U.S. Trump protests were huge, support abroad made them historic

Unexpected global protests may boost clout of American opposition

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Last week’s protests of America’s new president, Donald Trump, may have been the largest political demonstration in American history.

Equally astounding, hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, marched and protested outside of the new Great Wall of America in solidarity with the Trump resistance here. An estimated 100,000 people in London; uncounted thousands in Paris and large assemblies in Barcelona, Rome, Amsterdam, Oslo, Geneva, Budapest, Prague and Berlin; marches in Vancouver, Melbourne, Auckland, Lima, Cape Town, Tel Aviv, Mexico City and scores more.

Stop and think on that for a moment.

Can you imagine a crowd of even a thousand Americans protesting in solidarity with British opponents of Brexit, Putin’s conquest of the Crimea, the rise of right-wing nationalist parties in Europe or even atrocities in Syria and Iraq? I think not. Politically, America is self-centered.

This extraordinary wave of concerted global expression left me mulling a number of questions and ideas, some troubling, some hopeful.

It convinced me more than ever that a large slab of the American electorate that disliked Trump still sleepwalked through the election, complacent about his chances and destructiveness. Our growing lack of civic literacy made this easier. Foreign watchers were quicker to recognize the potential danger of Trump’s authoritarian style, because most countries have confronted tyrants in their histories, old or recent.

Across the world, educated people as well as those connected to working-class political parties, labor unions and movements that resisted authoritarian, fascist or totalitarian regimes had no trouble recognizing Trump for what he is — an entertaining clown, sure, but a true enemy of democracy. So it did not take sophisticated organizing to bring out the crowds overseas last week.

Americans simply don’t rank well on historical knowledge. Young people especially lack the historical imagination to think it plausible that our basic democracy could crack up. So too many young people stayed home in November. And too many voters couldn’t overcome their understandable mistrust of Hillary Clinton because they didn’t really believe Trump could mess up our solid system.

Voters in many of the worlds’ democracies are watching right-wing nationalist or even fascist parties grow in their own countries or in their neighbors’.

The French are facing the prospect of Marie LePen as their president, which terrifies much of Europe. In Germany, Angela Merkel, Europe’s dominant head of state, might well lose in the 2017 election, to the delight of Russia, the anti-EU movement and Europe’s radical right. In Africa, dictatorships are entrenched and every bit as threatening as any terrorist movement. In South Africa, the era of juntas and authoritarian butchers ended not very long ago. Several countries, led by Brazil, are clinging to legitimacy.

It is in the context of their realities that observers abroad assess Trump. On a simpler level it is naturally worrisome when the most powerful country in the world breaks 200 years of civic habits and elects an iconoclastic, impulsive, unpredictable celebrity with no experience in politics, government, the military or any type of public service. The relish with which he insults whole religions, countries and ethnic groups may not be a source of great global comfort either. America’s current political condition is confusing and worrisome from many perspectives.

American perspectives on Trump are probably less complicated: You detest him or you’re passionately rooting for him to break all the china in Washington.

The American political debate and worldview always has been what one might ironically call, “America First.” With oceans on two sides and friendly neighbors on top and bottom, America could afford to be self-centered and cocky for most of its history. In this election, a minuscule number of voters, for example, weighed Trump in the context of a global rise in right-wing nationalism. His coziness with Vladimir Putin, for example, does not much bother his core backers.

There is high-level concern here that Trump’s “America First” slogan signals his intentional ambition to return antique isolationism; that would entail reducing U.S. military presence around the world; abandoning security agreements and institutions such as NATO, and with it the shared Western commitment to cooperation, not unilateralism, as the best option to pursue a more peaceful world; ending American efforts to promote democracy abroad; radically curtailing immigration and, of course, protectionist trade policy.

I see no evidence that Trump’s vision is that coherent. He is adamant that he will build up the military, probably because he might want to use it sometime. He doesn’t want to withdraw from the world economy, he wants America to use its clout to exploit it and get more deals. He doesn’t want to break security treaties in principle, but because he thinks they can be moneymaking deals and tools to strong-arm uppity allies.

The truth is, no one has a clue what Trump will do.

But it would be well for the American opposition to learn from the global allies that took up their cause last week. Sustained international opposition, official and activist, on top of American resistance (if it is sustained too, an open question), might help construct curbs on Trumpism, whatever that turns out to be.

Renouncing “America First” and all its connotations is one good, symbolic step.

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