Some of us look at the outrage sparked by Donald Trump’s policies, and wonder why the same outrage wasn’t expressed when Barack Obama pursued similar policies. Obama’s expansion of surveillance powers, increased use of assassination, and refusal to accept a proportionate number of Syrian refugees; all of these should be offensive to anybody who prizes the post-WWII values that were amongst the twentieth century’s few redeeming features. Yet it’s a random executive order prohibiting a small group of foreign nationals from entering the US that spark sufficient outrage to mobilise otherwise placid citizens onto airport tarmac.
Reactionaries use this as a stick to beat their fellow citizens with. Their fallacious argument is that if you didn’t protest before, your protest now is just for show – “virtue signalling”, the bogus and meaningless accusation only ever made by the morally bankrupt. Certainly the current demonstrations are partly a function of in-group formation, as people who have a visceral objection to Donald Trump (i.e. most of those who have been paying attention) rally around the available issues to cement their political identity. Yet this doesn’t invalidate their protests either – just because you have elected to join a cause does not mean that cause is invalid.
More importantly, just because you didn’t protest yesterday does not mean that your protest today is either meaningless or superficial. Civic unrest relies on a series of tipping points. Everybody has their own tipping point for civic action – the point at which they will contact their elected representative, or join a street demonstration, or set fire to a limousine. As more people around them engage in these activities, the social cost of this type of action goes down and the social permission goes up. This type of dynamic is easy to observe; it neither validates nor invalidates the cause that is being promoted or the policy that is being pursued.
This also explains the principle behind not allowing fascists a public platform. Anti-fascists realise that every time a fascist appears in a public forum – even if they are challenged in that forum – a small minority of people reach their tipping point, and begin to actively engage with fascist activity, even if only in the tiniest of ways. Antifa policy now faces two significant problems: first, the internet makes it impossible to no-platform comprehensively; second, the current US administration and rising European far right have already reached a critical mass that provides cover for fascist ideology to flourish, even when politicians are not themselves fascist.
Personally I’m entirely sympathetic to US protests against the policies of Donald Trump, and also supportive of punching Nazis on camera. I have questions about whether people are directing their outrage in the most productive way, but I’m glad they’re directing their outrage somewhere beneficial. Attempts to delegitimize those protests as “fake outrage” are a frankly bullshit tactic, usually wielded by people who have been so atomised that they themselves feel no stake in the collective good of their country, but who would seek to denigrate (and often deny) their fellow citizens one of the key tools available to those citizens in a democracy.
What’s happening is simple: by pursuing an accelerated programme of poorly-planned executive orders without consultation, the administration pushed a large number of people over their tipping point. All three factors play a role: an accelerated programme is more shocking than gradual introduction, poor planning exposes lack of competency, and the lack of consultation reveals a disregard for the norms and laws that constrain authoritarianism. There wouldn’t be so many protestors in the street if the administration had paid attention – but none of that would mean anything if the content of those policies was not terrible to begin with.