Op-Ed: Boycotting a Televised Inauguration Is Absurd. Here’s What You Can Do Instead
Tearing Down The Demonic Circus
You do not beat the ringmaster from hell by turning your back on the stage. You do it by pulling up the stakes of his tent.
Our political sphere’s infection with the culture of reality TV will peak with the inauguration of Donald Trump. The multidimensional crisis of personality politics, public apathy, and media distortion has left us with a pop culture president, one whose grasp of policy could not pass a sixth grade civics class, whose mode of speech is incomprehensible to all but himself.
But none of that matters in the absurdity that is late stage capitalism. We are media intensive, we crave entertainment, we have bread and circuses, we have internet tabloids and Twitter, and this is what we consume, consume, consume.
Donald Trump knows how to sate that appetite. Like a kind of media Aikido master, he somehow turns the weight of his weaknesses. Trump has a chronic habit (a capitalist ethos) of cheating laborers who worked on his properties. That might be an issue were it not overshadowed by a gaffe in which the commander-in-chief elect referred to traumatized veterans as “weak” and “losers”. When a less able ringmaster may have been crucified for his clever tax evasion, Trump had a doomsday arsenal of sex bombs to set off. I am not attempting here to establish a priority tier regarding which of Donald Trump’s acts or utterances should disqualify him from public office. The theft of labor and exploitation of workers, the contempt and assault of women, the parasitic tax evasion, the coddled and privileged draft deferments, the ignorance of policy foreign and domestic, the lack of respect for the free press and for the bill of rights, the difficulties with speech expression and attention span, the lack of diplomacy—these are all valid and crucial critique.
What matters is that the public has been so inundated, so cornered and crushed by a ratings hungry, clickbait media sphere’s obsession. We have, since the primaries, been engulfed in Trump, Trump, Trump. Despite his contempt for the free press (not his only authoritarian inclination), the media has been Trump’s greatest friend, or rather, his most precious pawn, which in his world would probably amount to about the same thing. In retrospect, all we talked about was Trump, almost all we heard about was in relation to Trump. How could we not have seen the inevitability?
So the notion of boycotting the televised inauguration of this demoniacal P.T. Barnum is not entirely without a logic of its own. Trump is a showman, a narcissist intent on governing by catch phrase, making flamboyant proclamations on Twitter and watching the world explode. A slew of internet petitions and Facebook memes are encouraging people to deal with Trump with the same age-old approach to a bully or a petulant child: Ignore him.
But this is falling right into the trap.
Trump may have captured the presidency with bombast and absurdity, but once he’s sworn in, he will have far more to inflict than impotent slapfights with Elizabeth Warren on Twitter. To respond to Trump’s reality TV posturing with similarly limp and empty gesture politics would be a fatal mistake. Boycotting a television program is completely hollow as a gesture, and laughably ineffectual.
For the vast majority of viewers who are decidedly not being monitored by a Nielsen box, it means nothing. And even if it did, it does nothing to stifle Trump’s administration, which is already proving disastrous for healthcare and women’s rights.
You do not beat the ringmaster from hell by turning your back on the stage. You do it by pulling up the stakes of his tent.
We need to reacquaint ourselves with the very basics of social activism. Activism is not about awareness. We talk a great deal about awareness in America today, we talk a great deal about discourse and signal boosting and “speaking out”. What we have got here is a really basic and critical misunderstanding of the nature of demonstration. When we have a march, or a sit-in, or any other act of public assembly or civil disobedience, we refer to it as a “demonstration”.
The purpose here, and this is vital, is not to demonstrate our sentiment. A demonstration is not a limp and toothless display of desire to our elected officials, hoping that they will notice and then, in all their charity and benevolence, listen to the will of the people. Power is not given, it is taken, and performative gesture does not take power.
When we demonstrate, we demonstrate the power of the masses. This is where we find the absurdity of the permitted protest: the first amendment gives us in theory an unlimited voice with which to criticize our government, but the law curtails that freedom substantially. The law requires a permit to march in the street, to rally 20 or more people, or to use electric sound amplification. In this way the people have the technicality of free speech, but by reserving the right to criminalize it, the government in theory can suppress any speech it finds objectionable without having to directly throw out the first amendment.
The purpose of demonstration is to raise the stakes for the dominant power, to increase their difficulty in maintaining control, and to threaten them with the possibility of losing it. The United States’ most legendary of activists, Dr. King, defines the purpose of demonstration very clearly in his seminal Letter From a Birmingham Jail:
“You may well ask, ‘why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, etc.? Isn’t negotiation a better path’? You are exactly right in your call for negotiation. Indeed, this is the purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”
The tension King refers to is an increased pressure on the power structure. When any given authority struggles to maintain order along the status quo, it is given two choices. It can respond with violence: the violence of spurious arrests (like the height of the Occupy Movement), suppressing protests with tear gas and attack dogs (as at standing rock), or with outright killing (consider Kent State). Here it delegitimizes itself, lends credence to the activists, and opens itself further to attack.
