The quote in my title is (probably apocryphally) attributed to Alexandre-Auguste Ledru-Rollin, a leader of the French Left who was forced into exile after the 1848 revolution, and who was reputed to have proclaimed in the excitement of the uprising:

There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

No one could be further from Donald Trump in either ideology or personal biography than Ledru-Rollin, who was the grandson of Nicolas Philippe Ledru, a well-known quack doctor under the Old Regime.  But the celebrated quote attributed to the radical French ideologue might well have been written to describe the recent behavior of the nationalist American president. It could also have come from social scientists  — like Charles Tilly — who firmly believed that street protests are part and parcel of the process of democracy.

But some forms of contention can be dangerous. On Wednesday, April 15th, at a rally outside the Michigan statehouse in Lansing, a group of protesters – many of them wearing MAGA hats and one waving a confederate flag — demanded an end to the policy declared by that state’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, of locking-down her state’s homes, schools and businesses to protect people from the spreading Coronavirus. Whitmer, it may be relevant to note, has been prominently mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate pick for Joe Biden.

On the same day, smaller demonstrations were mounted in Virginia and Minnesota, but the movement spread rapidly across the country. By the weekend, rallies were being held or were promised in at least six other states, most of them led by Democratic governors, but including Republican-led Texas and Maryland, where the governors have been cautious in their commitment to open the economy. Governor Hogan of Maryland had been especially harsh in his criticisms of the administration’s failure to provide fiscal support to the states.

Were these simultaneous rallies the product of spontaneous groundswells of opinion on the part of citizens worried about the collapse of their states’ economies? Or were they organized behind the scenes by deep-pocketed far-right groups?  On Monday, the Washington Post revealed that three extremist pro-gun brothers, using Facebook, organized at least some of the protests; in Michigan, a conservative pro-Trump group similarly helped the protesters. Trump himself has a history of not discouraging right-wing demonstrations and even violence (remember Charlottesville, when Trump thought there were “fine people on both sides”?) 

Whether there were rightwing organizations behind the protests became a moot question when the president grabbed the attention of the media by endorsing the protests in no uncertain terms:  

“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!,” the president tweeted on Friday, April 17.


“LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” he concluded, adding that the protesters should also “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

Let’s leave aside the fact that the Trump administration’s CDC had just issued a set of guidelines encouraging states to open up their economies in a careful, three-stage sequence, advising in bold capital letters that the guidelines were “IMPLEMENTABLE ON STATEWIDE OR COUNTY-BY-COUNTY BASIS AT GOVERNORS’ DISCRETION.”

Let’s also ignore the fact that every public health expert who has studied the pandemic has urged extreme caution before states should consider opening up their economics. And let’s overlook the fact that five months from the outbreak of the pandemic, we are still testing a minuscule percentage of the population for the presence of the virus.

The issue I want to examine is what Trump’s move tells us about the kind of leader he is – or aspires to be. Donald Trump is no ordinary politician: he sees himself as the leader of a movement – not of a government or even of a party.

Social movements are not like political parties or even interest groups: while the former tries to expand their support base in order to gain power and the latter engage in pressure politics to win concrete advantages for a specific group, movements –in the terms employed by  Tilly and this author — do not depend on either numbers or on serving group interests: they are more diffuse than this, consisting of “organizations, networks, participants, and the accumulated cultural artifacts, memories, and traditions that contribute to social movement campaigns.” A campaign “is a sustained challenge to power holders in the name of a population living under the jurisdiction of those power holders by means of concerted public displays of worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitment, using such means as public meetings, demonstrations, petitions, and press releases.”

Returning to the anti-lockdown protests, the key terms in this definition are “campaigns,” “challenges,” “power holders”, and “public displays.” While Republican governors were resisting Trump’s push to open the economy prematurely, he leaped on the budding insurgency in the state capitals.

Why?  Because Trump’s strategy from the beginning has been to maintain a continual campaign to egg people on to confront what he classifies as “power holders”.  Remember how, in the campaign, he encouraged rally-goers to shout “Lock her up!” whenever Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned? When he saw challenges being mounted against governors trying to hold the line against the spread of the virus, he framed the latter as “power holders;” when he saw protesters milling in front of state capitals, he recognized them as his people; and when he saw what they were protesting against, he wanted to race to the front of the parade.

He was their leader, and he had to follow!

Liberals like myself have sometimes pooh-poohed Trump’s appeal to  his MAGA-hat wearing, confederate-flag-waving, “lock-her-up-shouting base, but that would be a mistake, and this for three main reasons:

First, even if some might hesitate to embrace a cause that has, so far, left most Americans unconvinced that it is safe to re-open the economy, there is an organizational infrastructure on the far right that is ready to facilitate such a potential insurgency. Both white nationalist groups and “astroturf” libertarian groups have the resources to mobilize at least some ordinary Republican voters to join in angry public protests. (Businessmen may be more hesitant to join in since they risk putting workers back to work under treacherous health conditions.)_

Second, there is a danger that if the Trumpists in the street – egged on by the president –succeed in their campaigns, they can force some governors to open their economies prematurely. The protests in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia have kick-started more mainstream figures to push decision-makers to take action. Already, a state representative in Maine declared himself ready to join the protesters in front of the statehouse in Augusta. At the same time, Stephen Moore, a member of Trump’s council to reopen the economy, said in a YouTube video, “We need to be the Rosa Parks here and protest against these government injustices.”

