Considering Contention in Trumptimes

By David S. Meyer, University of California, Irvine

For those of us who study protest movements, to paraphrase Dickens, the Trump presidency represents both the best of times and the worst of times. For scholars of political contention, Trump’s election immediately presents an upsurge of activism across many social movements that offer us massive amounts of empirical material and no shortage of analytical challenges. Like the paleontologist visiting Jurassic Park, those of us who write about movements can watch our preferred theories of contention being shredded—or not—in real time. Public attention to protest has also surged, and journalists, activists, and neighbors are more likely to express interest in the stuff that occupies our imagination most of the time. Regular people are paying attention!

The sense of urgency and possibility is exhilarating, but there is a downside: I have to live here. Donald Trump represents an urgent and unusual threat to democratic institutions in general, and in particular, a direct threat to the pursuit of science and the institutions which support it.

Had I the choice, I wouldn’t have signed on for the Trump challenge. Now that it’s here, however, I’m going to do my best to step up to the moment as scholar, a citizen, and a professor. The CBSM newsletter is a place to float some ideas about how to do so, and perhaps to provoke a larger discussion and some sense of collective purpose in our community.

On the understanding movements front, the emerging resistance provides the chance to sharpen our thinking and test our ideas. Those of us invested in understanding the relationship of movements to mainstream politics and political opportunities come to the moment with theoretically-informed expectations. Strong movements emerge, I’ve argued, when large numbers of people see protest as both necessary and potentially effective. For some constituencies, like middle-class white people accustomed to political access, broad protest mobilization is a response to political exclusion and policy threats. For others, like those accustomed to political marginalization, openings within mainstream politics provide the legitimation and encouragement needed to take to the streets. If this formulation is right, we’d expect discouraged liberal democrats to take to the streets and more mainstream conservatives to temper their rhetoric and work within institutions, while the racist right will be emboldened online and in real life. This is worth watching closely and reporting as accurately as possible. None of it is trivial.

Activists and analysts alike are now desperate to know what works. Rafts of studies of movement outcomes or consequences, however, provide less guidance in understanding what matters today than we would hope. Process-tracing sequences of events should inform not only about current movements, but also the more general difficulty of understanding political influence. Causes and inspirations are tricky to tease out, often partial and contingent. Would the spontaneous airport protests against Trump’s travel ban have emerged without the massive Women’s March a week earlier? Would more than a thousand State Department officials have signed a dissent on this horrendous piece of policy (more than 20 times more signatures than the previous record dissent) without seeing cousins and daughters peeking out the corner of a tv screen wearing a pussyhat? Would Bob Ferguson, Washington’s ambitious attorney general, have challenged the ban in court without seeing a good prospect of political support? Would federal judges have stayed implementation of the executive order without some suggestion of public support? Cumulative influence and contingency are tough to code, but assessing influence requires that we try to discern provisional political pathways.

As citizens in the Trump era, we need to find ways to stand up for those who are directly threatened, including refugees, undocumented immigrants, and members of unpopular minorities. The seamiest sides of populisms caricature enemies and organize against them. Here, knowing even a little history underscores our moral and political obligations. The moment’s pariahs include our neighbors and our students. We have to recognize the attacks and marshal whatever institutional strength we have to protect the most vulnerable. More broadly, we have to fill all the channels of democratic participation we can find, whether it means showing up at demonstrations, calling members of Congress, or engaging in electoral campaigns. Ironically, this entails enlivening the means of political engagement that social scientists often cynically disparage or neglect.

Perhaps most significantly, those of us fortunate enough to work in schools have to stand up for these institutions, not the least of these, science. As scholars, this means maintaining rigor and honesty. As teachers, this means allowing for attention to the current moment without abandoning more conventional course material. Honest appraisals of historical precedents are the most important defense against the ahistorical rationalizations that characterize the Trump presidency. Helping to build a knowledge of the past and of the rest of the world is a way to build bulwarks against the dishonesty and distortion that undergird attacks on human rights and democracy. Truth has to matter.

At base level, the university is a place ostensibly committed to both vigorous civil debate and the pursuit of truth. There’s a certain kind of nobility that comes from standing up for an idealized vision of such a place, and it’s worth our aspirations and our efforts.