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Let Them Eat Hate: The Pop-Up Protests of a Weakened Democratic Party

Outrage at the Trump administration has traveled beyond the halls of government and beyond Twitter, into bars and restaurants. But is it anything more than a wail from a helpless resistance?

An elephant being refused service at a restaurant serving donkeys Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the past couple of months, the Trump administration’s key figureheads have fled various restaurants and shops in fear for their dignity. They’ve brought the great national pretense of “civility” crashing down all around them, and, now, upon them. In public, protesters humiliate President Donald Trump’s allies on sight.

Three weeks ago several protesters chased the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, from a Mexican restaurant in Washington, D.C. About a week later, a Lexington, Virginia, restaurant refused to serve the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, citing the Trump administration’s immigration policy as well as its restrictions against transgender soldiers serving in the armed services. Last week a D.C. bartender chased down the senior White House strategist Stephen Miller—the most notorious figure in Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy—after he left a restaurant with take-out. (Reportedly, Miller then tossed his $80 sushi order into the trash.) Speaking to The Washington Post, Kellyanne Conway recalled being heckled at a D.C. supermarket, though these rebellious encounters spread beyond the Beltway this week. In Richmond, an outraged woman confronted Steve Bannon in a bookstore. In Louisville, protesters have routed the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, from two different restaurants in two days. The protesters threaten pestilence wherever these people go. Reportedly, the protests have taken a great toll on their targets, who now vent to one another—and to The Washington Post—about the populist efforts to drive them out of town.

Despite the stark and favorable ethics, the Democratic Party is struggling to interpret and legitimize the angst of its own voters. Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, representing a California district, encouraged the targeted protests against Nielsen and Sanders. “If you see anybody from that Cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them and you tell them they’re not welcome,” Waters told a Los Angeles rally. “I have no sympathy for these people that are in this administration who know it is wrong, what they’re doing,” she later told MSNBC. For a week, Republican lawmakers called on Waters to apologize and resign for “endangering their lives and sowing seeds of discord.” More surprisingly, the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, distanced the rest of the Democratic caucus from Waters’s incitement. “Trump’s daily lack of civility has provoked responses that are predictable but unacceptable,” Pelosi tweeted. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, went so far as to describe Waters’s call for “harassment” as “not right” and “not American.”

Ultimately, Trump dismantled the highly protested practice of separating detained immigrant parents from their children at the border by executive order, no thanks to the elected officials who spent weeks pantomiming their formal, but immaterial opposition to Trump. In Congress, Trump’s immigration policies have become a bipartisan quagmire. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has gone so far as to uphold Trump’s travel ban against visitors from several countries with large Muslim populations. Since Trump’s inauguration, immigration policy has proved to be the most frequently divisive, and unpopular, plank of the president’s agenda. But it’s hardly the only hopeless front for the president’s critics. This week, Trump’s nomination of conservative jurist Brett Kavanaugh to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court stoked fears about the fate of U.S. abortion rights by way of Roe v. Wade. Already, the Senate Democrats have struggled to present themselves as a united front against Trump, as far as Kavanaugh is concerned. Congress seamlessly confirmed Trump’s previous Supreme Court nominee, the conservative justice Neil Gorsuch. For Trump’s critics, the Kavanaugh confirmation is yet another inevitability that no single election—not the upcoming midterms, not the 2020 race—can undo. Hence, the great demoralization among Trump’s critics. Hence, the wave of pop-up protests.

The dinnertime protests are exceptional if only because they’re popular among the president’s critics. For the first time in 50 years, this sort of left-wing rabble-rousing is en vogue. As recently as a decade ago, it was quite decidedly out of fashion. Trump’s election may mark a crisis of the American political imagination, but his administration is hardly the first to provoke a political crisis by endangering lives. The Iraq War was a political crisis, too. In the previous decade, there was no one more vehemently opposed to the war than Code Pink, the women’s antiwar group that protested the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq rather notoriously throughout the 2000s. Before and after the invasion, which quickly proved to be a disaster in political and humanitarian terms, a bipartisan consensus regarded Code Pink—“possibly America’s silliest anti-war organization”—as a joke and its rebellious antics as an illiberal tantrum. Code Pink was the Kool-Aid Man of Democratic politics under George W. Bush: a loud, unwelcome, and undignified operation. Code Pink were “hippies,” and there was no greater offense than reanimating the most broadly rebellious decade in U.S. history—the 1960s. In the half-century since left-wing marchers agitated for various civil rights reforms at every level of government, U.S. culture has mocked and repressed disruptive political energy. A decade after the Democratic Party shipwrecked under Richard Nixon, the Ronald Reagan years—the 1980s—established “civility” as the illusory, but nonetheless dominant mode of “dignified” American politics, even in the face of great malfeasance. Such as the AIDS crisis. Such as Iraq.

The great power imbalance between Trump and his opponents has shattered the pretense, perhaps irreparably. In Congress, Pelosi and Schumer suffer limited options for intimidating the Trump administration. The Democrats are a weakened minority party, representing historically vulnerable demographic factions, overrun by the GOP’s total domination of the federal government. Their base is poorly served and terrified. The GOP has been out of control, rather proudly, and exponentially, for the past 10 years and counting. In the final years of a wild decade, civility—as a political program—has disintegrated. There’s no vapid and peaceful consensus to be struck; no broadly bipartisan legislation to tout; no apolitical decorum to restore. We are all Code Pink now.

An earlier version of this story misdescribed the location of the restaurant that refused to serve Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Red Hen is in southwest Virginia, not in the northern part of the state.