David Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush’s administration, wrote a piece for The Atlantic, where he advises the left on how they should “effectively” protest President Donald Trump. It is motivated by Frum’s own personal transformation, and the result is comical and deserving of mockery.
In a more serious sense, Frum’s post, “What Effective Protest Could Look Like,” is an example of how numerous prominent figures in both the liberal and conservative establishment have grown receptive to the idea of protest as a result of how Trump approaches governance and policymaking. They would like to take part in the resistance, but they have their own prejudices and delusional nightmares about dissent that impair their understanding of how social movements can truly transform society and politics.
Simply consider the Muslim ban signed by Trump and demonstrations against the ban. Former secretaries of state John F. Kerry and Madeleine Albright, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, former deputy CIA director John McLaughlin, former CIA official Mike Morell, former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, and former national security adviser Susan Rice put their names on a declaration filed in a federal lawsuit in Washington. They say the ban “undermines the national security of the United States rather than making us safer.”
Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo, who helped craft the “legal justification” for torture, once insisted the president could legally authorize torture and even have a child’s testicles crushed. That same person now has “grave concerns” about Trump’s use of “presidential power,” including how he conceived of his ban on immigrants and refugees.
The fact that someone who championed torture is on the side of those concerned about Trump’s abuse of power is mostly a reflection of how authoritarian and extreme Trump is as a president. This extremism, as well as his vulgar disdain for checks and balances, is partly what turns off Frum. However, someone like Frum is in no position to advise citizens on how to protest Trump. He also only has dimwitted ideas and shallow insights on protest history to offer.
After expressing admiration for the Women’s March, Frum writes, “I bring a message with me: Your demonstrations are engineered to fail. They didn’t stop the Iraq war. They won’t stop Donald Trump.”
Such a statement is baffling, given how Frum was one of a number of officials who backed the push for war in Iraq in the media. He even labeled conservatives and libertarians as “unpatriotic” when they expressed concerns about plans for war.
“They have made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe. They deny and excuse terror. They espouse a potentially self-fulfilling defeatism. They publicize wild conspiracy theories. And some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies,” Frum wrote for the National Review.
The transnational protests against the Iraq War on February 15, 2003, prior to the invasion of Iraq were massive, and those who participated were part of one of the largest protest events in history. But officials remained committed to the war not because the protests were a failure. Rather, officials had allies like Frum, who could be called upon to spread propaganda in support of regime change operations in Iraq. Officials were able to marginalize protest enough so they could carry out their massive criminal act against an entire country’s population, an act that still has devastating impacts today as evidenced by the marauding forces of the Islamic State that currently haunt the region.
Frum’s overarching “message” is only the beginning of a staggering embarrassment of an article. His three main suggestions are: “the more conservative protests are, the more radical they are”; “strategic thinking, inclusive action”; and “protests are fun, meetings are effective.”
Frum’s prescription is to crank up the nationalism and be “orderly” and “polite.” Recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Wave flags high in the air.
Where does it end? Should protesters have poster-making sessions that incorporate the “republic’s symbols”? Wear flag pins? Make patriotic jewelry together and invite passersby to join? Maybe, they should host talent shows in the park to showcase their devotion for America as a truly great nation.
Ultimately, Frum just wants them to ingratiate themselves with symbols to hopefully show they’re better patriots and convince others they have more right to call themselves American than the people in the White House. It isn’t any more sophisticated than Sarah Palin’s nonsense about “real Americans.”
It is also evocative of posts written in 2011, which scolded the Occupy movement for dressing like hobos and argued if they adopted a dress code their movement would succeed, like the civil rights movement, because the civil rights movement marched in dress clothing. Yet, the civil rights movement did not succeed because they dressed cleanly. They succeeded because their constant resistance sent shockwaves through the institutions of power, especially when police forces moved to violently shut down their demonstrations.
Frum suggests the Occupy movement “fizzled out in large part because of its ridiculously fissiparous list of demands and its failure to generate a leadership that could cull that list into anything actionable.” What really happened is the mayors of major cities with encampments deployed police to clear away the movement’s public presence. Plus, winter came. That is why the movement “fizzled out.”
He insists “successful movements are built upon concrete single demands that can readily be translated into practical action: ‘Votes for women.’ ‘End the draft.’ ‘Overturn Roe v. Wade.’ ‘Tougher punishments for drunk driving.'” Conspicuously missing is any nod to the practical demands of the civil rights movement, which fought for the end of Jim Crow laws.
The argument for making “concrete single demands” further devolves:
People can say “yes” to such specific demands for many different reasons. Supporters are not called upon to agree on everything, but just one thing. “End the draft” can appeal both to outright pacifists and to military professionals who regard an army of volunteers as more disciplined and lethal than an army of conscripts. Critics of Roe run the gamut from those who wish a total ban on all abortions to legal theorists who believe the Supreme Court overstepped itself back in 1973.
