The first thing to remember about mobilization, protest, civil disobedience, and direct action is that they are each public and costly. This is by design. There is a soft political theory of protest that views protesters as Romantic figures who inspire us through their righteousness, displayed through individuated episodes of moral action.* But no serious account of why or how protest works holds to this view. Protest and civil disobedience are effective because they demonstrate to the public both that the individual is willing to take costly action within the limits of the law. As Erin Pineda puts it (PDF),
The demonstrated willingness to face arrest and subsequent punishment thus engages spectators and state actors in a process of public reasoning over the laws, policies, and institutions that bind the community together
Importantly, however, mobilization, protest, civil disobedience, and direct action are also costly in a second sense: to the “spectators and state actors” who are the bystanders and targets of action. If protestors’ actions were costless, they would probably be ignored. The audience needs to be made at least slightly uncomfortable, and the state must be impelled to respond. Protest is not amok.
And so, the second thing to remember about mobilization is that state actors will respond. The notion that protest itself impels thoroughgoing reform of unjust systems and structures is a fantasy. An effective mobilization will engender a response, expecting it (if not necessarily welcoming it).
I am writing these words the morning after yet another night of mobilization, protest, and violence across America, and after which President Trump threatened to use military force to suppress violence and property destruction. One text message that I received in the past twelve hours used the word Reichstag.** These are obviously troubled times for American democracy. And as we ponder what the inevitable response from the state will be, we face fundamental uncertainty about basic questions like (1) will he actually try this? (2) who would comply with such unlawful orders? (3) how will this play among the electorate?
The last of these is where I find my thoughts wandering. In the same way that mobilization is public, a form of deliberation and joint reasoning, so is Trump’s response. What is that deliberation about?
The United States is not in the territory of transitional violence of the form that accompanied the final days of the Soeharto or Ceaușescu regimes, where mobilization, protest, and violence emerges amidst competition over the future of the regime and can serve to legitimate a military response that also happens to shape the political order going forward. We are also not in the territory of a Ferdinand Marcos-style declaration of martial law, justified as the only way to “save the Republic.”
We are instead in a territory that is closer to the way that Rodrigo Duterte or Viktor Orbán communicate about the various (perceived) threats to their countries’ mass publics. There is no coup on the horizon, and democracy will not be suspended. But there is disorder, and that disorder must be quelled—through force if necessary. President Trump announces his plan to do this, and in doing so he seeks legitimation and consent for using the system of laws and the coercive power of the state to stop violence.
This appeal is fundamentally an electoral appeal, one for order. I wrote about this several years ago in the case of Southeast Asia, in an essay for Journal of Democracy called “Voting Against Disorder” (PDF).*** In this analysis, President Trump doubles down on the public and costly nature of the current mobilization, embracing the fact that it makes the public uncomfortable. He uses the language of dominating protestors because this is about all that he has left: he is trailing at the polls and flailing about to find a solution to massive economic and public health crises, but protests on this scale do make spectators uncomfortable.
What is perhaps interesting is that the present mobilization is not as costly as it normally would be for most people. That is because COVID-19 has already disrupted so many people’s lives, that protests and violence (and the curfews that have ensued) hit a population that is already used to being inconvenienced and disrupted from their daily routines.**** On balance, this probably breaks in the protestors’ favor, and against Trump. It would different if protests were shutting down major cities all of a sudden in a normal summer. I would be more worried about Trump’s intent to restore public order using the military in that scenario.
The takeaway point from this discussion is that both mobilization and Trump’s intention to use military force to restore order focus on the public and costly nature of protest. Should protestors therefore stop, to prevent Trump from needing to escalate? No. But we should understand his response as reacting to the disorder that protest—by design—reveals. The appropriate response is to insist that order cannot be restored through military force, but only through direct engagement and substantive reform, and to put in office the politicians who will do this.
* This, for example, is how Rosa Parks was taught to elementary school children in Pennsylvania in the 1980s. She was tired and didn’t want to move to the back of the bus, and can’t we all relate to that?
** Another text message, from an Episcopalian who had watched Trump’s march to DC’s St. John Church to wave a Bible around, used the word “tacky.”
*** I tried to write about Trump in that essay. As part of the revisions, an editor wrote that s/he “would prefer to remove the section on the U.S., which is of necessity speculative at this point.”
**** My point is bound to be misunderstood here, so I’ll clarify. Destruction of property is massively disruptive to the owners of that property. And things are hard, so hard, for so many people right now. But, narrowly, violence is less disruptive right now from the perspective of bystanders than it would be if bystanders were moving around like normal in non-pandemic times.