September 23, 2019

The protest diet

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I sat in a salon chair in Santa Monica watching the largest mass mobilization in American history stream on my iPhone.

I had mistakenly scheduled a hair appointment the morning of the Women’s March, which couldn’t be canceled without penalty, but I confess I was a little relieved to have an excuse not to go. One day in and already I was sick and tired of feeling outraged. The thought of “four more years” made me want to decamp to an island in the Far East or take a cryogenic nap. Just wake me up when it’s over.

The indignation I felt wasn’t a spontaneous feeling ignited by the advent of the Trump administration 24 hours earlier, but the result of a daily throbbing anger in my blood that had been rushing like rapids throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Call me shallow, obtuse or complacent, but all I wanted was to have my hair cut in peace.

Yet as I sat in the chair listening to the speakers from the Women’s March on Washington and turned to my Twitter feed to find an equally powerful protest fomenting in Los Angeles, I decided I couldn’t in good conscience miss out on joining the resistance — something important and powerful was happening. Who would I be if I stayed home? If the leader of your country violates your principles, how could you not take to the streets?

A week later, we were at it again, this time in protest of Trump’s executive order banning all immigration from seven Muslim-majority  countries for 90 days. Syrian immigration had been postponed indefinitely. And even those with green cards were given the shaft. Since constitutionality is always up for debate — which is why we have a judicial system — it’s worth noting that the latter was perhaps the most unconstitutional of the orders, and so the White House later let one wall fall round its Emerald City.

But this significant correction does not mean the protest prevailed. It means there were still other offenses to protest.

I hesitated less the second time around, mostly because I believe in my core that we must live out our values with our feet. It’s easy to talk and write about what we think, feel and believe. It’s harder to get up and do something about it. That goes for whichever side of the aisle you’re on — and it’s why Trump won the election. He mobilized key voters in the states that mattered most while disillusioned Democrats defected or abstained.

But Trump supporters had to show up only once. And now, the rest of us, angry and disillusioned as ever, have to show up again and again and again. Maybe every week — for four years.

“Protest is the new brunch,” read the most clever sign from last Sunday’s immigration ban protest.

But if I was tired on Day One — from the divisiveness and the disagreement, the distractions and the injustices — how the heck am I going to keep up the energy for an entire term? This is no longer about politics; it’s about stamina.

“It’s like the ’60s all over again,” my 70-year-old Hollywood agent friend told me last week. “Every day, there’s some new outrage.”

The brunch metaphor is apt because it suggests that in our current political climate, protests will become normative: They will provide routine and they will build social capital. They will serve as political resistance, but they also will be fun. They build community. They provide purpose. And when you’re fighting injustice, they alleviate feelings of helplessness.

But also: They feel good. New York Times columnist David Brooks likened them to “mass therapy.”

But is that enough to effect real change?

“Protests are like one food group of a balanced diet,” my friend Joseph Sanberg, an entrepreneur and investor, told me. “They are an important component of expressing democracy, but there are other important components, too, like living our lives, having meaningful relationships, helping those in need through direct delivery of services. We have to balance between engaging the urgent and important, and the long term. If we all obsess over the sensational, who’s obsessing over creating economic security for American families or writing the next great American novel?”

To achieve its aims, the protest movement has to decide what its aims actually are. It needs to be less reactive and more proactive; just because you get together doesn’t mean you’re organized. So far, Trump is the only one setting the agenda. And he’s keeping protesters so busy with each new outrage, they barely have time to focus on a single issue, let alone recharge for the next fight.

What human being could sustain that kind of active outrage each day for 1,448 more days?

“One time-tested tactic used to distract people throughout history is you exhaust their bandwidth for rage,” Sanberg said. “By distracting us with every daily outrage, we become distracted from the core battles we have to fight. They become marginal.”

If protest is the new brunch, then better make sure you eat first.

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.