This election is breaking almost every rule political scientists have written about how the American electorate should function. But if there’s one thing we can understand about Trump’s rise, it’s that he’s immune to scandal. From shrugging off his retweet of a Mussolini quote to opining about Megyn Kelly’s orifices to paying legal fees for his fan that sucker punched a black protester, no act of malice has slowed him down. On the contrary, Trump’s seeming indiscretions only make him stronger. No hot take (this one included) will offer a silver bullet to stopping Trump. Neither, however, will shouting him down for the bigot he is on the floor of a crowded auditorium.
That protesters managed to cancel Trump’s rally in Chicago earlier this month shows that the disruptors are making Trump nervous, and are getting bigger, better organized, and more able to shut events down entirely — as evidenced by protesters in Arizona this weekend, who blocked roads leading to an event. It shows a chink in Trump’s leathery bronze armor, and makes it clear that his hate speech isn’t welcome. But as important as physically stopping his rallies — in the short term — is creating something else that’s just as much a spectacle as the campaign stops themselves.
A Monmouth University poll of Florida Republicans last week found that just 11 percent were less likely to back Trump after hearing about what happened in Chicago. Double that number were more likely to support him, and 66 percent said their opinions hadn’t changed.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that seeing protesters disrupting Trump rallies is a bit like watching the string quartet on the deck of a sinking Titanic. By now, Trump and his supporters have a script for dealing with protesters: acknowledge, ridicule, maybe rough up and move on, more energized than before. “Are Trump rallies the most fun?” he asked the crowd at a recent rally. “We’re having a good time!” And they were.
If politics has ever been about being right, then they certainly aren’t in 2016. Trump may be a revolting xenophobe, but he’s their revolting xenophobe, and a damn good entertainer. To counter him, protesters can put on just as good a show.
Take an example from the United Kingdom. The British group Liberate Tate, who have just won a six-year campaign to end the museum’s sponsorship from oil company BP. Their inaugural performance — just months after BP had unleashed 4.2 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — was outside a Tate-sponsored summer party for London’s 1 percent. Rather than infiltrating the party, rebuking the fact that the party was happening and its shady funding ties, they splashed molasses — meant to resemble oil — on its front steps, topping off the mess with feathers and sparking chaos inside and out before running off. Since, Liberate Tate has set up pop-up tattoo parlors, staged mass exorcisms and more, with most shows happening inside the museum itself. You can see their full retrospective now at the Guardian.
Admittedly, this is not a perfect metaphor. Stopping the closest thing the United States has known to its own Mussolini is a different task than getting fossil fuels out of the arts, and we don’t have six years. What’s key, though, is that Liberate Tate never gave the museum the upper hand. Performances have been on their terms, and — more often than not — made Tate’s top brass look helpless to stop them, partly because they weren’t sure what all was happening. There are no protocols for scraping a live, oil covered figure in the fetal position off a gallery floor.
Trump’s persona is as the consummate winner, professional bully and master of deals. Protesters, he says, are “sad.” And, in some cases, he’s not wrong — at least when all it takes to foil a disruption are a few well-placed security guards. Getting to Trump and his supporters, then, isn’t about making him look evil, but silly, confused, and vulnerable.