Trump’s media echo chamber has not been slow to sense a live issue with which to drum up support from a wider base. Insider activists like Moore and some Fox News hosts could reinforce the effort in the street to push governors and the administration to take precipitate and dangerous actions.

But these are not the greatest worries I have regarding the move of Trump’s base to the streets.

When a movement leader with no sense of proportion or restraint senses that his supporters are moving faster than he is towards radical or extreme measures, he is likely to follow, if only to show that he is still their leader.

The real risks of the moment are that pressure from the base will cause more people to die of COVID-19 and that the politics of the street could turn violent – as happened in the Weimar Republic when another movement leader took power on the backs of the crowd.

If these protests cohere into a national movement, and Trump eggs them on to retain the leadership of his base, our country could be moving in a very risky direction indeed.

Sidney Tarrow is Emeritus Professor of Government at Cornell and the author of Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics and the co-editor (with David S. Meyer) of The Resistance: The Dawn of the Anti-Trump Opposition Movement.

3 thoughts on ““There Go the People….”

  1. I am a liberal and here is why I am ready to join the MAGA people in their protests. Please read the article below that was just posted today in my town. Everyone should fear this:

    Westport Police Drones Being Used to Combat COVID-19
    By James Lomuscio

    If you cough or sneeze in a crowd at Compo Beach or Longshore, the Westport Police Department may be watching as part of a first in the nation new drone technology program undergoing testing to combat COVID-19.

    A promotional video as part of the announcement appeared to show customers lining up at Westport’s Trader Joe’s. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Draganfly Inc. video. via YouTube
    The effort will be used to monitor and enforce social distancing on public property, an announcement said.
    Dubbed the “Flatten the Curve Pilot Program,” the initiative will focus on public areas including Compo Beach, Longshore Club Park, parks, town open space, marinas, anywhere where residents may congregate, said Police Chief Foti Koskinas.
    Citing slow re-entry directives from President Donald Trump and Gov. Ned Lamont, Koskinas said, “The only way to come out of this is through aggressive monitoring.”
    Asked about concerns about Big Brother watching you, Koskinas stressed, “We are not singling out any individual, and facial recognition is not being used.” He added at the drones would not be used to monitor any private property or private clubs, unless there is a complaint.
    If a group at Compo or Burial Hill Beach, for example, is not wearing masks and huddled closer than the recommended six feet, the overhead drone will make a public service announcement that the group is not practicing social distancing, Koskinas said.
    “Or, if the park’s closed it might say, ‘The park is closed; please leave the area,’” he said.
    The drone will make the same announcement two times. If they go unheeded, and the congregants just wave it off, “we could have an officer respond to the area,” Koskinas said.
    The Police Department has had a drone program since 2016. Headed by Capt. Ryan Paulsson, an FAA-licensed drone pilot who trained at Sikorsky Airport, drones, of which the department has three, have been used for Silver and Amber Alerts, monitoring car accidents, support for regional SWAT teams, and helping the Fire Department locate rooftop hot spots during all structure fires.
    Paulsson said that two more officers are now being trained at Sikorsky.
    “We are modeling the future of drone integration in public safety by utilizing Draganfly’s technology as first responders,” Paulsson said in a statement released by Draganfly. “We are honored to be the first law enforcement deployments in the country of this technology that will shape the future of public safety drone integration in the U.S.”
    In the face of the invisible coronavirus, Koskinas said, the department was fortunate to be contacted by a local resident connected with Draganfly, a California-based drone company. The result was Draganfly partnering with the Westport Police Department, providing free, futuristic software.
    How futuristic? The drones will also gather, while protecting identities, the body temperatures, respiration, cough and blood pressure readings within the clusters to identify the pandemic before it happens, Koskinas said
    “This is a pilot program, and we’ll be checking the reliability and credibility of the data,” Koskinas said, adding the data would most likely not be used by the police but health officials. “This is for early detection, so that resources can be used.”
    He said that using the technology to combat the pandemic is in keeping with Westport being forward thinking.
    First Selectman Jim Marpe lauded the program to tackle COVID-19 in Westport, which had been the state’s initial epicenter of the virus following a March birthday party.
    “I am proud of how Westport’s first responders are handling COVID-19, and how the Westport Police Department in particular is committed to discovering solutions for current and future health emergencies,” Marpe said.
    “We’re always looking ways to be progressive,” Koskinas said. “The easy thing for me would be to sit back and do nothing.
    “This is not a time to fold,” he added. “This is a time to lead.”
    Draganfly CEO Cameron Chel was enthusiastic about the partnership with Westport.
    “The Westport Police Department is one of the most progressive public safety agencies in the nation and real pioneers when it comes to adopting and integrating new technology to enhance the safety of their citizens and first responders,” he said in a news release.
    “This coronavirus pandemic has opened up a new frontier for advanced drones. In conjunction with our partners, including the Town of Westport, together we are the first in the U.S. to implement this state-of-the-art technology to analyze data in a way that has been peer reviewed and clinically researched to save lives.”
    The pilot program is made possible by the collaboration and integration of technologies developed by Draganfly, Vital Intelligence Inc., a health care data services and deep learning company, and the University of South Australia.

  2. Written by a guy who will never miss a paycheck and aligns himself with the party of fake Russian collusion, bogus Kavanaugh gang rape charges, and a Ukranian phone call impeachment hoax. Good luck in November my man.

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