The other choice that the power structure has is to accommodate the activists’ demands and to let democracy take place. Again, Dr. King writes of history as “The long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups never give up their privileges willingly”. And this is true, but progress does not require the complicity of the privileged. It was not the largesse of the rich, but agitation by labor unions, (bolstered by the unlikely bedfellows of the Catholic Church and the US Communist Party), that managed to get us Unemployment Insurance and Social Security in the 1930s. Lyndon B. Johnson was certainly not a Lincoln or even a John Brown, but the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was wrangled out of the administration by making the difficulty of maintaining the status quo greater than the resistance to change.
Gesture activism is a social dead end. Clever tweets and TV boycotts apply exactly no pressure, to anyone. And engaging Trump on his own level, with bluster, gesture, and petty insult, is to sell ourselves very, very short.
The people have no less in terms of basic power than they had during the great depression or in 1964. Occupy Wall Street was the first major protest movement in decades, and although it failed to muzzle the financier class the way it should have, it was the beginning, as Chomsky notes, of something long lost to American politics: class solidarity.
Three fourths of the country voted against Donald Trump, and as his cabinet shapes up to be a kleptocracy of millionaire buddies and donor heiresses, his supporters (many panicking as they realize that the ACA is, in fact, “Obamacare”) will fall away from him at a steady rate. The millionaire class of which Trump is a part can never outnumber the people.
But the people will have to do more than operate on Trump’s level, because the pomp and circumstance of the state are entirely vested in him now. No Twitter account is louder and no television boycott, I assure you, will scratch his confidence. But what can is substantive, physical resistance. All that has to happen for the Trump administration to quell (and this is necessary, for the sake of the environment, for economic justice, for women, for people of color, and for the LGBT community), is for society to refuse to play along with him. There has been a great deal of talk about not “normalizing” Trump, but most of this sentiment has been confined to the media sphere, to the politics of discussion. But the common people have more powerful tools at our disposal than merely injecting the disclaimer into all our public discourse: kindly note, Donald Trump is a demagogue who has been supported by white supremacists, sexually assaulted women, and has had more money in tax breaks than the rest of us will ever see in a lifetime.
If we really want to stop this train, we have to make it clear that Trump’s America simply will not run, that it is the fundamental identity the American people to reject him and all that he stands for.
So what can we do?
Well, we can march. We can, in fact, block roads. We could engage in mass tax refusal—certainly the people of New York state, at least, have the right to refuse to subsidize Mrs. Trump’s secret service protection, and the vast majority of the country has little interest in paying for the defunding of healthcare and for enacting de jure bigotry at the behest of the Christian Right.
We can engage in civil disobedience and camp on the white house lawn, we can blockade the entrance to Trump Tower and his properties all over the country, and we can keep it up until the administration backs down on its terroristic approach to the environment, to the rights of women, to the LGBT community, and to the medical needs of the working class. The frightening and empowering truth is that sometimes activists go to jail—and history vindicates them.
It’s well beyond my scope here to outline a comprehensive program of resistance to the Trump administration. But a good start, and a good alternative to “turn your TV to another channel” is the idea of a national strike and boycott on inauguration day. The program is very simple:
On January 20th, call out of work, if you’re among the ones who can. Walk off the job, if you can survive the repercussions. Student activism is critical, and there is not one good reason why ever single student in this country should not be walking out of class in protest of Trump’s administration. Most importantly, no one spends a dime. The economy is the pulse of the beast, and there is perhaps no gesture more powerful in a capitalist society than to refuse to consume. Even for a day, to refuse to participate is a powerful gesture, it is substantial, it is observable, and it is even non-violent.
A national strike is a start. We can occupy buildings later. The people have already proven what we can take, from Selma to Standing Rock. Three fourths of our country rejected Donald Trump. We do not have to be cowed and helpless as our government is sold out from under us for the benefit of billionaire cronies, slowly metastasizing into a Russian styled kleptocracy as we watch in horror. We do not have to wait helplessly, in the dark, for mid-terms or 2020, we do not have to hand-wave the mediocrity and mendacity of centrist, corporate democrats and wait for them to become our messiah. The people have always had the power. We still do. We can be an army at the gates.
We have the numbers.
Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images inauguration inauguration inauguration
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