have you, it’s genuinely not clear to me that you will ever have to reflect on this belief.”

These circles have become so insular that today’s progressive fights tend to take place within progressive spaces, with progressive young protesters attempting to topple slightly less progressive university presidents or organization heads. These fights invariably divide the left and unify the right.

Over my career as a journalist, I’ve learned that when you’re covering a rally, pay attention not just to protesters; pay attention to all those people who would never attend and are quietly disapproving. If you were covering the protests of the late 1960s, for example, you would have learned a lot more about the coming decades by interviewing George W. Bush than you would have by interviewing one of the era’s protest celebrities like Abbie Hoffman. Hoffman was more photogenic in the moment, but Bush, and all those turned off by the protests, would turn out to be more consequential.

Over the past few days, the White House and Senator Chuck Schumer have become more critical of lawbreaking protests. They probably need to do a lot more of that if we’re going to avoid “Trump: The Sequel.”

More on the U.S. student protests

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