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The Summer of Protest

Massive demonstrations have engulfed the government in Hong Kong, while protests in Puerto Rico led to the governor’s resignation. Protests against President Trump, however, haven’t had nearly the same political effect.

Elias Stein/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

On Wednesday, Hong Kong International Airport resumed service for some flights after two days of cancellations and chaos, the result of mass demonstrations by several thousand antigovernment protesters. The protests were the latest in a series of demonstrations by citizens five months after Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, proposed a controversial bill that would have allowed the Hong Kong government to extradite criminal suspects to mainland China, which was viewed by many as an attempt by the Chinese government to exert its authority on the semi-autonomous territory. Hong Kong residents have long been wary of interference from the Chinese communist government. The protests have hindered the international finance hub and infuriated Chinese officials while humiliating Lam and throwing her leadership into crisis. In a Tuesday press conference, Lam warned the protesters against pushing Hong Kong “into the abyss.”

In Puerto Rico, Governor Ricardo Rosselló announced his resignation on July 24 amid public uproar after disparaging comments he made about women, gays, and Hurricane Maria casualties were made public. Hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets in Puerto Rico in demonstrations that lasted more than a week. On separate ends of the world, mass protests in the summer of 2019 have brought two leaderships to its knees. What they both have in common is broad mobilization and spectacular clarity in their demands for new leadership. Days before Rosselló’s comments were made public, the FBI arrested two senior officials from his administration on corruption charges. The U.S. territory’s highest court rejected Rosselló’s initial successor; last week, Puerto Rico appointed Wanda Vázquez as its new governor, its third in the span of a week.

Resistance to U.S. President Donald Trump has so far failed to achieve such decisive confrontations even as Trump’s policies, and his personal conduct, have provoked many protests. Last Friday, Trump raised $12 million at two private fundraisers in the Hamptons, the first of which was hosted by Stephen Ross, a billionaire businessman and owner of the Miami Dolphins. Ross’s support of Trump alarmed progressive activists given Ross’s investment in Equinox and SoulCycle—two upscale gym franchises—and many of their members scrambled to cancel subscriptions and classes. The Equinox–SoulCycle revelation provoked a familiar post-Trump backlash pattern: a social media campaign prompts a consumer boycott, which is followed by corporate apologies, but otherwise, ultimately, business resumes as usual. Ross hosted Trump in the Hamptons as planned. The activists punished two companies. But Trump, the ultimate subject of anti-Trump activism, goes unscathed.

Anti-Trump protests during this presidency often make for grand spectacles, but support for them is usually fragmented, and their effect ambiguous. The earliest anti-Trump activism inspired massive public mobilization in the form of the 2017 Women’s March, which dwarfed the estimated 500,000 who gathered at the National Mall for Trump’s inauguration on January 20. The following day, more than 3 million people attended Women’s Marches in cities and towns throughout the country, making it the largest demonstration in U.S. history. The second Women’s March, on January 20, 2018, was the second-largest demonstration, and more than a million protesters took part. But the first Women’s March was, arguably, the peak for anti-Trump protest. In January 2019—three months after Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court—the third Women’s March dipped to 700,000 protestors. The massive energy has dispersed, though it’s hardly dissipated. The past couple of years in anti-Trump defiance have been defined more by pop-up protests, social media boycotts, and antifa rallies, which have proved more scattered and controversial than the massive, sweeping marches that have destabilized governments in Hong Kong and Puerto Rico.

Of course, the Hong Kong airport protest from the past weekend recalls January 2017, when U.S. protestors descended on major airports nationwide, including JFK and LAX, to protest Trump’s fifth executive order, the notorious “Muslim travel ban.” The overwhelming backlash forced Trump to rescind the ban and then reintroduce a revised ban. The Supreme Court upheld the revised ban last summer; it prohibits most immigrants and visitors from Iran, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and North Korea. It was another example of how impervious Trump’s Republican rule has been to public demonstrations. The problem wasn’t with the protestors, their numbers, nor their methods of demonstration. It’s one thing to oppose Trump. But the president’s critics in the streets have yet to overwhelm him in a meaningful way. Their calls for Trump’s impeachment strain to reach even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.