I decided to attend the recent Trump rally in West Chester, just so I could see, firsthand, what it really feels like inside the spectacle we’ve seen on television. After reflecting for several days, I’m more disappointed in the protesters than the kind of people who would consider voting for Trump in the first place.
I’m inclined to feel a nebulous sort of solidarity with progressives who mount marches and protests — and, while hundreds of people brought a hullabaloo to West Chester, what did they accomplish? Making noise and getting on TV? Sure, there were a couple of people who tried to interact directly with Trump supporters, such as the three Muslims who wanted to prove not all Muslims are bad because they handed out donuts. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I don’t think a misinformed foreign policy position is going to be radically transformed by a sugary breakfast treat.
Don’t get me wrong: I recognize the fact I agree with the sentiment on most of the handmade signs protesters held in the air that day. Like them, I oppose hatred and racism. I’m just not sure what a sign at a Trump rally is supposed to do about those facts. If anything, I think this sort of behavior just activates “The Backfire Effect.”
If you haven’t heard of The Backfire Effect, it is a fascinatingly unfortunate reality of many of our psychologies. Sometimes, when presented with opposing views (or even facts that contradict deeply held beliefs), we are simply inclined to double-down, and believe what we already did even more. I’m sure Trump supporters saw a bunch of liberals being loud and trying to cause trouble. And I’m sure protesters saw thousands of mindless white people casting their support, inexplicably, for a cartoonish billionaire.
One protester had an illustrated sign, with drawings of two penises – one large, and one small. Replacing images for words, the sign read “My penis is bigger than Trump’s penis.” What possible productive thing did that guy think he was going to accomplish as he drew cartoon penises on his protest sign?
On the inside, I had an hour-long conversation with a farmer from about 50 miles north of West Chester. I mostly just listened. By his own admission, he was not college educated. Based on the evolving opinions of his daughter, currently in college, he wonders if colleges try to turn people liberal. I certainly didn’t agree with many of his views, but I can’t say that I find his support of Trump totally ridiculous. He doesn’t see the same Trump I see. Maybe it’s because he’s uneducated. Maybe it’s because he is a self-employed businessman. I don’t know. It certainly isn’t because he is some sort of hate-filled monster.
Trump said some crazy things at the rally – but, taken as a whole (as opposed to an outrageous soundbite only) he comes across as an engaging speaker. I’m not defending him. He’s totally ego-maniacal, and shallow. At the same time, he has some charm. It’s what attracts his supporters to him. Undoubtedly, they just don’t hear the same things I hear.
The rally itself certainly had a great energy, in that people were cheering, and clapping, and smiling. The friend I was with, noticing all this exuberance, made an observation about the protesters, and his criticism has haunted me for the past several days.
When someone asked why he would possibly want to attend a Trump rally, he pointed out how the seats we occupied meant two less Trump supporters would be able to attend. There were only about 1,200 seats in this particular venue.
Why were the protesters all outside, making noise of no consequence, with at least one guy bragging about his penis size? Why weren’t they all inside, taking seats away from Trump supporters? Imagine, my friend hypothesized, if even just two hundred seats were taken up by protesters, and all they did was sit silently. It would have totally ruined the vibe in the room. It would have significantly killed the spirit of the rally, and made the whole thing rather awkward.
This awkwardness would be markedly different from when two alleged “Bernie fans” stood up while Trump was talking so they could hold up their Bernie signs. It felt, to me, like those people were plants – part of the spectacle, giving everyone someone to “boo” at for fun. If they weren’t plants, then I can’t possibly imagine what point there is to holding up a “Bernie” sign in a Trump rally for 30 seconds before being escorted out. It’s like protesting has been replaced by spectacle.
When I see those old photographs of white people protesting school integration, screaming in the face of little black children, I realize those protests were for a purpose. Those racists wanted to intimidate the black families attempting integration. It took bravery to walk past them into the school. They weren’t there to create a spectacle, but to try and accomplish something. I’m not supporting them, just making an observation about utility. Their protest had a goal.
If there was a goal to the Trump protests, I have no idea what it could have been, other than to make the protesters feel like they did something. I’m sure seeing themselves in the news later made them feel good about the whole thing. But really, I think they just added to the spectacle – because that’s what politics are these days, especially in the Age of Trump.
Trump has learned how to get the cameras to point his way. I guess the protesters got the cameras pointed their way. Each side can walk away from such a scenario with their pre-existing views concretized. I’m not sure what good that does any of us.