As a sceptic when it comes to protests, Saturday’s marches against Trump were not my cup of tea (party). A few years ago it was Republican revolutionaries, sick of the arrogant party Establishment, who agitated and made noise in the form of the Tea Party. At the time many mainstream conservatives did not like the incoherent spectacle of those protests, so it is hardly a surprise if on both sides of the Atlantic there is scepticism among conservatives and moderates about the point and purpose of these latest left-wing demonstrations. Quite rightly, there were suggestions made by critics (and ignored) that the marchers on Saturday should head for the Saudi embassy in Mayfair, rather than the America embassy, what with Saudi Arabia refusing to allow women to drive, vote or wear what they want.
As Jonah Goldberg put it in his must-read weekly newsletter, crowds on the march are creepy. It is an unfashionable view rarely expressed in age in which we are attuned to vast concert audiences and crowd “experiences”, but nonetheless spot on. The unwisdom of crowds is rooted in more than the fear that they can turn into mobs. Being in a crowd involves sublimation of self and creates pressure to conform to the view of the organisers and those who shout the loudest.
That view was confirmed by the spectacle of a march in Washington at the weekend for tolerance, in which the organisers seemed to take a pretty narrow view of what they would tolerate ideologically, and Madonna made a fool of herself by wearing strange orange trousers and talking about blowing up the White House.
Janan Ganesh’s latest column at the FT is on this subject, the pointlessness of street protests, not Madonna’s trousers. Any battle will be won, he says, as it usually is, among moderate voters who would not go on a march and do not like being shouted at by those who do protest. That’s always made sense. The theme runs through the victories of Nixon, Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair and Bush. As the father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, said: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
But a wise friend and reader from New York, a conservative who dislikes Trump on the basis that Trump is a dangerous vulgarian and, among other things, not a conservative, got in touch this morning. He takes a different view worth considering:
“Your recent dismissive comments on American protests might prove to be a little shortsighted… It has cheered me up a bit to see that outraged citizens still get out and express themselves. I think it may cause some in the government to pause and think before they are rolled over by Trump/Bannon and their crude propaganda machine. In any case, since I live next door to Trump I have been able to collect a lot of great pictures of protest signs on my iPhone.”
These are such strange times, and I wonder whether he is right. My view formed by reading Burke a quarter of a century ago, and honed by being smug about protests for even longer, may be wrong, or an inadequate guide to what comes next.
The Tea Party movement helped create the conditions in which Trump could win in 2016. It seems unlikely that the rag-tag divided army of assorted angry causes on display on Saturday can cohere into a practical machine that produces a candidate (post-Sanders, post-Clint) capable of winning in Michigan or Pennsylvania and building a coalition to beat Trump. Ultra-liberals are terrible at emphasising security and economic safety, which voters in leading economies seek.
But who knows what impact the birth of this new movement will have, where it will lead, and how it might reshape the Democratic party? A year ago the election of Trump was seen as almost impossible and he is President today. The safe assumption now once Trump gets going is a reversion to “normal” politics and a return by voters to favouring moderate voices on both sides. Yet the populist upsurge may not be restricted to the nationalist right, and the centre-left may either learn to use Trump’s techniques or find a moderate message and a charismatic person that connects. Populism may from here take America and the West in all manner of strange and unpredictable directions.
UPDATE: my anti-Trump Republican friend gets back in touch having the read the above:
“OK. You just got me to look at the entire video of Madonna. Something I wouldn’t normally have done. I’ve certainly never been a fan of hers. Your viewpoint is clear and understandable from where you sit…certainly more sensible and eloquent than Madonna’s views. I will tell you though, I really think you’re missing something that’s happening here. Today I talked to some of the women who went to Washington. Mainly moms at my sons’ school. I don’t really think they are left wing radicals. Trump may turn them into left wing radicals, but this so-called mob, made up of mothers, daughters and sisters, were able to fill up the streets of major cities and even some small towns in America without any violence, and from listening to them, they don’t sound like Madonna at all to me.”