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The high risk and low reward of harassing Trump officials

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© Win McNamee/Getty Images Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

By Noah Millman, The Week

In February 1960, four black students walked into Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at the lunch counter, and attempted to order coffee. As the segregated establishment catered to whites only, nobody would serve them. Waitresses ignored their attempts to get their attention and place orders. Other (white) patrons either ignored them as well or made it clear by word and deed that they should move on.

Those four students never got served that day. But they returned the following day with hundreds of compatriots. From Greensboro, their protest spread across the South. Black would-be patrons were harassed, verbally and physically abused, but they ultimately prevailed. Woolworths desegregated in July 1960, and the movement for civil rights only continued to spread.

What got me thinking about this bit of American history is the recent brouhaha about a restaurant in Virginia refusing to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders because of her role as propagandist for the Trump administration.

I can already hear the sputtering outrage. I'm not seriously going to compare Sanders to David Richmond or Joseph McNeil, am I?

Of course I'm not. Sanders is in no meaningful sense a member of an oppressed minority seeking justice. More to the point, it is a birthright of all Americans to express themselves to their public officials in whatever terms they prefer, and remind them at whose pleasure they serve.

I make the comparison only to ask a pointed question: Why did that 1960 protest work? Why didn't the dominant white power structure of North Carolina succeed in upholding the social norm of segregation — as they had in the face of previous efforts to challenge white supremacy? And what does the answer say about the prospects of harassing Trump officials to effect change?

A complete answer would be extremely lengthy, and would require reference to the legacy of World War II, the global context of decolonization and the Cold War battle for hearts and minds, changing communications technologies that brought the civil rights movement into people's living rooms — not to mention the burgeoning capabilities of an increasingly educated and politically aware cadre of African-American citizens — among other things. But all of these factors serve to explain why America's national leadership — the federal government, the heads of major corporations, and so forth — might have chosen at that point in history to incline slightly more towards black protesters who wanted to change the status quo than towards the white leadership of the South that wanted to preserve it, which it had historically been more inclined to appease.

That — America's national leadership — was the ultimate target of the protesters. Because without a well of national support outside the South, the movement had very little prospect of forcing change. And that's what they needed to do — force change — because the local power structure in the South was not going to change in the face of mere moral suasion.

And that's the reason why I bring up the denial of service to Sanders.

The advocates of harassment — like Maxine Waters — claim that their goal is to make service in the Trump administration so unappealing that officials decide it's just not worth it. That's very similar to the goal of the white patrons of Woolworth's who jeered at black protesters, dumped milk on their heads, and otherwise harassed them: They hoped to make them give up and leave. Such tactics might work in any individual case, but when they do, their effectiveness depends not on publicity but on isolation: convincing the victim that they are alone, and that nobody supports them.

There are plenty of places in America that are, indeed, overwhelmingly anti-Trump — Washington, D.C. being one of them — and it would probably be possible to construct a local monopoly of sentiment that made life truly unpleasant for Trump officials, or even Trump supporters, in those places. But is there any reason why the larger power structure would want to appease those local monopolies? It's hard to see why — particularly when the leadership of that power structure is itself the ultimate target of that harassment. It's far easier to see how that power structure — particularly if it is as incipiently-authoritarian as its opponents sometimes claim — would be delighted by the opportunity to deploy that power in the service of repression.

A number of Democratic officeholders and media organs have objected to this kind of harassment on the grounds of incivility, and continued erosion of democratic norms. But I suspect this is mostly disingenuous. What was left of civility in our politics was banished in 2016, and the comfort of the lunching powerful is a far from compelling card with which to trump a cry for justice. Their real objection is not that such behavior is uncivil or immoral, but that it can only work if one already has a preponderance of power, which the Democrats and other anti-Trump forces at this time most emphatically do not have. And they don't say so because to dwell on weakness is demoralizing.

To actually force change, the opposition doesn't need to be civil, or to consider the feelings of its opponents. It needs to achieve a preponderance of power. But how they should seek to do that depends very much on what one thinks the nature of the Trump regime is.

If this administration is an odious and cruel one, but fundamentally normal in that it depends on democratic legitimacy for its authority, then the overwhelming goal of the opposition should be to win the next election, and win it as big as possible. Essentially everything else should be subordinated to that goal. And, certainly, goosing turnout is at least as important as winning over the wavering in such a calculation. If Democratic-leaning voters in Arizona, Florida, and Missouri will be energized by these kinds of tactics, then by all means, show Trump officials all the contempt you feel they deserve. I wouldn't bet that way myself, but that is the bet in question, because those voters are your targets, for everything you do.

But if this administration is something more dangerous, a genuine threat to democracy itself, then another calculation needs to be made.

Incipiently authoritarian regimes derive their fundamental legitimacy not from the procedural operation of democracy but from the unified support of a large and powerful enough faction, typically allied with the organs of state violence. The military; the police; the owners and operators of the enterprises, from farms to factories, that keep the economy functioning — these segments of society are the ones most inclined to prize order over other public goods and thus the ones an authoritarian regime would rely upon to maintain power if majority popular support slipped away. In the South of 1960, they were united behind state-sanctioned segregation, and they were prepared to use not only harassment but terrorist violence to ensure that an integrated electoral majority would not arise to challenge that unity. And until the national power structure shifted, they could get away with it.

If the opposition is genuinely worried that the Trump administration would like to establish a regime of that character, then their most important objective must be to prevent that eventuality. In which case, in addition to seeking a popular mandate, they need to strive mightily to prevent the unification of a faction of that sort, to convince prospective components of that dangerous coalition that the Trump administration is a threat to them, and to popular order, that needs to be checked.

Perhaps that fear is overblown. If it is, then we can all take our rhetoric down a notch without fearing that we're worrying about etiquette while the fascists take over. But if it isn't, then it's hard to see how standing for disorder, howsoever just the cause, can aid in stopping them.

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