If there’s one character trait that most Americans have in common with our controversial new president-elect, it’s that we don’t like to lose.
Even so, what we’ve seen this week — large, sometimes violent protests across major U.S. cities and college campuses, expressing anger over the undisputed outcome of an election — is something new.
And it may say less about Donald J. Trump than about a society that is increasingly inclined to air its grievances not through the normal channels of debate, but in the streets.
“What is striking is that these protests, most of them, have not outwardly stated that the election was fraudulent” — just that the protesters don’t like the result, said Peter Kastor, History Department chairman at Washington University in St. Louis. That, he said, “is very unusual in the history of the American presidency.”
Certainly there are plenty of recent examples of post-election strife. During the Florida ballot re-count after the 2000 election, suit-wearing George W. Bush supporters staged a demonstration that would be dubbed the “Brooks Brothers Riot” (referring to the suits) after it turned violent. In the days after the election of Barack Obama in November 2008 as America’s first black president, reports of racial violence and vandalism increased around the country.
The difference with what we’ve seen since Trump won his electoral-college victory over Hillary Clinton Tuesday is the size, scope and immediacy of the reaction. This isn’t a one-time confrontation over a re-count process, or a spate of individual hate crimes.
In Chicago on Wednesday night, an estimated 2,000 protesters marched downtown, shutting down traffic on Lake Shore Drive and prompting arrests. In Portland, Ore., early Friday, 26 people were arrested after an anti-Trump protest turned into a riot, with an estimated 4,000 people shattering windows and knocking out electricity.
For several days now, there have been other large protests, some peaceful and some not so peaceful, in New York, Philadelphia and other cities, and many college campus gatherings, including Friday’s protest at Washington University.
Some of the anger probably stems from the fact that Trump will become president despite losing the popular vote to Clinton — and the fact that that’s the second time it’s happened in 16 years, with the previous beneficiary also being a Republican.
The sheer, poll-driven surprise of the thing has probably contributed to the anger as well. “Everyone thought [Trump] was going to lose,” adding shock to the disappointment for Clinton’s supporters, Kastor said. Barring that, “I think the response would have been different.”
But some of the strife, Kastor said, is baked into America’s culture today, springing from the same confrontational atmosphere that produced the Ferguson riots and the Black Lives Matter protests.
“There are periods throughout American history when people have been more likely to mobilize in the streets — the 1930s, the 1960s — and people are doing it now.”
Violent protests have a long history in this country, starting with the American Revolution itself. Since then, the history of big movements here can be charted by the protest-culture that accompanied them: women’s suffrage, labor rights, civil rights, the feminist movement.
There was the anti-Vietnam War movement, the gay-rights Stonewall Riots of 1969, the Occupy Wall Street movement of the 2010s. More recently there was Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But what they all had in common was that they were in reaction to specific injustices (such as unfair labor practices or Jim Crow laws) or shocking events (like the shooting of Michael Brown). None started merely because a widely accepted American norm — in this case, a national election — had produced an uncontested outcome.
In fact, said Kastor, just one example readily comes to mind: the election of 1860.
“I’m not saying this is going to lead to a Civil War,” he stressed. But “white southerners were convinced that someone [Abraham Lincoln] had been elected who disrespected everything they believed in.”
Alasdair Roberts, professor of public affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia, believes it isn’t just about Trump, but about a wider protest culture active today because of economic and political uncertainty stretching back to the financial crash of 2008.
His 2013 book “The End of Protest” predicted that the 2008 crash could lead to a delayed re-emergence of protest culture in America. He believes that’s part of what we’re seeing now.
“There is outrage among a certain segment of the population about the things Donald Trump has said and threatened to do. That’s the immediate trigger for these protests,” said Roberts. “But we also have to understand that we’re in a period of economic and political upheaval more broadly. Those are conditions under which you should expect protests.
“It‘’s kind of like a forest fire: There’s a spark that starts the fire, but there were environmental conditions already in place that allowed it to happen.”