Trump White House spokesman Sean Spicer insists he was misunderstood when he said more people came to Donald Trump’s inauguration than the press gave him credit for. Sure, the pictures show that more people attended Barack Obama’s first inaugural, but Spicer says he meant if you add those who went to the event and those who watched on TV around the globe it was the biggest ever.
It’s hardly surprising that his boss, the world’s foremost billionaire populist—and a bona fide TV-ratings machine—is consumed with how many people he can put in the streets. What does seem odd is that many of those who claim to fear which way his populism may lead are similarly consumed by head-counting.
Look at the lists on progressive websites breathlessly boasting how many attended the anti-Trump marches across the country: Los Angeles got 750,000; half a million in New York City; 10,000 in Hartford, Connecticut.; 60,000 in St. Paul, Minnesota., 700-800 in Murray, Kentucky; 100,000 in Denver; 35 in Zebulon, Georgia. The grand total is something like 3.5 million people, with the march in Washington itself estimated to be three times larger than Trump’s inauguration. So why are numbers as important to Trump’s most energized critics as they are to the Nielsen-mad populist himself? Because as one of the organizers of Saturday’s march, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, explained, this is what democracy looks like. And many marchers seem to agree.
But the statement is false. American democracy is not about the size of crowds. Mass gatherings are not supposed to guide our democracy or protect our freedoms. Yes, the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of assembly as well as freedom of speech, as it also guarantees, for instance, the right to bear arms. However, only a fool believes that democracy looks like collecting Nazi-era Lugers, or looks like a closet full of pornographic magazines. The actual mechanism of democracy is not people going to the street, but to the ballot box and voting for their chosen candidate.
The Founding Fathers did not need the example of the French Revolution birthed in blood and gore the same year the U.S. Constitution came into force in order to understand the dangers of people going to the streets to fight for their political ideas. The violence that frequently results—whether ignited by the most radical protesters, or by the most radical protectors of order—when political power is counted in large numbers massed in public squares is a constant throughout human history. And that’s exactly what the framers sought to save us from.
It’s a different matter when procedural politics fail to uphold the rule of law. For instance, the famous civil-rights marches, including the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, were directed at a clear and ongoing violation of the law, the Bill of Rights, that was being upheld by racist feelings and beliefs, often solidified by electoral politics, especially in the South.
American democracy is not about the size of crowds. Mass gatherings are not supposed to guide our democracy or protect our freedoms.
Nothing of the sort happened to prompt the anti-Trump protests. Trump was fairly elected with a plurality of the electoral college, and the outgoing president transferred authority to the incoming commander-in-chief peacefully. In other words, the mechanisms of democracy functioned properly. So why do so many Americans mistake what typically signals a failure of democracy for democracy itself?
In part, the talk about crowds is a sign of how American perceptions and expectations have been subtly and pervasively altered by our engagement with the undemocratic, and traditionally autocratic, Arab societies of the Middle East, especially since the beginning of the Arab Spring uprisings a little more than six years ago. Certainly, those bloody events should have reminded us that the politics of the ballot box are preferable to the politics of the street. But that’s not what happened. Instead, the massive protest movements of the Arab Spring were regarded across the American political spectrum, left and right, as genuine outpourings of democratic feeling.
How, for instance, did we know that the Egyptians who took to the streets in January of 2011 to topple then-president Hosni Mubarak were democratic? Well, reasoned commentators, there were so many tech-savvy young people in the streets that it went without saying that the movement they represented was democratic.
And how did we know that pushing out Mubarak wouldn’t pave the way for the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s most formidable political power after the army? Well, analysts intoned, because it was a mass revolution that was by definition democratic, it couldn’t empower a theocratic gang of Islamists like the Brotherhood. And when then-army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi moved to topple the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first elected president, according to John Kerry and others, he was actually restoring Egyptian democracy. We know that because, by some estimates, 11 million Egyptians took to the streets to support Sisi’s coup, and with so many people it had to be democratic. As one Washington Post reporter tweeted this weekend in comparing the Women’s March to the Egyptian coups, “numbers matter.”
