What’s the Use in Disrupting Donald Trump?

Jim Burba and Bob Hayes

For the first several months of Donald Trump’s campaign, he built his candidacy around unapologetic — and often unchallenged — racism and xenophobia, rattling off sweeping generalizations about entire swaths of people. A skilled media navigator, he deftly avoided the self-destruction predicted by pundits because of his outright falsehoods and unenforceable “policy” proposals.

Along the way, he bullied and belittled journalists from national outlets and local newspapers. When he didn’t like how an interview went, Trump sometimes barred the entire outlet from obtaining press credentials for his rallies. Just ask The Des Moines Register, whose reporters were denied access to Iowa events last July after the paper ran an editorial calling on Trump to drop out. 

Reporters granted access get relegated to approved media “pens,” policed by Trump staffers ready to kick out any rogue journalist who dares to step outside their designated space. Sometimes, those regulations have allegedly resulted in violent confrontations, like when a TIME magazine photographer was thrown to ground, or as the battery charges filed last month against Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandoski demonstrate.

Activists watched all this. They watched as Trump was the only presidential candidate regularly allowed to literally “phone it in” on morning and prime-time national news programs, when other candidates stopped by studios or responded directly to reporters’ questions via live video feeds.

In this kind of environment, with a candidate so effectively controlling his media portrayal, it’s no surprise that journalists — facing an unyielding pressure to bring eye balls to their outlets, which Trump reliably does — were accused of failing to call out the GOP front-runner’s distortions.

So dissatisfied activists started doing it for them. When thousands of anti-Trump demonstrators effectively shut down a planned rally in Chicago, pundits across the country — and the ideological divide — began paying attention. The multifaceted demonstration was led primarily by LGBT people, undocumented youth, and people of color, and it signaled a turning point for the visibility of anti-Trump protesters.

“These protestors have been able to shape and influence the conversation,” says Angelo Carusone, vice president of progressive media watchdog nonprofit Media Matters and an early adopter of calls to #DumpTrump. Carusone argues that disrupting Trump rallies is a powerful way to undermine one of the most potent aspects of what he calls the Trump Phenomenon: the candidate’s uncanny ability “to manufacture and then subsequently harness and command so much media attention.” 

“They've also demonstrated to others that they are a part of this conversation, and that [others targeted by Trump’s rhetoric] can stick up for themselves,” he continues. “That had a big effect on catalyzing all the necessary components for the media to really shift… its coverage and be somewhat more accurate and comprehensive in exactly what was taking place at these events.”

That’s exactly what the demonstrations were intended to do, LGBT organizers of anti-Trump actions in several states tell The Advocate. When progressive advocates in Arizona and Wisconsin learned that Trump was scheduled to speak in their states, they immediately started organizing. 

“We wanted to put pressure on the [Janesville, Wis.] Holiday Inn to cancel Trump's event so he wouldn't be able to spread the Trump Effect,” says Z! Haukeness, a 34-year-old queer trans person living in Madison who uses the gender-neutral pronouns “they” and “them.” Haukeness was part of a coalition of social justice groups in Wisconsin that protested Trump’s speeches there. They define “the Trump Effect” as “violence and policies that have been echoing across the country, fueled by his hate speech.”

“Our actions were part of a growing effort to disrupt or shut down Trump’s events,” Haukeness confirms. “We wanted to continue in this line of resistance as a way to encourage others to do the same.” The demonstrations were organized by a diverse coalition of groups, including local chapters of Black Lives Matter, Mijente/#Not1More, Black Youth Project 100, DREAMers, and Idle No More.

Ben Laughlin, a 28-year-old genderqueer activist in Phoenix who uses male pronouns, agrees about the underlying goal of the disruptions. 

“Trump’s extremism has made space for what’s acceptable to say and believe about immigrants and immigration to be pushed a lot further right,” says Laughlin, who was arrested for his role in a physical blockade outside a scheduled Trump rally near Phoenix in mid-March. “It is clear for us that the legislative assaults on LGBTQ people, immigrants, and women are not separate.”

