We’re Starting to Give Up: The Decline of Political Activism in Trump’s America

There is a new trend in the fluctuation of social justice. It is a downward trend, a graph with a pathetic dip toward the x-axis. It seems that the turnover time between the presentation of a particular political or social issue and the U.S. government’s response to that issue has increased, creating a massive lag in the resolution of these issues. As of the late 2010s, we have begun to watch the U.S. government drag its feet. 

For example, various movements and countercultures attempting to stifle the accessibility of firearms dating back to 1813 have relentlessly illustrated many Americans’ disdain for the accessibility of firearms. And yet, as of 2019, the U.S. has a higher number of guns per capita than any other nation, with roughly 50% of American households possessing at least one gun. There have been 369 mass shootings in 2019 alone, as of November 17th, making 2019 the second year in which the number of mass shootings outpaces the number of days in the year. Protests occur nearly every single day in a desperate plea for change or perhaps even just the acknowledgement that reform is necessary. But Congress sits idle, the NRA loses no sleep, and the President relaxes in his large office chair, crafting a Tweet while enjoying his hearty morning breakfast.

A similar story pans out in regards to the relationship between people of color and the police. This injustice has been present in America since ships carrying thousands of captured and enslaved Africans hit the American shore. From the multiple deaths linked to police brutality throughout the civil rights protests of the 1950s and ‘60s to the violent assault of an unarmed black man named Rodney King in 1991, the police — alongside the entire judicial system — have shown no inclination to mitigate or even address their systemic violence against people of color. As of 2015, 99% of police brutality cases in America have not resulted in a conviction or punishment of any kind. And yet again, the Supreme Court sits idle, the police lose no sleep, and the President rises from his bed unfazed by the news.

Why the standstill? Why the blind eye? Why does the government possess the ability to sweep the vast number of deaths under the rug with little to no retaliation?

The answer is 2019 — more specifically, the type of people that happen to exist in 2019. Justice was not always at a standstill. A quick perusal of the timeline of any social justice movement will show a few vast strides toward improvement between the 1950s and 1990s, save for the election of President Nixon into office in the 1960s. The stall begins in the late 2010s (approximately 2017) with issues such as gun control and police brutality gaining major media attention through individual cases such as the Sandy Hook mass shooting and the slaughter of Eric Garner by officer Daniel Pantaleo. While the breaking of such stories in the 1950s through ‘90s would have immediately precipitated some sort of riot, boycott, or countercultural movement, the world was relatively quiet after these cases. Save for a few violent protests that took place in response to the events, Americans seemed to feel more inclined to mourn than to riot. The typical riveting anger that had previously characterized these types of issues was now substituted by a sort of universal fatigue — a loss of motivation accompanying a lack of hope for the possibility of change. No one wanted to throw a brick through a window, or lock arms against a police brigade, or stop going to their favorite coffee shop whose CEO happened to endorse gun violence in some capacity in the late 2010s. No one wanted to disrupt the comfort of their everyday routine to fight for something that they did not watch happen. 

It is this energy that permeates the peaceful protests of 2019: the half-hearted climate strike branch-offs in Austin, the partially-attended women’s marches in Missouri, the sad excuses for anti-immigration ban protests occurring throughout the west coast. Statistically speaking, 2019 is a radical year, with a record number of protests occurring nationwide. But in terms of vigor, dedication, and effect, we have hit an impasse at quite possibly the most inconvenient time possible.

Perhaps the lack of motivation stems from an increased fear of authority. Perhaps the growing financial strain on America’s millennial middle class has fostered individualistic thinking, resulting in a decrease in agency toward social injustices not directly affecting them. Or perhaps passive hashtags and slapdash signs of protest are the millennials’ version of political agency. Perhaps this generation has reinvented the idea of political activism to replicate the feeling of heroism and helpfulness while ensuring that its participants do not experience any sort of personal inconvenience. They have created a sort of synthetic protest designed to create the highs of political activism and exclude the lows. 

Such lazy activism has been seen before through such social media influencers vowing to cut their showers short by thirty seconds or so, or certain LGBTQ allies bustling around Chick-Fil-A the very second it was announced that they no longer donated to anti-LGBTQ organizations. This sort of apathetic approach to activism tends to stray from previously effective protests — such as the Civil Rights Movement — and structurally emulate the Hippie Movement, effective in a cultural and aesthetic sense but less effective in achieving its actual political goals. This leads to a barrage of hashtags, pins, bumper stickers, Facebook posts, Instagram videos of a single sentence or word being repeated by different celebrities, and the occasional street demonstrations replete with people posing for pictures with their homemade signs. This is why we are stalled.

As I imagine is obvious to the average Texas Orator reader, this type of faulty protest does not work. Feigned political agency is not incredibly effective in any setting, but in an era defined by Donald Trump’s mildly psychopathic tendencies, this type of protest can actually be detrimental in its inefficacy. Protesting as a method of effecting change is centered around the psychology of people in power. The sudden gain of a tremendous amount of power typically leads to a protective stance over it, which invokes the criminalization of those who endanger or inconvenience that power. When people protest, it inconveniences those in power both in an economic sense and in terms of publicity. A leader who stands idly by while a hurricane of social unrest sweeps over their land is bound to face negative press. Many previous presidents have been quicker to acknowledge and respond to certain protests because they pose a threat to their image if they go unattended to for too long. If expertly planned and executed, a protest can draw upon the fear of being villainized by the people of their nation, which in turn can force a politician to act against their own self-interest. 

The strategic nature of protesting pulls from a psychological trend — a psychological trend that comes to a screeching halt with Trump. While many previous presidents have made their stance on certain social justice issues known to the public, no other president has been as actively outspoken about his apathy for almost all areas of social unrest as Trump. He is quoted as being actively opposed to (if not flatly unconcerned by) issues such as equality for women, police brutality, immigration rights, human and transgender rights, gun control, and many others. 

As blatantly insensitive and cruel as this is, it actually creates the illusion that he is exempt from being concerned about his image as a leader. In actively taking a stance against the many people protesting in front of the White House, he has already accepted the villanization from those people. In blatantly embracing the “bad guy” persona toward people who disagree with his views, he has rendered the ‘good guys defenseless, as they have no means of deteriorating Trump’s already soiled image. Trump has trapped the opposing team in a snare of psychological and legal implications. If they protest peacefully, they will go unheard. If they protest violently or radically, they will be penalized for doing so. 

This fear of penalization may not have vexed previous generations, as the desperation for equality and justice often outweighed the desperation for a clean record. However, in the increase of individualism brought on by economic strain, penalization can feel like a condemning factor to many millennials. This could potentially cause them to skip out on the more radical forms of political activism and stick to Snapchatting themselves holding up a sign presenting a vague political statement. This is what creates an impasse — a traffic jam on the road to total justice and equality.

How do we stop this? Well, why not try boycotting a corporate company known for its twisted ethics, or writing an angry letter to a certain leader regarding a grievance that made you angry, or organizing in a way that targets the economic success of a certain company or group. Or maybe, just maybe, you could try throwing a brick through a window, just one, for something you truly want to change.

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