In fact, journalists, analysts, and policymakers got Egypt wrong three times in a little more than two years because they believed that numbers matter—and that crowds signal democracy. But that’s not how it happens in places like Egypt, where democratic practices and traditions are scarce. Numbers matter in the Third World because they are the mechanism by which a party or faction shows its strength—and seeks to intimidate others. If you’re in the minority faction, unless you own the preponderance of weapons, you have to back down. Your life depends on being able to count.
Crowd politics is the opposite of electoral politics. In democratic societies, crowd politics are generally hostile to electoral politics and procedural government, and often presage their destruction. Consider, for instance, the crowds outside the Duma before the Bolsheviks took over, or Mussolini’s spectacles, Hitler’s even bigger spectacles. Crowds are not what democracy looks like. Rather, they are a consequence of the absence or the breakdown of democratic procedural norms.
Mass demonstrations are not a sign of a healthy democracy. Rather, as signs at the march more correctly advertised Saturday, they are a symbol and a means of “resistance.”
Adopting and retooling Arab tropes like “resistance”—often armed and typically directed at Israel—is hardly a new fashion for the progressive camp. Indeed, the romance with resistance dates back to at least the 1960s, when the European left seemed to hitch its wagon to the Arab cause, as a tip of the spear in the fight against capitalism, imperialism, etc. In fact, Europeans were simply paying lip service to Arab political and cultural ideas, embodied primarily in the Palestinian national movement. As Carlos, the brilliant 2010 film about the spoiled Venezuelan playboy/terrorist, makes clear, Europeans—liberals as well as leftists—saw the Palestinians as a conduit to the real thing, international terrorism funded by the Soviet Union, i.e., resistance, as incarnated by wigged-out violence junkies like Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang and the Italian Red Brigades.
What the Arabs did not understand was that the Westerners were simply coddling their grievances in order to further their own play-acting—and to work through their own civilizational guilt over the Holocaust. The West’s apparent encouragement of the Arabs, support for their cause, turned out to be the Arabs’ crowning disaster, because they were led by eager Western fellow-travelers to believe that their unwillingness to truckle to any form of political or cultural modernity was a winning hand in the cesspool-like world of post-Holocaust guilt and late-stage capitalism. Party on, Anders! Party on, Yasir!
The Arabs became the culture of resistance par excellence. They have resisted everything, and now are paying dearly for it. If the people of Syria had a choice, would they have chosen “resistance” half a century ago—or a different way to get along with their neighbors, domestic and foreign? Would they not prefer to resolve their political disputes at the ballot box rather than in the kill zones of Aleppo? This is not what democracy looks like—but it is how crowd politics often ends.
Americans cherish lots of easy fantasies about mass-protest movements, which we imagine are cool like May ’68 in Paris. Americans can afford to be sentimental about protest movements because we have been fortunate that, even including the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movement, we have suffered relatively few casualties, and because everything turned out OK in the end. This is to take nothing away from the courage and passion and decency of those who died on behalf of worthy causes. The 1968 murder of three African-American college students in Orangeburg, South Carolina, and the 1970 killings of four Kent State students stain our history—and remind us why the Framers wanted to protect us from the logic of violence and counterviolence that often takes over once people go to the streets.
Another tragedy then may come. The West, the United States, has been damaged by a series of tragedies that began Sept. 11, 2001, and have not stopped since. The deepest of these wounds were all self-inflicted. As the Trump era begins, we are likely to pay even more dearly for losing faith in our own ideas. What makes democracy possible is not pride in crowds but rather the sound skepticism that warns us of the danger of mass politics and the need for the judicious procedural tempering of the enthusiasms that our system is designed to generate but never to abruptly enforce. Otherwise, our self-pity and obsession with identity politics, or what the Third World calls “sectarianism,” combined with the widespread loathing for these things on the part of the electorate that chose Donald Trump, is apt to be a death sentence for our democracy.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).