“We’ve seen the violence inside of Trump’s rallies escalating rapidly, and tensions are extremely high,” acknowledges Laughlin, who was effectively outed after media coverage of his arrest misgendered him. “For our group, the potential of the situation to become seriously dangerous and violent outweighed a temporary interruption. Through the blockade, we had an opportunity to show a united resistance to Trump’s messages of racism and hate, and the best way for our particular group to do that was by keeping him from having a crowd to spread his violent message to.”

Civil disobedience like that employed by Haukeness, Laughlin, and their allies around the country, provides a compelling visual component for the media's reports, a sort of counter-frame to Trump’s unapologetic hate speech.

“That kind of visceral, high-value reaction is powerful,” says Media Matters’ Carusone. “Not just for influencing the media conversation, but in the same way that Donald Trump uses [that media attention] for bad purposes, these protests have the capacity to do it for good purposes. They help shape the narrative in a way that balances out some of the nastiness that he is putting out there for self-serving purposes.”

But that assessment is far from universal. After the high-profile cancellation of Trump’s Chicago rally, numerous pundits and activists speculated that the disruption actually emboldened Trump supporters and drew some undecided primary voters into his camp. 

“There are very few situations when disruption of an event is valuable,” says Jimmy LaSalvia, an out gay man and former president of LGBT Republican group GOProud. “There are some, but for the most part it just creates victimhood for the entity being protested. The last thing any anti-Trump person should want is a situation that makes him a sympathetic figure. At this point, that’s what the disrupters are doing.”

Noting that he personally supports Hillary Clinton for president, LaSalvia dismissed the Trump disruptions as a “stunt” that’s “lost its impact, if it even had any to begin with.” 

“Voting for other candidates is the biggest, most impactful way to register displeasure with Trump,” LaSalvia concludes. “Most Americans accept and embrace our diversity. That’s why, ultimately, a culturally modern candidate with a vision of an America that includes everyone will win in November.”

But that pragmatism was rejected by the demonstrators who spoke with The Advocate.

“If what it takes to send a strong and clear message that the kind of hate Trump is spreading isn’t going to fly in our communities, isn’t part of the Arizona we’re trying to build, then interrupting someone’s day is worth it,” says Laughlin of his response to critics of the blockade. 

“There is a growing group of people who want to stop [Trump’s] hate speech,” adds Haukeness. “We want to disrupt him beforehand. We want venues to choose not to host him because of the backlash they will get and because of the negative effect it will have on their community and employees. We want to disrupt his speech while he's speaking, and we want to shut down the roads leading to his events. We want people to know that there is a multiracial movement of people who are against the Trump Effect and for racial justice.”

While there may be no single “right” way to protest Donald Trump, progressive and LGBT organizations have expressed support for those on the ground willing to put their safety on the line to speak out against what they consider hate speech. 

“Trump has shown that hate-based politics are very much alive,” says Russell Roybal, deputy executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force. “It is always the right time to stand up to hate — and I suspect that this is very much in the minds of the many people who have had the courage to stand up to the Trump machine.” 

As for the value of such disruptions in any form, Roybal, speaking on behalf of the National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, is blunt: “The value is democracy. Democracy in action. It shows that people — a great many people — oppose his controversial views and are moved to action.”

Both protesters who spoke with The Advocate agree that how a given community responds to a Trump rally should be determined by the people of that community, especially the marginalized individuals targeted by Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. They hope the ongoing demonstrations will continue to mobilize wide intersections of Americans who believe there's no room for hate in their states. 

“I don’t think there is one right way to protest Trump,” says Laughlin. “The only right way is to make sure that we do it at every opportunity.”

Haukeness is more definitive: “If there is a way that is going to interrupt his harmful comments, disrupt the narrative he has been feeding people, and interrupt his possibilities of being elected, then this is the right way.”

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