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.