George Lakey’s recent article rejecting the usefulness of protests at Donald Trump rallies begins with a reference to the sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. In the book, children are recruited to learn skills for outwitting an opponent, and are invited to play complex video games in which they command galactic armies against an alien force threatening their planet. Of the trainees, one boy, Ender, proves himself especially adept at defeating the aliens using his particular gift of empathy to intuit how the alien opponents perceive outside attacks, by understanding their worldview. Lakey uses this literary reference to help argue his point that Trump protests are self-defeating, because they lack empathy.
His perspective is important, but incomplete. As it happens, there is another take on Ender’s Game—it’s a parallel novel by the same author, Orson Scott Card, called Ender’s Shadow. It takes place at the same time as the original book and depicts some of the same events from the point of view of a supporting character named Bean.
One of the significant differences between the two characters is that Ender isn’t aware he is actually leading a human army to victory against their alien opponents; he thinks he’s just playing a computer game. But in Ender’s Shadow, Bean—also a commander in the galactic army—figures it out, and proceeds with the attack anyway. We learn that Bean is similarly empathic, but comes to a different conclusion than Ender, who is wracked with grief upon learning of his participation in the attack. Bean empathizes with the Formic alien army, and still feels that they must be vanquished. Sound strategy, he reasons, sometimes means recognizing the importance of confronting your opponent head-on, despite the mixed feelings that might generate.
My point is not that Trump opponents should mercilessly attack Trump supporters, a la Ender’s Shadow. But having empathy doesn’t mean backing away from confrontation. It’s possible to extend love and compassion for our opponents while throwing ourselves into the gears of hate. And the empowerment and skill we gain in those confrontational moments often sets us up for more powerful victories down the road.
Trump’s WWE Circus
Lakey is right that many of our disruptions have emboldened Trump and his most ardent supporters. His rallies often take on the tone of a WWE wrestling match, and he is most effective as both ringleader and unlikely underdog—constantly harassed by those unreasonable, know-it-all protesters; a clear giveaway that many or most of us are middle class. He almost certainly wouldn’t have his current level of support without being shunned by so many mainstream institutions, or drawing so much fire from the left. And many of our disruptions are noteworthy for their apparent ineffectiveness. Some rallies have featured more than 35 disruptions in less than an hour, with the interrupters hurried out of the venue and Trump free to continue agitating: “See? They don’t want you to hear the truth.” We absolutely need more approaches to demonstrating opposition to Trump that speak to working-class white people, and don’t play to his strengths.
Lakey correctly points out that we have more tools in our toolbox than one-off disruption. Few groups, for instance, have tried using humor and ridicule to polarize the choice between Trump and acting against hatred, to say nothing of powerful symbolic protests demonstrating our resolve. Imagine a few dozen activists, zip-tied together inside of the venue with a banner that says “White People: When Are We Going to Speak Up?” and mouths covered in tape reading “White Silence.” If such a protest could evoke the silence that led to the internment of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II or the rise of fascist dictatorships in the years prior that would be powerful.
While none of the protests thus far have been quite so creative, they have still managed to embolden thousands of people—just by giving them the opportunity to show up publicly against hate.
Using Trump to Unleash Courage
The blockade of a Trump rally in Phoenix by Puente Arizona in early March 2016 (a grass-roots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix) offers a clear example. Immigrant communities in Arizona are currently under severe threat from legislative proposals that would further criminalize undocumented people and their families. When Trump announced he would hold a rally in the backyard of the most notorious anti-immigrant in the country, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, many expected immigrant organizers to steer clear.
Instead, they used the opportunity to channel anger against both politicians and demonstrate courage and tactical discipline to a national audience, blockading the road leading to the rally by disabling multiple vehicles, with several people locking themselves to the cars in the road while dozens of Puente members cheered them on. The blockade received national TV and print coverage. Given the recent history of immigrant-led civil disobedience, this action will most likely further embolden other immigrant communities to rise against Trump’s racism.
I have a particular window seat on this political moment, being in touch with dozens of white people organizing with Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, who are using Trump rallies as recruitment and skill-building opportunities. SURJ chapters have been involved in Trump disruptions in more than 15 cities, including Chicago, St. Louis, Tucson and Fayetteville, North Carolina. In cities like St. Louis, white organizers identified dozens of new recruits for their ongoing racial justice work; in almost every city, SURJ chapters reported building many new connections with organizers of color.
For some of our members, these actions were their first experiences of openly confronting racism, or the first actions in which they put themselves physically at risk. After somewhat anxiously attending a Trump rally in Fayetteville, Desaray Smith, a SURJ member from Asheville, North Carolina, said the protest helped her come to grips with uncertainty, improvisation and flexibility in tough moments, and feel more resilient and mentally tough than she expected. Overall, the experience showed her that “the right people arrive at the right time” and “do the right things together.” This kind of transformational work—moving beyond fear, and towards a greater connection to collective power—is needed in movements today, let alone in stopping Trump.
Working-class and raised-poor white organizers in North Carolina, among others, have also been using Trump rallies to “call-in” their neighbors. One group of SURJ leaders—accompanied by members of Southerners on New Ground, a Southern regional queer liberation organization—showed up in Fayetteville with a banner reading “Poor Whites: Our Mamas Taught Us Better.” Lakey’s point that we need to infuse our anti-Trump efforts with approaches that reach working-class people is well taken. While SURJ, for one, has significant working-class leadership, middle-class white organizers like me have more work to do to support their leadership in our organizations.
We have a lot to learn in this moment about how to accurately express empathy toward white people who are angry, how to listen deeply to people in our communities for whom Trump’s message resonates, and how to articulate a compelling message to rival his hate-and-blame narrative. That’s why it’s even more important for us to invest in listening skills and slow, base-building to learn from the experiments of working-class white organizers in our networks who are having success with the communities Trump most wants to recruit.
The Gathering Storm of White Supremacy
Our empathy for white working-class people who are taken with Trump shouldn’t keep us from intervening in the gathering storm of white supremacy that his rise represents, if for no other reason than because we know that the number of people who are repulsed and angry about what he represents—but have remained inactive—is far greater than the total filling the seats of his hate-filled celebrations of patriarchal masculinity. However imperfect our protests have been—and they should incorporate more dramatic and bold experiments along the lines of the Phoenix blockade—they are offering an alternative to the story of white silence, and are galvanizing many to act.
Let’s not forget, in the event Trump should win the nomination and become president, we’ll almost certainly need to respond with massive noncompliance to prevent his hateful policies from being implemented. And if he doesn’t, there remains the critical importance of white people experimenting with higher-risk action as we defend our mutual self-interest in showing up for the movement for black lives—experiments that can happen as we show up in bolder ways against Trump.
By emphasizing the need to experiment with higher-risk action, I’m not advocating we throw strategy out the window, as Lakey implies at the end of his article, or to discard compassion. We need more of both, and it is totally within our capability to put in motion a confrontational approach to shutting down Trump and an outreach strategy that centers on deep listening across class lines. By doing so, we might find—like Bean in Ender’s Shadow—that confrontation and compassion can go hand in hand.