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A Good Rule of Thumb: Don’t Listen to the Advice of Capital One Executives about Protest

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I am highly dismayed that this Jake Fuentes piece decrying the protests over the immigration ban got so much play on social media today. Fuentes, an executive for Capital One (a biographical note pulled out of the piece in the last hour fwiw), thinks that instead of protesting, we should just be rational and hope for the best. Evidently he doesn’t live in the United States. And being an executive at a giant bank, he really doesn’t. But I guess if you get profiled in a Forbes 30 Under 30: Finance special photo shoot, what you say gets taken seriously.

Anyway, let’s look inside.

A legitimate argument can be made for the former: a relatively extreme and inexperienced administration was just put in place, and they haven’t yet figured out the nuances of government. But a few of the events in the past 72 hours —the intentional inclusion of green card holders in the immigration order, the DHS defiance of a federal judge, and the timing of Trump’s shakeup of the National Security Council — have pointed to a larger story. Even worse, if that larger story is true, if the source of this week’s actions is a play to consolidate power, it’s going really well so far. And that’s because mostly everyone — including those in protests shutting down airports over the weekend— are playing right into the administration’s hand.

Say what? How does that even make sense? Playing into the administration’s hand? I guess if the point of the administration is to end democracy and create a situation leading to massive arrest and imprisonment of political opponents, maybe it is. But more on that in a minute.

Fuentes then goes on to craft a fantasy narrative where Bannon (let’s stop even pretending Trump actually matters here except as a mouthpiece) rolls this out even though he doesn’t really care about it that much, identifies the traitors, runs a couple of less shocking things through without as much media attention, show that the judicial branch is weak, etc. He has no idea if this is actually true or not. It’s not because of course Bannon openly wants an all-white America except for enough black people to clean houses and Mexicans to pick crops if they have no right to stay in the country. Anyway, all of this evidently tests the nation’s willingness to capitulate to fascism and somehow we aren’t supposed to respond to that. OK.

Assuming this narrative is true (again, I have no idea what the administration intends), the “resistance” is playing right into Trump’s playbook. The most vocal politicians could be seen at rallies, close to the headlines. The protests themselves did exactly what they were intended to: dominate the news cycle and channel opposition anger towards a relatively insignificant piece of the puzzle. I’m not saying that green card holders should be stuck in airports — far from it. I’m saying there might be a much larger picture here, and the immigration ban is a distraction.

No. You know what this is? A rich guy saying that the plight of Muslims and Latinos don’t matter as much as whatever his issues are. The basic, fundamental definition of what it means to be an America and the core values of the United States are not something to be taken lightly. The immigration ban is a distraction from nothing. It’s the front line in the war for the soul of the United States.

But now we get into the meat:

First, stop believing that protests alone do much good. Protests galvanize groups and display strong opposition, but they’re not sufficient. Not only are they relatively ineffective at changing policy, they’re also falsely cathartic to those protesting. Protestors get all kinds of feel-good that they’re among fellow believers and standing up for what’s right, and they go home feeling like they’ve done their part. Even if protestors gain mild, symbolic concessions, the fact that their anger has an outlet is useful to the other side. Do protest, but be very wary of going home feeling like you’ve done your job. You haven’t.

The story of liberalism over the last 30 years has been an attempt to play respectability politics. Protests are for fat union guys with out of fashion mustaches, for vegan hippies, and for anarchists. They aren’t for respectable people. None of those people come to the cocktail parties and dinners I host where we just couldn’t understand how those people could vote for George W. Bush! People have disdained protest in favor of being rational, of having science on your side, of having the facts, of showing up to vote, of being happy with the steady pace of change even if some were being left behind. Protest is simply not respectable.

But that doesn’t work anymore, if it ever did. What has happened in the last 3 months and especially in the last 2 weeks is that a lot of liberals have come to realize this. They are going out on the street for the first time in their life. I can’t tell you about how Facebook posts or protest signs I’ve seen that say something like “I don’t protest but now I have to” or something of this nature. This change is an unabashed good. But the temptation to retreat from the streets and back into our homes is very strong and powerful, especially for a lot of liberals who don’t want to be associated with mass movement politics.

If we let these challenges about the efficacy of protest go without refutation, that’s exactly what will happen. No, protest didn’t force Trump to cave. But if we don’t protest, we have nothing. This is a far more compelling understanding of what protest politics do. At the very least, it creates a resistance, gets people politicized, gives a backbone to judges and politicians, and helps us not feel alone. I guess Fuentes can roll around in bags of cash for that. But not me and not you.

So what does Fuentes think we should do?

Second, pay journalists to watch for the head fake. That’s their job. Become a paying subscriber to news outlets, then actively ask them to more deeply cover moves like the NSC shakeup. We can no longer breathlessly focus media attention on easy stories like the immigration ban. The real story is much more nuanced and boring — until it’s not.

Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Oh, the media! Well, I’m sure The New York Times will set Trump straight!

Third, popular attention must focus less on whether we agree with what the government is doing, and more on whether the system of checks and balances we have in place is working. It is a much bigger deal that the DHS felt they could ignore a federal court than that Trump signed an EO blocking green card holders in the first place. It is a much bigger deal that Trump removed a permanent military presence from the NSC than that he issued a temporary stay on immigration. The immigration ban may be more viscerally upsetting, but the other moves are potentially far more dangerous.

Guess what? These things are all related. Sorry that people in the streets make you uncomfortable. And sorry that fighting for the human rights of my Muslim friends is important. I recognize that you are a rich guy and so we should listen to you instead. Next time the U.S. decides to return to 19th century standards of racism, I will check with you first before I figure out what is important.

And now for the punchline:

Once again, I’m desperately hoping that none of this narrative is actually true, and that we merely have a well-intentioned administration with some execution problems. I’m also hoping and praying that the structure of our democracy is resilient even to the most sophisticated attacks. I’m hoping that the better angels of our nature will prevail. But with each passing day, the evidence tilts more in the other direction.

Becoming an NPR supporter will no doubt tilt the balance back.

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