So it should be for critics of President Trump. “Pass a law requiring the Treasury to release the President’s tax returns.” “An independent commission to investigate Russian meddling in the US election.” “Divest from the companies.” These are limited asks with broad appeal.
Frum could benefit from some kind of “Schoolhouse Rock” animation on movements. What is a divestment movement against Trump’s companies going to do? What is Trump supposed to do in response? This is a tactic, not a goal.
Calling for a movement to investigate Russian meddling is a poor idea that actually should fail Frum’s criteria for protest because it would be far too polarizing. Also, what is this supposed to accomplish? How does this build independent political power for people to affect change?
Forcing Trump to release his tax returns is an admirable goal of transparency advocates, but as far as a goal for a movement, it’s hardly the kind of objective that can inspire grassroots mobilization. What movements resisting Trump need to advance is an alternative vision to what Trump promotes and none of Frum’s proposals come close to doing that.
The self-parody continues as Frum essentially suggests left-liberal demonstrations should not limit themselves to appealing to the Democratic Party. Apparently, Frum is not aware of the relationship between movements and the Democrats currently. They are angry, primarily, because Democrats keep losing elections, and they are losing elections because they try to appeal to moderate Republicans (like Frum) instead of taking meaningful stands on issues that matter to working people.
Nevertheless, Frum contends the core demands of movements should be “easy to explain and plausibly acceptable” to a mainstream, “stretching from Bernie voters to Romney donors.” He then treats readers to a “few useful tests.”
a) Could this demand be achieved by a law passed through Congress?
b) Can I imagine my Rush Limbaugh listening brother-in-law agreeing with it?
c) Can I tweet it?
If so … good.
d) Would I still be upset about this if Marco Rubio were president now?
If so … bad.
At this point, it’s acceptable to be wholly confused. Is Frum suggesting if Rubio was president it would not be justified to protest for the thing that citizens can tweet and get our Rush Limbaugh-listening brother-in-law to agree with? Did the Limbaugh-listening brother-in-law in these “useful tests” vote for Rubio?
Amidst all these paltry suggestions, Frum cajoles the left-liberal protesters to police the “radical fringes” to prevent the “most obnoxious and even violent behavior” from occurring. “If you see guys with crowbars in the vicinity of your meeting, detain them yourselves and call the cops. You’re the defenders of the Constitution, the Republic, and the Western Alliance. Act like it.”
No, no, no—this is a terrible idea. First off, you’re liable to get whacked in the head with that crowbar and have to take a trip to the emergency room. Second, their arrests will be used to undermine social movements. It does not matter if peaceful people call police and say they were up to no good. Breitbart.com and other sites will splash their images around the internet, and the White House will act as if they represent the movements. Third, possessing a crowbar while nearby a political meeting is not a crime. So the best thing to do is leave the policing up to law enforcement, which will never be too far away because they monitor social media very closely.
There’s one more section of this flaming bag of excrement that deserves scrutiny. Frum insists:
Don’t get sucked into the futile squabbling cul-de-sac of intersectionality and grievance politics. Look at this roster of speakers from the January 21 march. What is Angela Davis doing there? Where are the military women, the women police officers, the officeholders? If Planned Parenthood is on the stage, pro-life women should stand there, too. If you want somebody to speak for immigrants, invite somebody who’s in the country lawfully.
“What is Angela Davis doing there?” That may be one of the more disqualifying strings of words in Frum’s piece. She was on the stage because she comes out of the Black Power movement and has committed her entire life to advancing social, racial, and economic justice for women and minorities. That is how this works. People who put in time and energy into movements receive acknowledgment and a platform for their efforts.
Social movements do not work like presidential campaigns. They don’t need strategists, who can focus group what individuals will appeal and not appeal to audiences. Protests and demonstrations occur to challenge the prejudices and preconceived notions of the public in order to shift the public consciousness. Catering to the politics of the middle, like Frum’s inconsequential centrist venture, “No Labels,” is not any way to achieve an impact.
“Black Lives Matter” does not galvanize tens of thousands of people to rally because they worry about hurting the feelings of people who support police. They galvanize many to demonstrate because they focus on the essential issues created by systemic racism, which is the stark reality that far too often black lives do not have the same worth or value as white lives.
During the introduction of Frum’s piece, he acknowledges, “It’s possible I’m not the right person to offer the following analysis. Yet it’s also a good rule to seek wisdom wherever it may be found.”
No, David, you should have stuck to your gut instinct and refrained from offering your “analysis.” And please, please, please, if you’re going to make this a regular thing, read some writings by historian Howard Zinn.